Engaging Students Through Experiential Learning Inside the Classroom

Group of students in the classroom discussing over laptop

Experiential learning in its many forms is widely recognized as a high-impact educational practice, one that has been thoroughly tested and shown to be beneficial to a wide spectrum of college students. Experiential learning is a process through which a learner constructs knowledge, skill, and value from direct experience. It is inductive, beginning with raw experience that is processed through an intentional learning format and transformed into working, usable knowledge.

Why experiential learning inside the classroom?               

Experiential learning is not new. However, most faculty members–and students–think of it as something that occurs outside the classroom. There are concrete benefits to engaging students in experiential learning inside the classroom:

  • It enables us to “flip” the classroom, which prevents students from passively receiving material in class. Instead, they acquire information outside of class by reading, watching lectures recorded by the faculty member, or through many other online options. When students are in class, they can solve problems with their peers and their professor, applying what they have learned in new contexts and new problems.
  • We can immediately correct misconceptions or misapplication of data rather than waiting until students make the errors in homework or on exams.
  • In-class opportunities are well suited to students who have busy schedules that involve a heavy course load, work, and/or family responsibilities.
  •  We can observe students engaged in applying knowledge and concepts in practice for the purpose of direct assessment of learning. 
  • It is far easier to organize and control experiential learning inside the classroom than out-of-class activities.

Experiential learning is not appropriate for every course, but it can be effective in every discipline. Experiential learning assists students to master complex subjects and to gain a deep understanding of fundamental principles that need to be applied later. It is particularly effective for achieving learning outcomes that include:

  • Synthesis and analysis of information to solve complex problems that have more than one possible solution
  • Application of concepts and knowledge to practice in new contexts
  • Effective oral, written, and visual communication
  • Working collaboratively with others
  • Exercise of well-reasoned judgment
  • Outcomes that involve manipulating, relating, structuring, developing, interpreting, decision making, and prioritizing
  • Learning how to learn; taking ownership for learning
  • Using a discipline’s knowledge base to address social issues.

Examples of experiential learning inside the classroom

There are as many examples of experiential learning as there are faculty members who engage their students experientially. Some examples of experiential learning inside the classroom include role play, debate, problem-based learning, and project-based learning.

In role play, also called interactive simulation, students enact a real or hypothetical  situation that contains two or more different viewpoints or perspectives. This example works well in small as well as large classes. In the latter, students can perform the role play in front of the entire class, followed by a discussion in small groups.

Using debates in the classroom provides students the opportunity to work in a collaborative group setting. By having students discuss and organize their points of view for one side of an argument, they are able to discover new information and put knowledge into action. Classroom debates help students learn through friendly competition, examine controversial topics, and strengthen skills in the areas of leadership, interpersonal influence, teambuilding, group problem solving, and oral presentation.

Like debate, problem-based learning is devoted to solving problems for which there are no definite answers. It is team-based work but is different from debate in that it involves deliberation. As opposed to preparing arguments for and against, in deliberation students work together across differences in views to contribute their best thinking to arrive at the best solution. Because problems used in problem-based learning have no one right solution, students can develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills within the context of real-world applications. The process starts with presenting students with a complex, authentic problem, one which they might encounter in real life either at present or as a professional in a particular field. Small groups of students then work together over time to learn course content within the framework of a real or realistic problem.

Project-based learning is different from problem-based learning in that the students complete projects for real or hypothetical clients. A special form of project-based learning is service-learning. Service-learning is different from other forms of experiential learning in that it has two sets of goals: student learning for one and community service as the other. The projects the students complete are for real clients who are generally community organizations that need work to be done that they could not otherwise afford. Therefore, it is a huge contribution to the organizations for business students to develop a business plan, marketing students to develop a marketing strategy to promote the organization’s services to potential clients, and accounting students to develop a sound cost-accounting system. Computer science students can design websites, while students in public relations can develop graphic design packages and media campaigns.

Implementation steps

There are five basic steps to designing and implementing a course that engages students in experiential learning. They are:     

  1. Identify the learning goals or outcomes you would like your students to achieve through experiential learning and determine that experiential learning is the most effective means for them to achieve them.
  2. Set up the experience by introducing students to the concept and practice of experiential learning and cover the basic material (e.g., concepts and factual knowledge) that they will use in the activity. The students can learn the material by reading, conducting online research, lectures, or a combination of these modes.
  3. Design the activity, gauging how much structure the students will require. Earlier in the semester, it is generally appropriate to err on the side of providing more structure and support along with the challenges of the work. You can then shift the balance to less support and more challenges as the students progress.
  4. Provide the opportunity and structure to engage students in reflection. Reflection prompts related to the activity or project could include: What factors contributed to our success? What could we have done better? What do we need to learn to improve our performance? Reflection questions on a more personal level could include: In what ways did you do well in this experience? What personal characteristics helped you do well? What was difficult for you? What personal characteristics contributed to the difficulties you experienced?
  5. Assess the extent to which the students achieved the desired learning outcomes. Some of the questions to address here are: What products will demonstrate learning? What criteria will you use to assess learning? How will you provide feedback? What assessment mechanisms will you use? Will you give individual or group grades? There are many ways to assess the quality of experiential learning and reflection, just as there are to assess and grade other assignments. In addition to the final product of the students’ experience, experiential-learning faculty members often require students to submit portfolios that document the process of arriving at the product and, sometimes, reflections on their individual role in achieving it. Rubrics are often used for assessment of experiential learning.

Teaching through experiential learning requires students to take initiative, make decisions, and assume responsibility for their own learning. Faculty members enjoy working with their students through the process of posing questions, investigating, experimenting, being curious, struggling to solve problems, being creative, and especially constructing meaning for themselves. When it works as it should, experiential learning engages students intellectually, socially, and emotionally. As a result, their learning feels authentic. For faculty, one of the great joys of experiential learning is that we have the opportunity to create challenging situations, guide students through them, and watch them learn.

Barbara Jacoby is a higher education consultant with Barbara Jacoby Consulting. She served the University of Maryland for over 40 years in roles focusing on service-learning, civic engagement, and commuter students. Her scholarship centers on high-impact educational practices and all forms of experiential learning, with an emphasis on critical reflection, service-learning, and community engagement. Dr. Jacoby’s publications include seven books and many articles and chapters. Her most recent book is Service-Learning Essentials: Questions, Answers, and Lessons Learned (2015). She currently serves as editor for civic engagement for the Journal of College and Character. She writes and consults extensively, doing keynote speeches and workshops around the world.