Blog 57

Evidence for Experience: Emerging Conversations in the Scholarship of Experiential Education

Lisa Endersby, Educational Developer, Teaching Commons

My recent weeks in the Teaching Commons have seen a renewed and not entirely surprising interest in experiential education, both as a practice and as pedagogy. Stemming from much broader conversations around creating transformative educational experiences for our students, the discussion around experiential education has now begun to include a more focused dialogue around not only the “what” of this practice but the “why” of its benefits to students. In particular, these discussions have mirrored a renewed focus on the in class experience, recognizing the value of student engagement as part of a lesson plan or activity for attaining desired student learning outcomes. I recently co-authored a presentation providing an overview of research into the benefits of classroom-focused experiential education, a topic that can be much more challenging to define and investigate than the well-articulated parameters of an internship, placement, or community-based project.

Our work in investigating the benefits of experiential education led to some interesting discussion around what this practice might look like in a classroom setting. Notably, much of what was uncovered closely mirrors important pedagogical practices that many of our faculty are already using, including interactive, engaging activities and opportunities for student reflection. The missing piece for experiential education, then, is working to support students in making connections to or meaning from these experiences alongside their course work and other life experiences or roles. These moments of meaning making augment an engaging classroom experience to also be an experiential learning opportunity.

The evidence that we uncovered linking experiential education pedagogy to better student learning outcomes emphasized positive connections between having students highly engaged in their learning and evidence of better retaining and understanding course material. However, what has begun to emerge is a broader understanding of engagement to include not only engagement with peers or with faculty, but also how students engage with presented course material. For example, one challenge we faced in gathering evidence of the benefits of experiential education was the overabundance of research that focused on activities and initiatives generally targeted to small or smaller classes. Whether an internship opportunity for a select group of students or active learning strategies that work best in smaller classes (e.g. focused, sustained group work), these ideas continue to see positive outcomes for students but are not always feasible in the larger classes many of our faculty teach. Providing opportunities for students to make meaningful connections to and between course material therefore requires a more creative approach to engagement and reflection that places additional emphasis on how students engage with the presented material. This type of engagement may be occur through, for example, through providing additional exercises for students to complete outside of class time or beginning to consider aspects of cognitive engagement, which supports students’ motivation for and investment in their learning process.

The conversation around experiential education can only continue to be inspired and broadened by a continued, intentional, and focused review of the literature. In learning what has worked well, or not, in other settings can encourage dialogue about what may work well in our own classrooms. This research is also particularly timely as a way to validate and support the good work our faculty are already doing in supporting student learning. It is not, then, that experiential education is an addition to a complete curriculum plan, but rather an opportunity to refocus and reframe our work toward engaging students in the in class experience to “connect the dots”, or to connect more spread out dots, so students can better see the value of what they are learning across their courses, program, degree, life experiences, and goals for the future.

A link to our presentation can be found on the Teaching Commons website:  We would love your feedback!

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