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What is experiential learning?  

Experiential learning is learning by doing, and then reflecting on the experience to make the future better. It’s a cycle of preflection, action, and reflection. Ohio University has defined it this way: 

Experiential learning is an approach to education that emphasizes engaged student learning through direct experience and reflection to increase knowledge, develop skills, and elucidate values. Experiential learning activities are intentionally designed to develop students’ knowledge, skills, and attitudes through experience related to a field. Experiential learning may occur in curricular and co-curricular settings. 

Although experiences may vary, experiential learning typically involves: 

  1. Engagement. Student involvement in the activity is sustained and/or intensive. The experience requires a substantial investment of time and attention to foster deep learning. 

  2. Mentorship. Student receives regular, meaningful feedback about student work from activity director or supervisor. Feedback supports student reflection and integration of learning through the activity and goal-setting for future learning. 

  3. Challenge. Student engages in activity that pushes own boundaries beyond the familiar or explores unknown territory for the purpose of developing knowledge and skills. 

  4. Ownership: Student exercises independent judgment in defining and/or executing the activity. Student takes ownership of the process and outcomes. 

  5. Self or Social Awareness. Student reflects on the activity by articulating personal, civic/social, and/or academic learning. Student identifies and articulates knowledge, values, and attitudes developed through the activity. 

Contexts for experiential learning may include (but are not limited to) internships, apprenticeships, clinical experience, fellowships, cooperatives, field work, practicums, community engagement (service-learning, community-based research, volunteering), interactive simulations, role-playing, performance, professional internship/student teaching, study abroad/cultural immersion, research (basic, applied, lab, industry, community), live case studies, job training, place-based education, and student organization leadership. 

Reflection Facilitation for Instructors 

Reflection is a critical component of the experiential learning cycle and is part of day-to-day life. It allows us to continuously ask questions, fail forward, and offers space for vulnerability. As educators, we should weave reflection through our curriculum and offer students reflective practices to apply to their experiences.

As a reflective practitioner, educators should have the following skills or be actively working to develop them: critical self-awareness, humility, empathy, observation, active listening, integration, seeing multiple perspectives, systems thinking, critical thinking, problem solving, communication, visual and spatial literacy.

What is Reflection?

Simply defined, reflection is looking inward and backward to improve the future. Through reflection, students may identify and articulate knowledge, and elucidate values. Reflection is the heart of the experiential learning cycle.

The experiential learning cycle can lead to Bobcats telling better stories and living better lives by reflecting on their experiences to do better for themselves, their family, and their local and global communities. The outcome for students, according to the OHIO BRICKS General Education Curriculum is: 

“Students will be able to demonstrate a developing sense of self as a learner and build on prior experiences to respond to new and challenging contexts.”

Experiential learning, when done best, includes students’ reflection on activities by articulating personal, civic/social, and/or academic learning, leading to self or social awareness. Using reflection, we can help move students from self to greater social awareness using a using scaffolded approach.

Arrow cycle diagram. Reflecting leads to learning, Learning leads to acting. Acting Leads to experiencing. Experiencing leads back to reflection.

Scaffolding Reflection

Timing and Modes of Reflection

Embed reflection before an experience (preflection), during (action), and after (reflection).

Arrow chart. Preflection leads to action which leads to reflection.

Use one or more of the following modes to facilitate reflection:

  • Mark making, or drawing
  • Curation, or the collection of items and/or by cutting and pasting
  • Writing, or recording and journaling
  • Indexing, or looking for patterns and categorizing/coding themes
  • Discussion, or structured verbal processing within a group setting

Reflection can occur through a range of activities within the above modes. 

Encourage students to: draw a map, write or tell a story, cut and paste newspaper headlines, do an interpretative dance, write/perform a song, make a video, create a painting or sculpture, make a list of things learned/things to learn/questions, collect photographs, write poetry, keep an observation journal, draw a pie chart/Venn diagram, make a list of new skills, share a “Rose, Bud, and Thorn” after an experience, create a blog/vlog, do a self-assessment, make a portfolio, respond to sentence stems, think through or write “What? So what? Now What?”, do a quick-write, list three things they already know about the topic, two things they’d like to know, and one question related to the topic (3-2-1).

 


Group Processing and Individual Processing

Allowing students to process reflection as a group and individually creates a more balanced group conversation. This can be accomplished by offering a reflection prompt to a class but allowing students to individually process and self-reflect before sharing with the group. After individual processing, the group may come together to discuss individual reflections and share personal thoughts. Finally, leave space for individuals to process any new ideas that were shared in the group and how those ideas may influence or compliment their personal reflections.

Gear infographic with gears labeled group and individual.

Interdisciplinary Approach

Following an experience, students should engage in mind/body exploration through sensory reflection by responding to prompts, such as:

  • Are there distinct sounds, smells, sights, or other sensory aspects associated with the environment where the experience takes place?
  • What is challenging physically or emotionally for you about the experience?
  • Are you excited, nervous, intimidated, confident?
  • How do you respond to new or unfamiliar aspects of the experience?

Next, ask guiding questions to encourage students to make anecdotal connections to their own disciplines, work, or majors. To achieve an interdisciplinary approach, have students draw connections to other disciplines, outside of their own, to facilitate movement from self-awareness to increased social awareness. This approach to reflection is grounded in integrative learning where students can draw connections across disciplines.