Professors – Using Student-Driven Learning Methods – Strategic Use of Experiential Learning

For decades, vocational institutions have placed students in internships and externships, i.e., jobs in actual work settings, to link course content to the demands of the real world. Many can attest to the learning value of those experiences and to the accompanying opportunities that they provided to make valuable career-building contacts. This article, briefly introduces experiential learning, which includes not only internships and externships but also fieldwork and service learning. In all of these experiences, students direct their own learning outside the classroom, although you are the instigator and potential ‘framer’ of that learning.

Since the late 1960s, when student idealism led to the demand for increased relevancy in higher education, various types of experiential learning projects have become a significant part of the curricula in many discipline areas. Experiential learning is highly motivating to many students and offers them a rich opportunity to develop the higher-level skills of Bloom’s taxonomy. It has the potential to change students’ perceptions of their communities and their roles within them, and it assuredly helps participants make informed career and lifestyle decisions. As this new administration in the US comes into power, it is very likely that increased student involvement in communities will be encouraged and even, expected.

Service learning one of the newer movements in higher education and holds significant promise for a number of fields. Service learning exposes students to the needs of the larger society, engages them in addressing those needs through community service, and connects what they learn in the classroom to real-world conditions. At its best, service learning is a powerful teaching method that allows students to reflect why such conditions exist and what their democratic responsibilities are in addressing them. A study by the Higher Education Research Institute comparing service participants with non-participants showed that participation in community service positively influenced every one of the thirty-five measured student outcomes, which fell into the broad categories of academic development, civic values, and life skills (Astin, 1996).

The challenge with experiential learning lies in ensuring the legitimate role of each experience in achieving predetermined learning objectives. While students will value the independence and the personal satisfaction they receive from it internships or fieldwork, we must strive to ensure what they learn is transferable to an even wider arena. Thus, the instructor must not only select learning activities carefully, but also build reflection and analysis into the experience.

If you plan to include experiential learning projects in your class, a tool that you should strongly consider using is the contract. This is a written document signed by you and by each participating student. Generating a contract (although you may choose to use less legalistic terminology) generally involves a three-step procedure:

  1. Develop the parameters of the experience. These include the product that you expect students to generate (e.g. a reaction paper, a journal, a video oral report), its evaluation criteria, and related logistical requirements. Provide a printed copy for each student, along with a list of possible topics.
  2. Create proposal form that students will submit for your review before actually beginning the experience. This form will give you the opportunity to provide direction and minimize the chances that the experience will be nothing more than wasted time.
  3. Return the proposal, along with your comments, to the student. At this point, the proposal becomes binding, as it were. That is, for a certain body of work, submitted according to stated time parameters and performance standards, you agree to award a particular grade. Note: Pass-fail is not an uncommon framework for this type of ‘assignment.’

You might want to consult with others in your department prior to finalizing the agreement to ensure that it meets commonly accepted standards of your situation. Even after you have determined their value to students, fieldwork experiences need to be examined for their impact on the overall curriculum and the goals of the department and institution.

Faculty members who choose to involve students in service-learning projects need to develop ways to combine service to the community with student learning in a way that improves both the student and the community. Doing this effectively takes time, effort, and knowledge. A growing number of campuses are offering workshops and support for faculty who want to take advantage of this learning tool.