Teaching Strategies

Getting Started With Experiential Learning

Learning by doing—through project-based learning or role plays based on the news, for example—can boost student engagement.

April 17, 2019

Imagine that you’ve restructured your classroom as a mock state legislature. You have tasked your students with writing and passing a new law regarding the use of a forest located on state-owned land. While some groups of students run branches of the state government, others represent interest groups—for example, an environmental advocacy group, local businesses, and concerned residents. Your students are so engrossed in their goal and roles that they’re no longer aware that they are, in fact, learning a lot about how laws are passed and how conflicts can be resolved.

Your students are engaged in experiential learning—building knowledge by doing. Experiential learning can refer to simulations, role plays, project-based learning, or any other immersive educational experience.

According to David Kolb, a typical experiential learning cycle consists of four stages: action, reflection, conceptualization, and application. The experience, or action, serves to anchor students in a common context that they can then reflect on together. During or after the reflection phase, the teacher helps students identify and name their observations as specific knowledge or skills. In the last phase, students apply what they’ve learned to new contexts.

Experiential activities like the one above, which are inspired by real-world problems and require significant collaboration, are important because they represent a particularly authentic form of learning. They also ensure that students—not the teacher—do the intellectual heavy-lifting of extracting meaning from experience.

While planning for experiential learning can be an exciting challenge, it can also be difficult to know where to begin. To help teachers get started, the tips here focus on planning for the action and reflection phases.

4 Tips for Getting Started With Experiential Learning

1. Begin with the end in mind: Before diving into the nitty gritty of planning an experiential activity, it’s important to have a clear vision for how the activity fits into your course, unit, or lesson. That’s why clearly defining an activity’s overarching purpose and goals should be the first step in your planning process.

These goals need not be limited to academic objectives—they can include social and emotional goals for your students. For example, while your academic goal may be for students to understand how laws are passed, your social and emotional goal may be for them to learn and practice conflict resolution skills. Finally, consider whether engaging in an experiential activity is actually the most appropriate way for students to achieve these goals.

2. Keep your radar up for interesting and authentic dilemmas: Once you’ve identified the goals of your activity, you’re ready to begin crafting it, but not just any activity will do. A distinguishing feature of experiential activities is authenticity. So ask yourself: What are the real-world situations in which real people struggle with these concepts and skills? And how can I recreate those situations in my classroom or school?

Educators can draw such situations from external sources, like the news, as well as their own lives. The most committed experiential educators are constantly searching for potentially educational situations, a strategy that Zachary Herrmann refers to as “keeping your radar up in search of interesting problems.” Teachers store these up, ready to use at the right time.

Storing interesting problems this way can create an enormously generative instructional resource, especially since each problem can be spun in a number of ways. For example, a news story about a debate over natural resources might inspire a simulation designed to teach students about persuasive writing and speaking, the legislative process, or cost-benefit analysis. So choose a situation that is relevant and interesting to your students, and then spin it to align with your purpose and goals.

3. Leave room to accommodate students’ reactions and emerging ideas: Part of what makes experiential activities so exciting and so intimidating is the impossibility of predicting where students will take them. While some students will follow the activity guidelines closely, others will want to push the envelope; while some will find it easy to synthesize and articulate what they’re learning, others will struggle to identify the latent lessons. How will your activity respond to a wide variety of potential reactions and responses?

One strategy is to prepare multiple plans that you can implement and reconfigure in response to students’ reactions and emerging ideas. Because choosing among these plans requires understanding how students are interacting with and interpreting the experience, ongoing formative assessment—both observations and checks for understanding—is essential for effective experiential learning.

This doesn’t mean that you leave it entirely up to students to determine the direction of the activity—having a clear understanding of the activity’s purpose and goals will help you determine when students veer too far off track and how to redirect them.

4. Reflection is the key to success: Reflection is essential if students are to extract the full benefit of experiential learning, so be sure to provide ample space and structure for this process. Ask students early and often to articulate what they’re learning in relation to the academic and social and emotional objectives. You can also have students reflect on data that you collect as you observe them engaging in the activity, such as the number of times each group engages in negotiation. Such reflections not only serve as valuable formative assessments but also help students make meaning along the way.

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