Experiential Learning Defined
What is experiential learning?
Broadly, experiential learning is any learning that supports students in applying their knowledge and conceptual understanding to real-world problems or situations where the instructor directs and facilitates learning. The classroom, laboratory, or studio can serve as a setting for experiential learning through embedded activities such as case and problem-based studies, guided inquiry, simulations, experiments, or art projects (Wurdinger & Carlson, 2010).
Chris Shank, Marine Sciences, explains the impact of Semester by the Sea, an experiential learning experience for Marine Science students.
However, when students are given opportunities to learn in authentic situations on campus or in the community like those provided in internships, field placements, clinical experiences, research and service-learning projects, the learning becomes significantly more powerful. By engaging in formal, guided, authentic, real-world experiences, individuals:
- deepen their knowledge through repeatedly acting and then reflecting on this action,
- develop skills through practice and reflection,
- support the construction of new understandings when placed in novel situations, and
- extend their learning as they bring their learning back to the classroom.
Why is experiential learning important?
Experiential learning teaches students the competencies they need for real-world success. The public is clamoring for an education that teaches students the competencies they need for real-world success. Although we can simulate the real world in the classroom and laboratory, authentic experiential learning creates an invaluable opportunity to prepare students for a profession or career, learn the craft of a fine artist, or discover how the discipline creates evidence to contribute to its body of knowledge. Thus, Sullivan and Rosin (2008) argue that the mission for higher education should be to bridge the gap between theory and practice and Bass (2012) suggests that to do this, the educational environment needs to intentionally create rich connections between the formal and experiential curriculums. Particularly at a research university, we have a responsibility to create situations where students benefit from the abundance of research that is taking place. Experiential learning provides one approach to ameliorating this criticism and mining the richness of the research taking place at the university.
Experiential learning motivates students. Experiential learning provides the conditions for optimally supporting student learning. When students are engaged in learning experiences that they see the relevance of; they have increased motivation to learn. Students are also motivated when they are provided opportunities for practice and feedback. Experiential learning meets these criteria (Ambrose, et. al., 2010).
Experiential learning creates self-directed learners. Through experiential learning, students are confronted with unfamiliar situations and tasks in a real-world context. To complete these tasks, students need to figure out what they know, what they do not know, and how to learn it. This requires students to: reflect on their prior knowledge and deepen it through reflection; transfer their previous learning to new contexts; master new concepts, principles, and skills; and be able to articulate how they developed this mastery (Linn, et al., 2004). Ultimately, these skills create students who become self-directed, life-long learners.
How does experiential learning work?
Kolb's (1984) cycle of learning depicts the experiential learning process (see figure below). This process includes the integration of:
- knowledge—the concepts, facts, and information acquired through formal learning and past experience;
- activity—the application of knowledge to a “real world” setting; and
- reflection—the analysis and synthesis of knowledge and activity to create new knowledge” (Indiana University, 2006, n.p.).
The Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) is an example of a program at The University of Texas at Austin that aligns with Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. FRI provides first-year students the opportunity to engage in authentic research experiences with faculty and graduate students in the sciences. Components of the program that exemplify the Kolb’s experiential learning cycle include:
- Experience: As a member of a team, students engage in hands-on experiments related to a research project, each situation providing a new experience.
- Reflection: Students reflect on their experience with peers, mentor, and research educator. Jointly, they make sense of what happened and note inconsistencies between the experience and their previous understanding.
- Conceptualize: Reflection may lead students to develop a new idea or modify an existing concept; in addition, they may participate in a seminar with exposure to additional project-related concepts that may further clarify implications for action.
- Test: Students return to their project to apply the new and/or refined knowledge in the research environment to see what happens.
Students participating in the FRI experience continuously engage with the learning cycle and emerge with a deep understanding of the scientific process.
What does experiential learning look like?
Experiential learning has the following elements (Association for Experiential Education, 2007-2014):
- Experiences are carefully chosen for their learning potential (i.e. whether they provide opportunities for students to practice and deepen emergent skills, encounter novel and unpredictable situations that support new learning, or learn from natural consequences, mistakes, and successes).
- Throughout the experiential learning process, the learner is actively engaged in posing questions, investigating, experimenting, being curious, solving problems, assuming responsibility, being creative, and constructing meaning, and is challenged to take initiative, make decisions and be accountable for results.
- Reflection on learning during and after one’s experiences is an integral component of the learning process. This reflection leads to analysis, critical thinking, and synthesis (Schon, 1983; Boud, Cohen, & Walker, 1993).
