Hands on, heads in: three ways to incorporate experiential learning

Posted by Semestry

According to the UK Engagement Survey 2021, as a result of the pandemic and remote learning challenges, student engagement has dropped to record lows across all seven measurement categories.

Universities now need to find ways to incorporate different learning styles into the curriculum to increase engagement, a vital and established factor in the promotion of long-term academic success, but new approaches, such as experiential learning, can be challenging to incorporate into university schedules.


What is experiential learning?
Simply put, it is learning through personal experience. Experiential learning theory was proposed by American psychologist, professor, and education theorist Dr David A Kolb, who published his learning styles model in 1984. His theory defines experiential learning as a four-stage process: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation, and active experimentation.

Although the four stages work together to create a learning process, different students show a preference for some components over others. While one may depend heavily on concrete and reflective experiences, another may concentrate on the abstract and active stages, depending on their different preferred learning styles. Best teaching practices include a wide range of learning activities and experiences to support all learners, regardless of preferred style. This helps students to develop skills in specific areas and creates a more flexible, well-rounded learner.


Learning diagram

What are the benefits of experiential learning?
There are many benefits to students both during their studies and beyond into their professional lives, as experiential learning creates real world relevance, combining theory and practice, and teaches resilience and the value of mistakes.

It also provides opportunities for creativity, experimentation and reflection, as it teaches students to engage the creative parts of their brains to develop inventive solutions to the problems presented, providing satisfying instant independent achievements and accomplishments. As student engagement increases through these processes, learning accelerates, and retention improves.

Over the course period, the practical application of each student’s creative solutions helps them to identify their strengths and skills; an important factor when considering career options.


How to implement experiential learning in an institution
Institutions can use a combination of projects, classroom activities and external experiences to keep courses interesting and engaging, while adding value to the overall process. However, activities must match the course learning objectives and complement the overall course of study, and the class readings and lectures should be directly related to any experiential activities. It is also essential to consider the grading criteria and evaluation method for each activity and set clear expectations for students.

When planning to incorporate experiential activities into a course, Michelle Schwartz, Research Associate, for the Vice Provost, Academic, Ryerson University in California, offers the following advice in her paper on Best Practices in Experiential Learning

  1. Analyse your learner population and determine their needs.
    Consider the education level and possible work experience of your students, as well as their cultural and economic backgrounds.
  2. Identify appropriate activities for your learner population and course content.
    Decide what aspects of the course could be enhanced by experiential learning, design activities to suit both your course content and ensure the activity complements the programme curriculum.
  3. Identify potential issues when integrating experiential learning.
    Experiential activities may take more time than traditional classroom teaching and require different venues and equipment, which creates additional challenges for scheduling. While partnerships with external workplaces in the community can offer great potential, they can also create problems with timing, monitoring and grading, and may require a more flexible schedule for students to accommodate the workplace needs and the inclusion of student travel time.

There are a number of useful online tools and technologies that can support universities and colleges in the promotion and incorporation of experiential learning as well as a number of excellent publications. Semestry’s TermTime’s assistive, smart scheduling supports timetablers in planning, building, delivering, and operationalising the right schedule for everyone, allowing schedulers to manage diverse constraints and scenarios with ease. This makes the challenges of including essential experiential learning manageable, and allows student instant access to constantly updated timetable information.

Bear in mind that a specific activity is not in itself experiential; it is the way that it is presented that makes that difference.


Further resources:
Experiential Learning – Experience as the source of learning and development – David A Kolb (2014)
Experiential Learning – Assessment and Accreditation – Norman Evans (1992)
Experiential Learning: A Handbook for Education, Training, and Coaching – Beard and Wilson (2013)
The Experiential Learning Toolkit – Blending practice with concepts – Colin Beard (2010)
Best Practices in Experiential Learning – Michelle Schwartz, Ryerson University (2012)


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