How to Integrate Experiential Learning Into Your Course

Students and instructor gathered around a computer in a chemistry lab
 Archeology dig with several studies working different parts of the site.
 A student in another country with a baby elephant.  Elephant has trunk draped over student's neck.
 Two students using a large tube to draw water from an artificial test pool.
 Instructor and several students measuring diameter of small tree in the forest.
 Student holding bird with several other students looking on.  Instructor showing student how to band leg.
 Instructor and two students wearing  protective gear and looking at paperwork in a lab.
 Grad student holding large species of cockroach native to South America.
 Students sitting outside in a circle, one with drum.
 Four students sitting outside Armstrong Center at a cafe table discussing a group project.
 Botany class outside, gathered around a tree and doing an identification exercise.
 Group of students sitting outside painting pottery bowls.

As faculty plan for experiential learning in a course, there is much to consider since this approach is quite different from what is involved in preparing traditional academic lectures. Experiential learning requires that faculty give students more responsibility and authority over their learning. Therefore, faculty must be planful in their approach to facilitate a meaningful learning experience for students to lead a process of helping learners identify the knowledge they require, acquire skills in the process of learning, and reflect on the experience (Moon, 2004). In addition, faculty must also consider the dynamic context of either field-based learning (e.g., internships, service learning and practicums), or classroom learning via case studies, role plays, presentations, and other activities (Lewis & Williams, 1994).

Regardless of the setting, conceptual frameworks are helpful tools to guide the inclusion of experiential learning within a course. For example, Beard and Wilson (2013) proposed "the learning combination lock," which describes how the internal environment of the learner, including their emotions, reasoning and intelligence, and their ability to learn and change, interacts with the external learning environment through their senses. Furthermore, faculty should be mindful of philosophical considerations while the learner is actively engaged in the process by belonging, doing, sensing, feeling, thinking, and being (Beard and Wilson, 2013, p. 7). Beard and Wilson (2013) lay out six practical considerations for designing experiential learning activities below.

Practical Considerations for Learning and Development

  1. Where? Where and with whom does the learning take place?
  2. What? What will the learners actually do?
  3. How? How will learners receive the experience through their senses?
  4. Hearts? How will the emotional self of the learner be engaged?
  5. Minds? What do learners need to know?
  6. Change? How can learners be encouraged to change?

Getting Started with Planning

In a summary of the literature on experiential learning, Schwartz (2012, p. 3-4) provided several steps for faculty as they begin the planning process, below:

  1. Analyzing your learner population and determining their needs. Going beyond their current level of content mastery, the faculty member should consider the cultural background of the learners, their current level of experience with coursework at the undergraduate or graduate level, and their maturity level (Cantor, 1995).
  2. Identify appropriate activities for your learner population and course content. Faculty must think about what aspects of course content experiential learning could enhance, and link the activity with course objectives in a way that complements the overall curriculum (Cantor, 1995).
  3. Identify potential issues when integrating experiential learning. Field-based experiential learning activities, in particular, require developing partnerships with the community and dealing with liability issues (Cantor, 1995).

Designing Experiential Learning Activities

The following are directly quoted from Schwartz, 2012, p. 4.

  1. Decide which parts of your course can be instructed more effectively with experiential learning.
  2. Think about how any potential activities match the course learning objectives.
  3. Think about how the potential activity complements the overall course of study.
  4. Think about the grading criteria and evaluation method that would match the proposed activity (Cantor, 1995, p. 82).

Instead of approaching experiential learning as material to be remembered, Wurdinger (2005) proposed that faculty should use a problem-solving approach or start with a question with more than one potential answer possible. Effective experiential learning necessitates that the instructor clearly defined group work agreements, activity learning goals, and big-picture relevance (Chapman, McPhee, & Proudman, 1995). In addition to primary experiential learning experiences, it is important to have opportunities for reflecting on direct experiences.

As a guide for holistically integrating experiential learning in a course, Wurdinger (2005, p. 63) recommended the following:

  1. Use a major project or field experience to guide learning over the entire course.
  2. Use a combination of projects, classroom activities, and external experiences.
  3. Tie everything together.
  4. Ensure activities are challenging, yet manageable.
  5. Provide clear expectations for students.
  6. Allow the students necessary time to identify, clarify, and keep focused on their problem.
  7. Allow students to change direction midstream.

For more information on designing, running, and assessing experiential learning activities, please review the Schwartz (2012) article titled, "Best Practices in Experiential Learning" and Beard and Wilson's (2013) book titled, "Experiential Learning: A Handbook for Education, Training, and Coaching."