- Learners are engaged intellectually, emotionally, socially, and/or physically, which produces a perception that the learning task is authentic.
- Relationships are developed and nurtured: learner to self, learner to others, and learner to the world at large.
During experiential learning, the faciltiators role is to:
- Select suitable experiences that meet the criteria above.
- Pose problems, set boundaries, support learners, provide suitable resource, ensure physical and emotional safety, and facilitate the learning process.
- Recognize and encourage spontaneous opportunities for learning, engagement with challenging situations, experimentation (that does not jeopardize the wellbeing of others) and discovery of solutions.
- Help the learner notice the connections between one context and another, between theory and the experience and encouraging this examination repeatedly.
Some forms of experiential learning include (Indiana University, 2006; Moore, 2010):
- Internships – A more broad term used to describe experience-based learning activities that often subsume other terms such as cooperative education, service-learning or field experiences. It is often a credit-bearing, free-standing activity in a student’s field of interest not connected to a theoretical course. It is usually assessed by a faculty member and supervised by an employer who is not a faculty member. The student may work with practicing professionals, complete a project, attend public events, interview and observe constituents and employees. The student may or may not be paid for this experience. When attached to a classroom course, a student may spend several hours a week volunteering in an agency, supporting co-curricular activities, shadowing a professional in the field, or observing people in their natural environments. Key to this form of experiential learning is some type of guided reflection. The mission of this experience may be to support the integration of theory and practice, explore career options, or foster personal and professional development.
- Service learning – This term is used to denote optional or required out-of-classroom community service experiences/projects attached to courses or a separate credit bearing experience. The location may be the broader community outside the university or one embedded in co-curricular activities. In these experiences, students participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and reflect on the service activity to better understand course content and gain a broader appreciation of the discipline and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility.
- Cooperative education – Mostly a part of professional programs, students gain practical relevant work experience over a period of multiple terms that intersperse their coursework. Students alternate work and study, usually spending a number of weeks in study (typically full-time) and a number of weeks in employment away from campus (typically full-time). Alternatively, cooperative education may occur when students simultaneously attend classes part-time and work part-time during consecutive school terms in an intentionally planned and coordinated way. Students receive academic credit for cooperative education when the experiences meet the criteria for credit (i.e., faculty supervision, reflective components, evidence of learning). The purpose of these programs is to build student’s career skills and knowledge.
- Clinical education – This is a more specifically defined internship experience in which students practice learned didactic and experiential skills, most frequently in health care and legal settings, under the supervision of a credentialed practitioner. It is often is a separate credit-bearing course tied to a related theoretical course or a culminating experience after a sequence of theoretical courses.
- Student teaching - This experience is specific to students in pre-professional and pre-service teacher education who are gaining required and evaluated experience in supervised teaching.
- Practicum - A relative of the internship, this form of experiential learning usually is a course or student exercise involving practical experience in a work setting (whether paid or unpaid) as well as theoretical study, including supervised experience as part of professional pre-service education.
- Undergraduate research experience – Students function as research assistants and collaborators on faculty projects.
- Community-based research – Faculty and students cooperate with local organizations to conduct studies to meet the needs of a particular community. Students gain direct experience in the research process.
- Field work - Supervised student research or practice carried out away from the institution and in direct contact with the people, natural phenomena, or other entities being studied. Field work is especially frequent in fields including anthropology, archaeology, sociology, social work, earth sciences, and environmental studies.
- Study abroad – Students usually engage in courses at higher education institutions in another country. The experiential learning component is the cultural immersion which provides novel challenges for navigating living in a new place. The coursework connected to a study abroad can also include internships and service-learning experiences.
What is the debate about experiential learning?
David Moore (2010) describes issues related to experiential learning arising in the literature. Some say that these types of learning experiences do not belong in the university where the emphasis should be on the learning of concepts and theories through study and reflection on the abstract.
Professional schools move beyond this view because the purpose of their programs is to help students know what to do in concrete practice and foster regularity in practice. Proponents of experiential learning cite the importance of learning in context. According to the theories of situated cognition and situated learning, learning is an integral and inseparable aspect of social practice and people think and learn differently in different social contexts (Lave and Wenger, 1991, p. 31). Experiential learning acknowledges that the unpredictable situations in the authentic social context supports students in formulating and solving problems in different ways and improvising upon best practices in order to create new learning.
This debate over the place of experiential education in higher education weighed against the desire to respond to what we know about how learning works and the pressure to have the university weave theory and practice to support the success of students in the 21st century leads to a great opportunity for dialogue and fresh ideas with related research about how a research university can provide viable solutions.
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