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Lewis and Williams define experiential learning as:

“In its simplest form, experiential learning means learning from experience or learning by doing.
Experiential education first immerses learners in an experience and then encourages reflection about
the experience to develop new skills, new attitudes, or new ways of thinking.”  Lewis and Williams (1994)

Now THAT's a big class! 3,500 Chinese university students take the same lesson to prepare for graduate entrance examination. Williams (2016)

Are we seeing an end to the days of hundreds of students sitting in front of a single lecturer? Obviously the image of 3500 university students packed into a single lecture theater is an extreme. However, some of us do remember the days of being placed in a first or second year course with hundreds of other students. There are still lectures in larger universities that contain hundreds of students. It would be quite a feat to engage these students in an experiential learning process that is created and implemented by the expert in the field (the faculty member not a teaching assistant).

Many Universities now have experiential learning as part of their courses. UNBC has a section on their website dedicated to stories involving experiential learning. McMaster University is launching a new experiential learning program.

Creating experiential learning opportunities for your students is easier than you think” according to the University of British Columbia. Is it? 

The Benefits of Experiential Learning

The following information was taken verbatim from Santa Monica College’s webpage on their applied learning program.

Benefits to Students

Benefits to Instructors

Benefits to the Community

  1. Deepens your understanding of course materials through the application of coursework materials to real situations;
  2. Creates stronger and more meaningful relationships
  3. Builds and strengthen critical thinking, problem solving, moral development, and leadership skills
  4. Introduces you to different career paths
  5. Prepares you for internships and future employment opportunities
  6. Raises awareness of community, social and civic needs
  7. Creates opportunities to practice interpersonal communication skills in diverse settings
  8. Enriches your resume or scholarship application
  9. Creates opportunities for you to network with other community members for academic and professional development
  10. Creates opportunities for you to learn about diverse cultures and communities
  1. Creates opportunities for new avenues for professional development (research, presentations, scholarship, and publications)
  2. Promotes an increased interest in course material
  3. Introduces students to different learning styles
  4. Prepares students to work and/or transfer in the future
  5. Promotes active learning; the ability to apply real world application of academic learning
  6. Promotes student development in areas such as critical thinking, problem solving, moral development, and leadership
  7. Increases course enrollment by attracting motivated students
  8. Creates opportunities to network with other instructors involved in applied learning
  9. Creates stronger and more meaningful relationships with students
  10. Offers access to firsthand knowledge of community needs (increased awareness of community, social and civic needs)
  11. Opens additional avenues for involvement in the community
  12. Creates connections and future partnerships with community partners
  13. Contributes to SMC’s goals, missions, values, and SLOs  (substitute COTR for SMC)
  1. Fosters a positive and collaborative relationship between the community and SMC
  2. Provides additional assistance in identifying and addressing community needs
  3. Promotes a culture of citizenship and commitment
  4. Creates stronger and more meaningful relationships with students and instructors
  5. Creates opportunities to shape student learning about community needs, misconceptions, and stereotypes
  6. Promotes new insights, perspectives and knowledge
  7. Extends ability to address unmet needs
  8. Creates opportunities to tap under-utilized human and material resources
  9. Provides potential access to future volunteers and/or employees
  10. Increases exposure to the services offered by the community partner and in general, highlights community needs
  11. Fosters a sense of caring for others 

I haven’t seen an article that provides a really valid argument against experiential learning, although an article written by an English professor at the State University of New York, Fredonia has some interesting points.  It’s not surprising that there is a long list of benefits on the Santa Monica College’s website.

We are all members of the faculty association so let’s take a look at the benefits to the instructors given by Santa Monica College. The majority of the benefits to the instructors seem more like benefits to the students, the college, and the community.  Of course we want the college to be successful. If the college isn’t successful, we no longer have jobs. We love our communities. I know this seems cynical but I could probably say the direct benefits to instructors are more like:

  1. Creates opportunities for new avenues for professional development (research, presentations, scholarship, and publications)
  2. Promotes an increased interest in course material
  3. Creates opportunities to network with other instructors involved in applied learning

Absolutely we want our students to have a great experience and increased success. But at what expense? Many instructors teach a full workload, participate on various committees and may have active research projects. To incorporate an applied learning activity into a course is a lot of work. A lot of work that can result in a burnout for some faculty. Can it be fulfilling? Absolutely. Would it be easier to incorporate these learning opportunities if we were all actively doing research? Absolutely. However, if we are not actively participating in research, we would have to put in time above and beyond the normal workload of designing lectures, assignments, marking, meeting with students, mentoring, troubleshooting labs, modifying the course to adapt to changes etc… It’s one more thing. One more thing that we would love to incorporate. 

How can we find the time to incorporate applied learning into our courses? 

Many of us use our professional development to upgrade our courses so they are kept current and relevant.  We also use professional development to learn new methods of teaching, such as gamification, attend conferences, and take courses. What are some ways that we could be more motivated to do the extra work of incorporating applied learning?

  1. Use the majority of our PD days to incorporate an applied learning opportunity.
  2. Have the community development partners design and deliver the applied learning opportunity with our students.
  3. Pitch an idea for incorporating applied learning and have release time awarded to develop it.
  4. Monetary awards given to faculty for excellence in experiential learning similar to UVic
  5. Adjust the space time continuum so that we have more time. Surely some physics instructor out there is working on this.

Any other suggestions?

Works Cited

Lewis, L.H. & Williams, C.J. (1994). In Jackson, L. & Caffarella, R.S. (Eds.). Experiential Learning: A New
Approach (pp. 5-16). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Williams [Internet]. 2016. Now THAT’s a big class! 3,500 Chinese university students take the same lesson to prepare for graduate entrance examination. Daily Mail (UK). www.dailymail.co.uk. cited March 26, 2018. Available from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3695606/Now-s-big-class-3-500-Chinese-university-students-lesson-prepare-graduate-entrance-examination.html.

One Comment

  • Alberta

    Great article. The face to face, interactive, collaborative, community learning is the old way and the way forward. The commodification of education as seen in the example of the Chinese university is not how I want to learn or teach.

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