Author: Joe Bandy, Vanderbilt University
While the theories and practices of teaching often focus on the classroom, learning itself, rarely does. Learning is vital to our humanity and therefore can occur throughout the full range of human experience, structured and unstructured, bounded and unconfined. It is common for any essay on experiential learning to cite authors from antiquity, both East and West – maybe Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them,” or maybe Confucius’s “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” Such quotes convey what we all know intuitively: that many of our most transformative moments of learning occur when we least expect it and even outside of those very institutions dedicated to it. What if we, as educators, could learn from these moments outside the classroom and could use them to enhance our curriculum? What if we opened the classroom and let learning breathe?
The practices of teaching and learning outside the classroom are the subjects of centuries of debate and theorization. From antiquity, to John Dewey’s foundational thought during the Progressive Era, to late 20th Century work by Donald Schön or David Kolb, there has been a recurring intellectual movement to understand and advocate for experiential education. What follows is a review of those principles and practices that may guide our understanding of experiential education today, focusing on its origins, its promise, and its challenges, with examples along the way.
Experiential learning outside the classroom has an infinite number of manifestations that defy easy summary, but we may at least note several categories of experience: service learning or community engagement, community-based education, internships and cooperative education (Moore 2010:4-6), field work, outdoor education, and international study. In all settings there is a common emphasis on “learning by doing” in which learners develop “new skills, new attitudes, or new ways of thinking” (Lewis and Williams 1994: 5) through active, purposeful, and reflective engagement in immersive contexts defined by complex, meaningful, and challenging ambiguities or problems (Chapman, McPhee, and Proudman 1995: 243). Jeffrey Cantor argues that this form of learning is not just beneficial; it is necessary (1995), elemental to human learning, both individual and social.
John Dewey agreed and it is his understanding that laid the foundation on which all subsequent theories of experiential learning were built. Borrowing from an intellectual history stretching from Aristotle to 19th Century pragmatism, Dewey posited that, for learning to occur, one must enter into a cycle of inquiry. This cycle begins with an individual or group acting on habits of mind derived from conditioning or socially normative thought. Then, one encounters an “indeterminate situation” in which these habits of mind fail to bring understanding because they are contradicted. Without such situations, learning is impossible, since one must reconcile one’s faulty worldview with reality via “intellectualization,” in which there is a “definition of the problem,” followed by a study of the conditions of the situation and the formation of a working hypothesis, or a new framework of understanding. Abstract reasoning and empirical testing of the new hypothesis is then necessary for the new understanding to become the mental model through which the world may be understood anew. This then lasts until a new indeterminate situation presents itself. Most important here is that individuals merely act by habit and tradition (his “primary experience”) with no motivation or potential for development without an initial failure and a willingness to actively reflect upon and change one’s mind (what he termed, “secondary experience”) (Dewey 1925, 1934, 1938). This is the core of experiential educational theory later taken up and modified by Kolb (1984).
From Dewey’s perspective any learning at all requires learners to actively experiment, test, and reflect upon their understandings, and this is best done in complex, applied experiential contexts outside of the sterile and controlled environs of the ivory tower. Dewey believed schooling could not replicate the rich diversity of learning experiences possible in everyday life, nor could it simulate all of the institutional contexts in which social learning occurs. Indeed, Dewey did not limit his cycle of learning to the individual, but also theorized that entire societies either ossify or grow – more democratic, more just – depending upon their collective willingness to confront irrationalities or contradictions, to reform them through critical reasoning, and to build new knowledge for the common good (Dewey 1925, 1934, 1938; Miettinen 2000: 63-5). For Dewey, like many other critical pedagogues that followed – Kurt Lewin, Paulo Friere, and bell hooks among them – this social betterment is the soul of education. As he famously stated, “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife” (1889). It is thus no coincidence that experiential education often focuses on applied learning in contexts that involve public scholarship, social service, civic education, and organizational or community development.
Benefits of Learning Outside the Classroom
Experiential learning outside the classroom has many well-documented benefits, for learners, teachers, our educational institutions, and our communities. For learners, the primary benefits are:
Motivation. The experience of active experimentation, risk-taking, and especially failure, in relevant real-world contexts with authentic audiences is highly motivating and yields more engagement in the learning process. Students crave meaning, relevance, and purpose, and teaching that affords this provides tremendous motivation for learning. In the words of bell hooks, experiential learning offers “a place of passion and possibility, a place… where all that we learn and know leads us into greater connection” (DeSantis, Carm and Toni Serafini 2015).
