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Teaching Strategies in the College Classroom: Incorporating Experiential Learning

Updated on October 16, 2015

Defining Experiential Learning

There are various ways that I could effectively approach the subject of experiential learning, but for the purposes of this article, let's call it what it is; that is, learning through experience. I use the word "experience" as a means to convey an individual's ability to interact with, identify with, and ultimately connect with whatever it is that he or she is learning. To further explain experiential learning, I must also mention the obvious need for reflection on the experience. Reflection is a necessary component to enhance the learning process. So, for this article, experiential learning is the process of connecting students to what is being taught in the same fashion that they experience real world learning followed by an activity that allows students to reflect on that experience.

Understanding How to Incorporate Experiential Learning

Experiential learning is not some vague, out-of-reach technique that cannot be achieved without instructors investing hours of overtime and countless individual meetings one-on-one with students. On the contrary, it is not only doable within the normal teaching times but can enhance learning in such a way that students absorb concepts necessary to success in the class and beyond which is, I hope, the ultimate goal of any education. While students are increasing success through experiential learning, instructors using experiential techniques can leave the classroom smiling at the progress being made.

Let's look at an assignment that might be a requirement for many different types of courses. To illustrate what I believe is a more effective way of carrying out the following assignment, I have organized it into steps followed by possible alternatives.

Step 1: Dr. Smith at ABC College has chosen a book that all students will be required to read by a specified date. He provides clear expectations so that students know what the main focus should be.

Alternative 1: Dr. Smith provides parameters and informs students that they will be required to choose a book meeting those parameters (perhaps on a certain topic). The instructor can require the approval of the chosen book or even provide a list of books to choose from only if necessary and should base it on the individual student's needs. To be experiential, learning must be primarily in the hands of the learner where he or she takes some responsibility for the learning by engaging in a focused task (or hunt for a book in this case). The teacher will also provide clear expectations so that the student knows where and how to focus efforts, but allows and encourages the student to go beyond that. The instructor might encourage the student to read the book to find an answer to a problem, to identify information to be used in research, to help back up an argumentative discussion/paper, or other activities that go beyond simple reading and regurgitation.

Step 2: Dr. Smith checks in with students to see how the reading is going; he goes around the room to each student asking for progress updates.

Alternative 2: Dr. Smith emails students periodically (but at least once) before any classroom discussion takes place. The instructor offers support during the time that students are reading the chosen books. Before the class progress update, students might be asked to think about why they chose their books, what themes exist that may be applied to real-world concepts, and any frustrations over something in the book or about the reading process. In this step, the instructor provides support and encouragement acknowledging the positives in the process of reading and learning. In this stage, students are not simply responsible for choosing (the book), but for actively engaging in the learning process, making connections, and drawing conclusions.

Step 3: Mr. Smith provides a guideline for how information for a class presentation is to be organized and expects the students to follow it.

Alternative 3: Have a "putting it all together" workshop session where students bring information on the chosen readings and group members help other students develop an organizational schema. "Putting it all together" is an important component of the learning process where a student's work is not only recognized, but he or she presents it to peers and the instructor for evaluation. A workshop can also provide an opportunity for students to reflect on their work (as group members) as well as measure it against others' work.

Step 4: Dr. Smith calls students up to present their book information in the format that was provided by the instructor.

Alternative 4: Students choose the mode of presentation. During the presentation, students are asked to present the required information as well as how they felt about the book, personal reactions, how it connects to life, and perhaps how they moved through the process of reading and creating the presentation. At the end of the student presentations, ask each student to evaluate how he or she did on the presentation.

So, What's So Experiential About That?

At first glance, one might ask what makes the alternative steps experiential. The first thing that took place in the alternative steps is that the instructor made the activity student-led and made it personal. Experiential learning also incorporates the "why" of things. In this case, there may have been several opportunities to have students examine the "why". When a student reflects on the question of "why," he or she makes it personal. At the college level, it is also appropriate to ask about the feelings that a student has about a concept, idea, or an entire piece of literature. That further personalizes the experience and looks at the process of arriving at an answer, a process that has real-world applications. The evaluation processes in the above example provide a means to reflect both individually and in a group setting. Opportunities for self-reflection were given so that the students could understand personal connections with the assigned materials. Let's return to the original definition now. Experiential learning is the process of connecting students to what is being taught in the same fashion that they experience real world learning followed by an activity that allows students to reflect on that experience. The key to learning is engagement, involvement, and reflection.

Engaging & Reflecting


Other Experiential Learning Modifications

To help instructors get their creative juices flowing, I have included a list of points for thought when instructors develop lesson plans for the adult learner.

  • Ensure that some component of all lesson plans include real life applications.
  • Avoid using group reflection as the primary means of bouncing around ideas, solving problems, examining issues, etc. Instead, incorporate time for individual reflection.
  • Know thy class. In other words, learn the class personality (there always is one!) and general interests. By tapping into interests, students may become more engaged.
  • I worked with a teacher once who struck me as particularly progressive. Every semester, we turned in our course schedule before classes began. During training, she mentioned student-led syllabi. As we talked more about how she handles things, she shared that at the beginning of each semester, she proposes the current syllabus as one alternative but gives students the opportunity to shape the way the course will play out (within the guidelines of the course requirements). After she incorporates student ideas, she resubmits her syllabus and course schedule to the appropriate department. After every modified/new assignment that students decided to add, she has a reflective component. In other words, the students are involved from the beginning (planning the course) until the end (reflecting on the course). I can see where this might be done on a smaller scale as well applying student feedback to a specific assignment, providing support, then time for reflection.
  • Whenever applicable, have students do it rather than read about it. As I reflect back on my college years, I am reminded of an online physics class where the instructor gave detailed directions on assignments, but the only way that students could come up with the answer was to carry out the assignment. One experiment involved a ball and a string with an equation and a sheet where we wrote down observations and findings.

Concluding Remarks

Experiential learning is not just for kids. The applications and benefits are endless. What better place to apply experiential learning than in the college classroom? As an educator and a learner, I plan to take some time and continue to integrate experiential learning in every assignment, and in every class. The times that I have done so have been highly beneficial to students providing them with a richer educational experience and knowledge that they can apply beyond college.


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