‘It blows you away’: the potential of experiential learning for higher education

How do we make higher education meaningful?  And how do we ensure that our graduates have the life skills that are so important to prospective employers?  For Scott Wurdinger the best way to do this is through experiential learning, and he was kind enough to come to the University of Edinburgh earlier this month to share some of his ideas about how to do this.

Scott is clear that personal history is important to where you arrive at in life and what you do, and his own journey is testament to this.  Born and raised in rural Iowa, he was pushed into sport at school and told that he wasn’t smart enough to go to college.  But one teacher did everything experientially and for Scott this was a transformative experience.  Suddenly he was engaged, the process of learning came to life and thus began a lifetime commitment to the idea that the best way to learn is through direct experiences.

So what might all this mean for higher education?  Scott is clear that there are differences between lecture-based learning and experiential learning, and that good teaching involves a balancing act between the two.  There are problems with relying only on lectures.  He sees them as backward-looking, reviewing stuff that has already happened, and as encouraging memorisation.  And they are often overly reliant on theory.  Experiential learning, by contrast, he sees as outward-looking because it begins with a problem that we do not know the answer to, and in the process of finding that answer, leads the students out into the future as they go through the process of discovery.  Experiential learning on its own, however, can be too light on theory.

So how does Scott combine the two in a mutually reinforcing way?  In answering this conundrum he looks to the work of John Dewey and the cycle of learning that he proposed in The Pattern of Inquiry.  Scott sees this cycle as a statement of the scientific method – all learning takes place in reflective cycles that begin with the problem, move on to planning, then testing and finally to reflection.  In practice, what this means is that any lecture needs to be followed up with application, that is with some kind of experiential learning. Critical here is Dewey’s famous assertion that an ounce of experience is better than a tonne of theory.  Experiential learning is potentially more complex and takes more time than just lecturing but, crucially, the knowledge will stay with the students.  And, if done well, the students won’t even realise just how much they are learning, either about the subject matter or about other important life skills such as time management, self-direction and collaboration.  As Wagner argues in The Global Achievement Gap, our employers aren’t actively seeking out good at memorisers but graduates with precisely the kinds of life skills that are developed during experiential learning.

Scott is clear that experiential learning works.  Every time he walks into a situation where experiential learning is taking place he says ‘it blows him away’.  He sees students who are working on projects in environments where they thrive because they are fully engaged. Their learning becomes meaningful and purposeful and, moreover, they are excited and happy.  What an endorsement!

So what strategies does Scott use when leading an experientially-based course?  Problem-based learning is his go-to method because it ensures that students engage in all four parts of Dewey’s cycle of learning.  Too often, Scott suggests, students do not reach the testing or reflecting phases of the cycle.  And, he argues, students need time to cement the theory and the practice, and that this must be built into the structure of any project.  But of central importance to experiential learning is getting the right project and the right question.  It must not be too easy or the students won’t have the opportunity to go through several rounds of the cycle of inquiry and their learning will be more superficial. And it’s important to keep the students on track over the course of the project.  In his classes, Scott requires students to hand in a weekly progress report so that he can see that they are always moving forwards.  And, at the end of the project, they submit a reflection form.

All of this, of course, entails a change in classroom culture.  In experiential learning the lecturer relinquishes control and creates a safe space in which the students can make mistakes and navigate their own way through the learning process.  And, of course, the experiential classroom can be a very noisy and seemingly chaotic place to be.  But the rewards are clear to for all to see in the happiness and excitement of the students as they engage in experiential learning.  Try it and it might just ‘blow you away’ too.

About the speaker

SCOTTScott Wurdinger is a professor of experiential education and leadership studies at Minnesota State University in Mankato. 




About the author

Hazel-ChristieHazel Christie is lecturer in the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh.


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