Depth and Breadth of Comprehension. By encountering uncontrolled real-world complexities and ambiguities that challenge preexisting concepts, students are better able to refine their theoretical understandings for different settings, strengthening comprehension and memory. Real-world contexts also are rarely understood by merely one discipline, requiring interdisciplinary insights and comparisons that broaden cognitive connections. We learn differently in different contexts (Kirschner and Whitson 1997, Lave and Wenger 1999), therefore “Compartmentalized learning doesn’t reflect the real world” (2017: 1).
Critical Thinking and Inquiry. In experiential contexts, students come to understand knowledge as more than a discrete set of facts and theories, but instead as an unending dialectical process of engagement with investigative methods, deductive and inductive reasoning, and theorizing. As they do so, they come to recognize enduring elements and methods of inquiry, enhancing metacognition and intellectual autonomy as well as open, fair-minded reflection.
Problem Solving. By allowing students to take what they learn in the classroom and apply it in context, they must grapple with challenges, define problems, design solutions, and test them, often with one another, in ways that develop their knowledge, creativity, and confidence (Moore 2010).Civic Education. In the process of engaging in relevant social contexts outside the classroom, such as basic field work or community-based education, students gain an awareness of social problems, whether they be cultural, economic, or political. In service-learning, community engagement, or public scholarship models that ask students to aid in solving social problems such as homelessness or environmental destruction, students may learn how to generate governmental, policy, cultural, or economic change and thus develop citizenship skills and a valuable sense of self-efficacy or empowerment. This form of learning also has been shown to promote lasting commitment to community engagement (Eyler, Giles, Stenson, and Gray 2001).
Social Learning. Especially in study abroad and community-based experiential learning, students have immersive opportunities to learn about social groups, if not entire societies, that are different their own. This heightens awareness of differences and prompts deeper learning across the disciplines, especially in the acquisition of language, cultural and historical critique, and social analyses of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nation. This also triggers a transformative openness to reflection on taken-for-granted dimensions of one’s own identity, society, or community. This said, social learning can occur in any experiential learning where students work in groups, since they may learn valuable skills of communication, coordination, leadership, and ethics of collaboration, particularly as they work across differences (Cantor 1995: 81).
Environmental Education. In outdoor education and fieldwork – particularly in the fields of environmental studies, geology, ecology, and archaeology – students gain valuable opportunities to apply and refine abstract concepts to natural spaces and forms. This can deepen student understandings of the many social and natural processes that shape the natural environment while informing cultural, economic, and political conceptualizations of environmental health and sustainability. In certain conditions, especially for younger learners, fieldwork may help them reduce stress, improve health through exercise, develop skills of survival and self-reliance (Burdsal and Force 1983), as well as gain positive attitudes towards environmental well-being (Mitteltaedt, Sanker, and VanderVeer 1999).
Career Development. Particularly in community-based learning, internships, co-operative or professional education (Baxter Magolda 1993), students may develop valuable work experience, skills, and labor market networks (social capital) to give them a head start in a career. In fact, across private, government, and nonprofit sectors, employers often report a skill gap among college graduates in workforce preparation, particularly missing “soft skills” of communication, collaboration, leadership, and problem-solving (Student Affairs Forum 2017). In its best forms, experiential learning can help students develop these very qualities. Further, career-focused experiential learning has been shown to generate greater student interest in graduate and professional careers (Cantor 1995). While the benefits of experiential learning far exceed career preparation, this is a significant contribution of the pedagogy for students, educational institutions, and employers alike; and it is the prime reason experiential education is a hallmark component of professional and graduate education.
Graduation Rates. Research suggests that college retention and completion, and greater interest in graduate and professional education, do improve with greater experiential educational opportunities, and especially for nontraditional learners – adult continuing students and those from underrepresented groups including women, people of color, and first-generation and lower-income students (Cantor 1995: 89).
Experiential education has many benefits for educators as well, including more motivated and engaged students, as well as opportunities to develop new research inquiries, to contribute to publicly relevant scholarship, and to build connections to place and community (Eyler, Giles, Stenson, and Gray 2001). Post-secondary institutions also can see benefits from higher impact learning (Kuh 2016), higher academic and career achievement among its students, improved public relations (Eyler, Giles, Stenson, and Gray 2001), and more curricular—co-curricular integration (Student Affairs Forum 2017). Of course, in the most socially engaged forms of experiential learning such as internships, cooperative education, or community service, communities profit from collaborative service, organizational development, and knowledge creation; and we all benefit from the many ripple effects that this may have on the growth of a vibrant and just society.
The practices of experiential teaching are challenging ones, particularly in educational settings that are bounded by constraints on time, space, resources, and educational expectations. Faculty who embrace experiential education can often encounter one or more of the following challenges, each with unique solutions.
Limited Knowledge of Place. Faculty (and students), especially those who are not from the local community or region, may have limited knowledge of place, and its many organizations, assets, and needs. Therefore it is important to take time to gain this knowledge and rely on colleagues on and off campus to help orient to one’s community.
