By Ann Singh
Many industry professionals have found that there is a growing gap between the skills desired by employers and those obtained by students through colleges and universities (National Post, 2016; OECD, 2017; Rushowy, 2017). This suggests that greater effort is required by post-secondary institutions to equip students with the skills needed to succeed in an increasingly demanding labour market. This issue goes back to the fundamental question of what do we need to teach and how do we teach it? Students require the skills demanded by industries, but they also require the theoretical foundations of their profession and the ability to think conceptually and critically.
Industries, governments, and educators have supported integration of various forms of experiential learning in the classroom (COU, 2014). Brock University was among the first Ontario post-secondary institutions to include an explicit mandate on experiential education (Ministry of Advanced Skills Development, 2017). Educators at Brock are encouraged to provide opportunities for students to apply their learning to real life experiences (S. Howe, personal communication, October 2, 2017). Understanding how we can better integrate experiential learning in the classroom is important because these forms of learning help students develop a range of transferrable skills such as problem solving, communication, and leadership (Baldwin & Rosier, 2016; Ivey-Dewey, 2008; COU, 2014). More importantly, experiential learning helps to equip students with the skills needed to succeed in a professional environment (COU, 2014; OECD, 2017; Roland, 2017).
In this blog I explore the concept of experiential learning, including key benefits and limitations. I will also use Brock University as a case study for identifying general principles that should be considered when integrating experiential learning into the classroom.
What is Experiential Learning?
Experiential learning is a purposeful process of engaged and active learning whereby students construct knowledge, skills, and values from direct experiences involving real-world contexts (Baldwin & Rosier, 2016; Ives-Dewey, 2008). Students apply their learning using hands-on, task-oriented activities, and then relate these experiences to their previous knowledge to generate new knowledge, skills and values (Baldwin & Rosier, 2016; Dewey, 1938; Ives-Dewey, 2008; Jose, Patrick, & Moseley, 2017; Kolb, 1984). Experiential learning can occur both inside the classroom (e.g., through simulations, case-based learning in small groups, and guest-speakers) and outside of the classroom (e.g., through internships, practicums, and fieldtrips) (Baldwin & Rosier, 2016; Jose et al., 2017; Slade, et al., 2015).
Although the origins of experiential learning can be traced back to John Dewey (1938), who believed that students thrive in an environment where they can experience and interact with the curriculum, David Kolb (1984) significantly contributed to this discourse as a teaching approach. Kolb (1984) described four key elements to this student-centred approach. It is important that these steps are an iterative process that students continually experience as part of their learning.
Benefits of Experiential Learning
There are several benefits to experiential learning. Educators suggest that experiential learning helps to increase students’ readiness for the workplace (OECD, 2017; S. Howe personal communication, October 2, 2017). Employers also support the notion as it helps in acquiring and developing transferrable skills that they find attractive, such as problem solving, communication, and leadership (Baldwin & Rosier, 2016; Chiose, 2015; COU, 2014; Ivey-Dewey, 2008). Students also develop greater self-esteem and confidence in their abilities because they are able to apply their knowledge to practical situations (Gilbert, Banks, Houser, Rhodes and Lees, 2014).
Experiential learning also helps students to comprehend concepts better and critically engage in their learning (Roland, 2017; Wright, 2000). Experiential learning requires that students actively take control over their learning, and shifts the focus from being passive recipients of knowledge. By doing so, students are encouraged to make connections to course material in ways that cannot be achieved through conventional teaching methods (Wright, 2000). Students reflect on their learning and translate their understanding of concepts into practical knowledge.
Limitations of Experiential Learning
There are also limitations to experiential learning. Educators must invest substantial amounts of time in developing and integrating experiential learning activities into courses both inside and outside of the classroom. This can include identifying appropriate case studies for students, making connections with industries, and a willingness to actively engage students (Wright, 2000). Educators also need to be knowledgeable of experiential learning as a teaching approach, which is sometimes not the case (S. Howe personal communication, October 2, 2017).
Another limitation relates to developing adequate methods of student assessments. Traditional forms of assessment, such as essays and exams, may not accurately reveal the learning experienced by students (Slade et al., 2007). Experiential learning requires innovative methods of assessments that educators may be unfamiliar with. It may be challenging to convince educators to integrate new methods of assessments into their courses (S. Howe, personal communication, October 2, 2017).
Baldwin and Rosier (2017) also argued that experiential learning is not a universally accepted teaching approach. Rather, it is used to support traditional modes of teaching. The authors suggest that a focus on experiential learning could devalue student learning because the focus of teaching is on generating knowledge specific to the workforce.
Principles for Integrating Experiential Learning
Baldwin and Rosier (2017) identify several strategies for integrating experiential learning into the classroom. They argue that for experiential learning to be successful, educators need to have a clear and shared purpose regarding the experiential activity; activities must be student-centred; evaluation needs to be an essential component; students need to be exposed to real world contexts; and students should be provided opportunities for reflection.
These principles are echoed in Brock University’s experiential education initiative (Brock University, 2017). Although the university’s mandate was formalized in 2013, service learning opportunities have always been a core focus of the institution in helping students to translate their classroom knowledge to employability. The formal shift from service learning to experiential education came from alignment with their strategic mandate in 2013 (Brock University, 2017; S. Howe, personal communication, October 2, 2017). This initiative started with engagement sessions with the various stakeholders to establish a common definition of experiential learning (Brock University, 2017). These sessions also allowed for discussion beyond definitions where key themes could emerge. For example, what qualifies as experiential learning? The sessions allowed for alignment from stakeholders that the activity must be a significant learning experience for the student and there must be a reflective component (S. Howe, personal communication, October 2, 2017). These components are essential to successful integration of experiential learning.
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