What to Know About Experiential Learning in College

EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING is where theory meets action, and the idea is gaining popularity on college campuses across the U.S.

The focus of experiential learning is hands-on education – academics describe it as learning by doing. But experts allow for a broad definition of the idea, noting that many different kinds of activities fit under the expansive experiential learning umbrella.

“It’s connecting theory to practice, in a real-world authentic setting, that has real-world constraints and parameters and consequences for decisions and behavior,” says Susan Ambrose, senior vice provost for educational innovation at Northeastern University in Boston.

Experiential learning takes many different forms, with experts highlighting avenues like co-ops and internships, service learning opportunities, undergraduate research, volunteering, fieldwork and study abroad. They say that these types of experiences bolster student outcomes because they prompt heightened engagement on both the campus and in communities.

But Theriot adds that experiential learning doesn’t have to be constrained by a structured program.

“A lot of it happens in student affairs or student life, fraternities and sororities engaging in volunteer and service activities; students can do things like study abroad, which doesn’t require a particular course or even a particular major,” Theriot says.

Cara Meixner, executive director of the Center for Faculty Innovation at James Madison University in Virginia, says that experiential learning helps students think beyond simply learning how to do something and to consider the greater ramifications of that action.

“It’s not just about students developing cognitive, or content mastery; it’s not just about a student learning how to run a research trial. It’s also about students being embedded in a context where they’re thinking about the broader ethical implications of that research trial,” Meixner says.

Ambrose turns to cognitive psychology and different types of knowledge to explain how experiential learning works. Declarative knowledge, she explains, is about memorizing facts. Procedural knowledge refers to the ability to use those facts. But then, she adds, “there is contextual knowledge, and that’s knowing when to use the knowledge or the skills that you have” to solve problems.

Of the many delivery methods for experiential learning, the co-op has been offered for more than 100 years at Northeastern. Co-ops are similar to internships, though typically longer, allowing students more time to work and learn within an organization. At Northeastern, students typically alternate semesters between academic study and work sessions. The value of co-ops, Ambrose says, is that they prepare students for life in the workforce by exposing them to it six months at a time.

“You’re immersed in the real world, you’re acting the way an employee would act, you have tasks that you’re asked to do, there’s a boss, there’s a deliverable – in some way, shape, or form – depending on the employer that you’re working with,” Ambrose says.

While there are experiential learning opportunities early on in college, Theriot notes that “some experiences are going to be much more suited to students who are more advanced in their education,” such as internships, co-ops and other types of fieldwork placements. Still, he encourages prospective students to ask: “How can I have some of these experiences coming into college?”

Students don’t have to wait until they reach the upperclassman ranks to get involved in experiential learning opportunities. Experts say students should begin looking as early as freshman summer orientation by identifying student groups they want to get involved with, seeking out undergraduate research opportunities and identifying other activities that involve hands-on learning.

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