The Challenge: Experiential Education for All – Katherine Lithgow

csl“Experiential education for all” is one of the goals set out in our strategic plan and stems from our recognition “that learning is stronger when knowledge is tried and tested”. It is the ‘for all’ part that sounds a bit overwhelming, doesn’t it? I mean, how can we provide this opportunity in a meaningful way for all of our students? Teaching Fellow Kelly Anthony has one possible model that works well for her and might be something that others might consider. It isn’t ‘the’ answer, but it does move us in the right direction. What I want to do in this post is look at one example of a way to address the challenge of providing experiential education for all, and outline what I think are the pieces make it a move in the ‘right’direction.

In her small senior seminar class of 20 students, Kelly has made community service learning (CSL) a central piece of the course and has witnessed the positive impact the CSL experiences have on her students. Transformative is how she describes it echoing the findings in the literature.  Kelly wanted to bring this transformative aspect to her larger second year class of 90+ students, but recognized that providing a CSL for all students in a class this size was not an option.  Instead, she opted to provide 5% extra credit for students who volunteered to participate in a CSL opportunity and committed to leading discussions and/or presenting on topics during the class discussions to share their ‘lived’ experience with their classmates to help enrich the course content.  To qualify for the opportunity, interested students meet individually with Kelly very early in the term to discuss the CSL opportunity he/she would like to pursue. Kelly takes time to ensure the expectations are clear and the students who elect to participate in the CSL option understand the commitment they are making to their classmates, to Kelly, and to the community partner with which they are involved.  This process results in limiting the number of students who are willing and able to fulfill the commitments to about five to ten students per course offering.

This past year Kelly and a former student, with funding from a LITE grant, studied the impact that the CSL students’ contributions to the class discussions have had on the CSL and non-CSL students’ learning.  One of the key findings was that students in these courses overwhelmingly report that the CSL students’ contributions enriched the experience in the class.

Kelly will be the first to tell you that it isn’t a perfect solution, and it is a lot of work for her and for the students who undertake the option.  But she and her students consider it worth the effort.

So what do I take away from this?  While Kelly’s model doesn’t provide ‘experiential education for all’, it is a move in the right direction.  It is making experiential education available to at least some of the students while  providing value to the others.  If opportunities like this were available in more classes, we’d be moving even further in the right direction.

What I find even more attractive about this model is that the students’ experiences are integrated back into the course. This integration allows all students to make explicit, personally meaningful connections between course concepts and their experiences.  In my mind, the pieces that facilitate the integration are what makes this model a move in the ‘right direction’.

Here’s what I mean.  Many students work with community partners. Ditto for work experience.  But being able to reflect on the experience, share the experience with others within the context of, in Kelly’s case, social determinants of health, is what deepens the value and meaning derived from that experience. It is the intentional integration that makes the difference.  Aspects that facilitate this integration include the “numerous interactions with the instructor and peers about substantive matters” during the class discussions, the opportunity to experience diversity through the CSL experience and class discussions, being able to “get more frequent feedback” from their classmates and, for the CSL students, from their instructor during the scheduled check-ins, and finally by “discovering the relevance of their learning through real-world applications”.

These various aspects that help integrate the CSL experience turn out to be attributes of what Kuh (2008) has described as High Impact Practices. To me, these aspects make the difference between providing a great experience and providing experiential education. In my mind, ensuring that we are providing ‘experiential education for all’ rather than merely ‘great experiences for all’ is the greater challenge. I hope this important difference doesn’t get lost in our effort to achieve the goal set forth in the strategic plan.

Kuh, G.D. (2008). High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access To Them, and Why They Matter, American Association for Colleges & Universities.

Published by

Katherine Lithgow

As Senior Instructional Developer, Integrative Learning, Katherine Lithgow facilitates ePortfolio and Integrative Learning initiatives, supporting instructors across campus with the design and implementation of activities that help students integrate learning in academic, workplace, community and social environments. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Katherine taught Cytology at The Michener Institute for Applied Health Sciences. She received her BA from the University of Toronto, and a Master’s in Educational Technology from UBC. In what seems like another life, Katherine worked as a cytotechnologist graduating from TMI’s Cytology program.