Aspiring to Create Learning Experiences Students Remember

Group of students looking at papers on desks in classroom

Some of us can easily recall a specific class from years ago that left an indelible impression. Then, there are entire courses we barely remember. Everything we learn comes from experience, but not every experience is memorable or educational, at least not in the truest sense of the word. As educators our aspiration should be to create learning experiences that students continue to grow from, even after the course is completed.

In recent months instructors have reported “stunning” levels of disengagement, pointing to record numbers of students who are “checked out, stressed out and unsure about their future.” Those who show up to class aren’t always present mentally, while those who don’t show up question the value of their higher education investment when they can simply watch the lecture recording from the comfort of their own dorm. Too much time on Zoom, too much isolation, pandemic trauma, and the conflict in Ukraine are contributors to the disconnection and disengagement on such prominent display.

If, as Aristotle said, “educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all,” we need to think more creatively and systematically about how we approach the classroom to draw students back in. Experiential learning can be at least part of the solution in helping students regain their footing and, more importantly, a sense of purpose and accountability in their pursuit of higher education.

Making the classroom a place of transformation

Psychologist David Kolb’s learning cycle is perhaps the most famous experiential learning model. It is predicated on giving students a concrete experience, followed by reflection, abstract conceptualization, and the opportunity to undertake further experimentation based on what they have learned. This can be wonderfully effective in getting students invested in a topic. But it is in preparing students for challenges and careers we can’t yet conceive that experiential learning becomes especially important.

In my course on Geographies of Risk, Vulnerability and Resilience, we focus the first few weeks on learning different models that assess the progression of vulnerability that can lead to differential impacts from disasters. I ask my students to build on these models by creating and communicating their own infographic. This process can be challenging since the visualization of information is both an art and science in itself. Things get interesting when I have them apply their models against different scenarios. Did it work as anticipated? Were there other factors that should have been considered? How could their model be made more effective?

Truth be told, my goal isn’t just to impart the various ways to assess risk. It’s getting students to work through the challenge of using data and other inputs to create a model, communicate it effectively, test it, and use the insights generated to drive further experimentation and improvement. These are valuable skills, whether students end up pursuing a career in the social sciences or another field altogether. And when it comes to engagement, it’s been a game changer: when students invest themselves in creating and testing their own ideas, they tend to take greater accountability and interest in their work.

Power in reflection

Students are ultimately responsible for their learning. Yet one of the most important facets we miss in traditional education is making time for reflection. In experiential learning, reflection is central. What worked, what didn’t, and what could I do differently next time to improve the outcome? Our role as educators is to guide students through the process, and although feedback does help, the most meaningful driver of academic and personal growth are the insights students generate for themselves.

Show vulnerability by giving students a peak behind the curtains

Experiential learning is not just about the experience. It requires problem solving, analysis, reflection, and iteration. Because it is different from what most students are accustomed to, I am very transparent (almost painfully so) about what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and how I think it will improve the learning process. Providing a roadmap reduces some of the anxiety that comes when students learn there is more than one way to teach a course. It can also mitigate the ups and downs that inevitably arise when students get stuck.

All too often we allow fear of failure to keep us from trying new things. Transparency helps here as well. Before trying something new I always provide a disclaimer. I tell my students I may not get this exactly right, but I am trying to do this differently because I believe in the process and the potential. When students understand our intentions, they’re more open to the process, even when things don’t go as planned.

Keeping a pulse on the student experience

Experiential learning applies just as much to the student journey as it does to our own process of experimenting and learning from our own teaching practice. In my own courses, I have used Top Hat, a courseware platform that includes student response features that have been invaluable in helping me understand exactly how students are fairing, instead of assuming they’re either with me or not.

For example, at the start of class I keep a discussion thread open so students can ask questions and provide comments during class time. I also use this platform to perform quick polls such as taking the class’s temperature along with assessments and assignments to test for comprehension. These real-time feedback loops give me an immediate pulse on what’s working and what isn’t. And by asking for and adjusting my approach based on their feedback, I’ve found students feel more buy-in.

Experiential learning doesn’t mean we have to start from scratch. It’s about being more intentional about what we’re doing and why. The reality is, Kolb’s model works just as well to transform an entire course as it does to breathe new life into a unit, a project, or even a lecture. The key is to use the model as a guide and then inject your own hypothesis, creativity, and a good deal of trial and error to figure out what works.

In my experience, a holistic approach like this is better for students because it engages them more fully. Equally important, it gives them experiences and tools they can continue to grow from. That’s good for students, their success outside of college and, as an instructor, a wonderful way to reinvigorate my own sense of purpose and value.

Demian Hommel is a senior instructor of geography at Oregon State University.