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Seeking Balance: Experiential Learning in Academic Courses

Self-directed learning and encouraging students to think about the way they think and learn empowers students to become more involved in their own learning and allow them to become aware of their learning styles, setting the stage for learning over the course of a lifetime. Photo by Calsidyrose.

Only a small portion of what we learn during our lives occurs in a classroom. Every experience, every person, and every place teaches us something new about our world and ourselves. However, some students struggle to recognize the importance of experiential learning, convinced that teaching and learning only involve reading textbooks or copying bulleted points from a presentation. It’s important to strive to help students recognize that learning opportunities exist throughout our lives and in all aspects of our experiences.

I am a proponent of teaching methods that involve an applied component, where students are challenged to learn by doing. Problem-based teaching and case study teaching are excellent ways to achieve this. Few situations that students will encounter in the world outside the classroom have a single “right” answer. More often, one question leads to other questions. When students are confronted with these realistic scenarios in their courses, we challenge their critical thinking skills, enabling them to think their way through future problems. Gone are the days of memorizing facts; we have Google for that. Learning by doing helps students identify all of the complexities in a situation, better preparing them for life outside of the classroom.

Experiential learning is a natural fit for vocational or technical courses, but incorporating it into traditionally academic courses, like English classes, requires a bit more creativity. Obviously, an English course should have a foundation of reading and writing. To have students engaged in learning, though, educators must move beyond that standard approach. Consider including role-playing and acting exercises in the classroom, bringing the written word to life for the student actors and audience. Multimedia components bring in an additional dimension to discussions of literary works.

Also drawing on the strengths of the vocational curriculum, it’s important to incorporate job-related reading and writing skills into my classroom. Writing an essay on The Catcher in the Rye is a useful exercise for students; however, it will not help them much when they need to write a cover letter for a job application. Both writing exercises allow students to practice writing and critical thinking skills, but the approaches and requirements of these exercises are drastically different—and mutually beneficial.

The balanced combination of academic and vocational components in the classroom improves student learning and engagement, allowing students to understand concepts and the applications of those concepts. Engaged students are more likely to seek out and construct their own knowledge on a topic, further improving achievement.

Given my interest in self-directed learning, I feel that distance learning opportunities are a critical component of an educated populace. In distance learning, the student bears more responsibility for learning the course concepts and content than in many traditional classroom- based courses. That increased responsibility is often linked to increased engagement and learning. Self-paced distance learning courses provide learning opportunities for non-traditional students who would be otherwise unable to attend classes. I know first-hand the value of such educational opportunities, having completed advanced degrees online. Throughout my future career, I hope to help provide similar distance learning opportunities for others.

The basic foundation of my teaching style, and my overall approach to life, emphasizes the importance of continually making small adjustments to improve a system. For example, I may begin teaching a lesson that includes a classroom discussion. Throughout the discussion, I continually monitor the engagement, participation, and learning of students. If some students are not participating in the discussion, I will make small modifications to my approach, such as having the students free-write their thoughts prior to discussing or breaking students into smaller groups to encourage participation of students who are hesitant to speak in front of the whole class. After making such a change, I will again assess student learning and engagement, making more modifications as needed.

This iterative “feedback loop” of making changes and evaluating learning ensures that I am continually evaluating my students’ learning; it also empowers students to become more involved in their own learning, as they become increasingly aware of (and vocal about) which teaching approaches fit their learning styles best. This metacognition, or thinking about thinking, is a powerful force in self-directed constructivist learning.

My favored teaching approach encourages students to recognize their own learning processes, pursue academic questions, and seek experiential knowledge.

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