Student Expectations and Capacities. While most students relish opportunities to transcend the classroom and find meaningful and relevant real-world educational opportunities, some students may have limited experience with and therefore bristle against experiential learning, particularly in institutions or disciplines where it is less common and when expectations are unclear. For these students, it is important to be transparent about why experiential education is beneficial and what will be expected of them. Even if students are motivated, students may have limited skills to lend to internships, field work (particularly research), or community engagement. It is important to manage expectations and prepare students as well as possible for impactful learning and service, through dialogues about relevant research, ethics, and skills development.
Resources. Universities may have limited resources, both human and financial, to support fieldwork, internships, study abroad programs, or community engagement. This places a unique and challenging burden on faculty, students, and administrators to develop the external or internal funding necessary to embrace high impact teaching. The many benefits of experiential education make the expenditures associated with experiential education highly cost-effective. However, there are many ways to incorporate more modest experiential assignments with less travel or time-intensive commitments.
Time and Logistics. Organizing students into fieldwork, internships, study abroad, or community engagement projects can present many logistical difficulties around travel and other tasks of coordination and planning that consume significant amounts of time, a commodity that is in short supply for most educators. It, therefore, is important to rely on campus offices and programs with staff who support this work, such as community service, internship, or study abroad units. For the work that is unavoidably that of the instructor, it is imperative to conduct it as efficiently as possible 1) by starting slowly and not developing any experiential projects that may demand more than you or your students are ready to give, 2) by planning in advance so as not to create stresses during the busiest times mid-semester, 3) by developing clear goals and work schedules for students and possible partners off campus, 4) by training and trusting your students, 5) by using partnerships or projects in multiple courses so as to avoid the time necessary to build trust and channels of communication, and 6) by using your local Center for Teaching and Learning to help troubleshoot any foreseen difficulties.
Ethical Preparation. If students and faculty are not engaged in ethical discussions and critical reflection, we have the potential, at the least, to have limited positive impacts on and reciprocity with the organizations and communities with whom we work. At most, we have the potential to treat partners in exploitative, unjust, or harmful ways. It is therefore imperative to adhere to basic ethical guidelines at your institution (such as Institutional Review Board guidelines for research), and more, to develop a curriculum with campus leaders and community stakeholders to discuss all expectations and ethical concerns regarding experiential projects. Ethical challenges present exceptional moments for all stakeholders in a project to learn about one another and to engage in ethical critique, civic education, and moral leadership development around issues relevant in various experiential settings. However, if the ethical challenges of a partnership or project are insurmountable and the risks of harm are therefore high, it would be better to abandon it in favor of another.
Examples of Experiential Learning
History. Michael Bess, Chancellor’s Professor of History and European Studies at Vanderbilt University, has taught many courses since arriving at Vanderbilt in 1989, but it is his course, “World War II,” that has been his most popular. The course is not one on military history but a “multidisciplinary exploration of the war’s campaigns, how they were experienced by those who lived through them, and how they changed world history” (Bess 2015). With these learning goals focused on lived history and especially moral dimensions of warfare, it has been imperative to help students understand the complex experiential realities and ethical quandaries of World War II. This is challenging given the historical distance many of today’s undergraduates feel from the mid 20th Century and given the logistical challenges posed by having well over one hundred students. Michael circumvented this problem by assigning students a modest five-page “oral history” report that is based on an interview they conduct with someone who lived through the war and can speak to its many impacts on history and society. While Michael knows many of this generation that the students can interview, students are able to select their own interview subjects, including family, if they choose. He prepares them with a review of oral history traditions in the discipline, their methods, and interviewing techniques, with practice. The results are that students cite this as their favorite assignment of the course and one of the most transformative learning experiences they have at Vanderbilt, meeting and learning from the WWII generation, particularly veterans, about the many profound and subtle historical elements of the war. Michael notes that this informs student curiosity and understanding throughout the course, prompting them to engage in moral problems and debates in a more informed and complex manner, one that frequently challenges and improves his own scholarship in the field. In Michael’s words, this creates a dialectic of teaching and scholarship that is deeply enriching: “The teaching raises questions that stimulate research, questions I would not necessarily have thought to ask if it hadn’t been for the intensive classroom interaction with my students; the research in turn comes back and enriches the teaching. The dialogue with the students inside the university feeds the published work that then reaches out to the world beyond the university; and then that outer world in turn comes back and deepens the conversation going forward in the classroom.” For more on the course and its organizations, please consult Michael Bess’s course webpage or his related book, Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II (2009).
