Reap the Benefits of Experiential Learning Without Leaving the Classroom

Experiential learning is widely recognized as a high-impact educational practice that occurs outside the classroom through experiences such as internships, study abroad, and service-learning. However, experiential learning works very well inside the classroom as well. In fact, there are a number of reasons why faculty may want to facilitate an experiential learning component in class rather than outside of class.

Not only is it a learner-centered approach that gets students off the sidelines and actively involved in and responsible for their learning, but, pragmatically speaking, experiential learning inside the classroom is welcomed by students with busy schedules and doesn’t carry the logistical burden for faculty that community-based programs can, said Barbara Jacoby, Faculty Associate for Leadership and Community Service-Learning at the University of Maryland, College Park.

During the recent online seminar Experiential Learning Inside the Classroom, Jacoby explained what experiential learning is, and what it’s not. She also talked about the most appropriate times to use it, and provided examples of how to set up an experiential learning exercise using role-plays, problem-based learning, group projects, and debate and deliberation — any of which could occur in a variety of disciplines.

“In experiential learning, the teacher takes the role of the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage,” Jacoby said. “So the nature of the teaching experience really changes from transferring knowledge to be regurgitated on an exam to guiding students through the process of learning, providing information and resources as needed.

“Faculty roles include selecting suitable learning experiences, posing challenges and problems, co-creating with students the safe learning environment that learning requires, supporting students as learners, and facilitating critical reflection. Experiential learning in the classroom looks and is different from what happens in the traditional classroom. It is not, as it is sometimes accused of being, students teaching themselves. It is certainly not lightweight, fluffy, or busywork. It is not about experience alone.”

Critical reflection, and getting students to participate in that process of analyzing, reconsidering, and questioning, are key components of any successful experiential learning exercise. Critical reflection can be done individually or in groups, and it can take many forms — oral, written, or through digital media, Jacoby said.

Steps for Design and Implementation of Experiential Learning
To get started with an experiential learning activity in your course, Jacoby offers the following guidelines:

1. Identify learning outcomes.
2. Create a safe environment.
3. Select an activity that pushes students to their learning edge.
4. Introduce students to the concept and practice; cover basic material.
5. Engage students; provide guidance and support.
6. Discuss the process and result.
7. Provide structure for critical reflection.
8. Obtain feedback throughout the process.
9. Assess learning.

“Assessment and grading in experiential learning often produces angst for faculty members who have never done it. They wonder ‘How will I know it? How will I know that they’ve achieved it? How will I know it when I see it?’” said Jacoby. “The answer? Rubrics. I can’t emphasize enough how effective I believe rubrics are. I give students rubrics early. That way they know my expectations, and it also enables me to be consistent in my grading.”