Sociology. Shaul Kelner, Associate Professor of Sociology and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University, teaches a course entitled, “Tourism, Culture & Place,” an intermediate-level class dedicated to exploring the social histories of what has become an $856 billion culture industry by inquiring into what tourism is, how it helps to construct place and value, how it impacts local culture and economics, and how tourists themselves make meaning from the experience. Living in Nashville, a city with a significant culture and economy of tourism, he thought it would be more effective to have students explore the city via bi-weekly “tours” to various Nashville sites, experiences that would allow them to reflect upon the sociological dimensions of tourism’s semiotics, labor, consumption, and ritual within the lived contexts of local tours focused on country music, African American, and even Vanderbilt campus history, to name a few. By making tourism both “the object… [and] the method of study,” students could reflect personally and more critically upon such issues as how cultures of tourism commodify and selectively represent local history and culture, gaining insight into the ways a tourist gaze is constructed and how it makes meaning. Even the syllabus itself took the form of a tour “itinerary.” Students discussed tourism that had shaped their past lives by sharing photos and souvenirs, kept hand-written travelogues, took photos on their tourist experiences, and wrote essays synthesizing their course readings with experiential learning outside the classroom. Through immersive and experiential learning, students had the opportunity to learn in highly personalized, real-world, and self-reflexive contexts, better supporting the development of critical thinking, skills of inquiry, and sociological modes of analysis. For more on the course and its methods, see Shaul’s article about it in Teaching Sociology.
Mathematics. One may not think of mathematics when one thinks of experiential learning, however, from statistics to calculus, from senior capstones to classes for non-majors, there are courses that have been made more engaging through experiential learning. In advanced courses for majors (e.g., calculus), mathematics faculty often incorporate projects that ask students to act as mathematics tutors for high school students in the area or to take on more applied, problem-based projects supporting area agencies encountering economic or engineering challenges. One series of statistics courses – from introductory statistics to an upper division research seminar – organized by Brad Bailey and Robb Sinn at North Georgia College & State University focused on statistical analysis that would help the University itself. Using internally collected data as well as data provided by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) on NGCSU, students used statistical methods to test various hypotheses about factors affecting student motivation for learning and the effectiveness of first-year orientation programs. Bailey and Sinn recognized many benefits of these projects, including the ways they helped non-majors “feel more confident when facing quantitative research projects in their major coursework” and the ways they helped majors synthesize various statistical methods via original research. All students found data sets less challenging, learned valuable statistics, and were more engaged in the learning process (2011: 18). For more examples of service learning in mathematics, see this set of talks given at the Mathematics Association of America (MAA) in 2011, organized by Karl-Dieter Crisman, Rachelle Ankney, and Robert Perlis.
Engineering. Over the last few years, Cynthia Paschal (Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Radiology and Radiological Sciences, and Associate Dean of Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering) has taught a course, “Frontiers in Biomedical Engineering,” with different colleagues in Biomedical Engineering -- Matthew Walker III, Associate Professor of the Practice, and Nicholas Adams, Research Assistant Professor). It is an intermediate-level seminar-sized course that has the twin purpose of introducing engineering majors to current research practices in biomedical engineering and of providing valuable soft skills such as resume and interview preparation. Rather than merely have students learn these skills via in-class exercises, they decided that it would be more meaningful and educational for students to engage in experiential and service learning projects. Students practiced using, calibrating, and repairing various biomedical instruments from electrosurgical units to electrocardiograms before visiting community medical centers in Guatemala City, Guatemala to repair and to write service manuals for their donated equipment. The first was the Moore Pediatric Surgery Center, a facility supported by Tennessee’s Shalom Foundation and dedicated to providing year-round surgical care to children. The second was La Hospital de Juan Pablo II, a pediatric hospital that offers a wider range of care, where students repair anything from incubators to microscopes, patient monitors to pulse oximeters. Lastly, they visited Hospital Nacional Pedro de Bethancourt and Obras Sociales del Hermano Pedro where students tested and repaired many different kinds of equipment. Students also had the opportunity to meet and discuss engineering research with Guatemalan students in a student exchange at the Universidad del Valle. Not only did these efforts help the medical centers to operate effectively, but it helped students to gain valuable engineering experience in support of medical professionals, something that gave the course greater meaning and helped support student career development. As Matthew Walker stated, “it was an excellent opportunity to add service and social responsibility to the ambitions of the students.”
Through these examples, one can see that experiential learning projects may vary in size and complexity. They may involve small projects, like short oral history papers or reflections on fieldwork, or they may entail semester- or year-long study abroad, or community research projects with multiple component assignments and intensive engagement outside the classroom. The appropriate size and scope of experiential learning projects can vary with course goals and type, and even small assignments that are well-organized and well-integrated with course content can have profound impacts.