Making the Most Out of Experiential Learning: 5 Things That Work for Me

Experiential Learning

Over the past several years I have experimented with experiential learning in my teaching: how it’s presented, how it’s managed, and how it’s evaluated.  This semester I have rolled out a full-scale experiential learning component for my module on the Twentieth-Century British Novel–and this has only come after a great deal of trial and error.  For this part of the module assessment, students are required to write an essay reflecting on one of the several experiential learning activities taking place over the course of the semester.  In this essay they must first identify how they understood one specific aspect of a text we studied before the experiential learning activity, and then how their understanding of that aspect changed or was modified after the activity.  This type of critical analysis demands a great deal of self-reflexivity from students, but I have been extremely pleased with how the work has gone so far.  In previous years, students haven’t so easily taken to the challenges of self-reflexive thinking, but there have been five key lessons that I have learned along the way:

1) Explicitly introduce the goals of experiential learning

It is often students–rather than faculty boards or senior colleagues–who are most resistant to innovation in learning and teaching. Students generally begin university with a clear preconception of what learning will entail (e.g. read book, listen to lecture, discuss in seminar, write essay), and breaking from this anticipated course of learning can quickly create confusion or concern.  This confusion is an issue that I address head-on.  When introducing experiential learning assignments or activities, I very explicitly explain the goals and objectives.  ‘We are working on recognizing that the literature we study doesn’t exist in a vacuum–it is still being molded and changed by our perceptions of the world around us.  As we begin to recognize how our daily lives impact upon our understanding of literature, we not only become stronger readers of literature, but stronger readers of everything that surrounds us.’    This big-picture overview really does help students to understand how experiential learning fits into their programme as a whole, and what they might hope to get out of it.

2) Model expectations

In addition to making the goals and objectives of experiential learning clear to students, I also give models of what this type of work looks like in practice.  As luck would have it, several days before introducing this assignment, I saw a performance of John Cage’s spoken word piece 45′ Minutes for a Speaker.  It’s a frantically paced three-quarters of an hour of speaking (much of which parodies the nature of the university lecture) that is performed with a stopwatch to hand.  This format speaks clearly to the relationship between the words on the page and the experience of assimilating them… a consideration which sits beautifully alongside my class’s work on James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.  To model an example of an experiential learning insight, I showed a sample of Cage’s text on the screen and attempted–but hardly succeeded–to perform it with all the necessary attention to rhythm, breathing, and timing.  I then explained how watching the full performance had allowed me to think differently about Joyce’s text as a form of sound art, which can almost be seen as a tapescript for a spoken word performance, with all the expected interest in vocality, the shapes of sounds, and the act of speaking.  By giving students an example of my own experiential learning insight (which was completely authentic), they gained a much clearer sense of how to approach their work and what the product would ultimately look like.

3) Have a clear, if flexible, understanding of what may be gained from the experience.

I prepared  a menu of four experiential learning trips over the course of the semester: retracing Clarissa Dalloway’s Westminster walk in Mrs Dalloway, the Wellcome Collection, the Tate Modern, and the British Library.  Everyone was required to take part in these, but were only required to write about one.  With a class of insightful, creative thinkers, I trusted that each of the students would be able to find something engaging and interesting in at least one of these trips.  But I also had a clear sense of the kinds of possible terrain that they may enter.  While on the Mrs Dalloway walk I discussed with them the changing role of domestic architectural space following WWI; the Wellcome Collection holds collections on the history of health care and the body, topics relevant to many of the novels studied in the module; at the Tate Modern we looked together at the shift from modern to contemporary styles in visual art and how that mirrors literary art; and the British Library gave them a chance to think about the materiality of literature, a topic relevant to several novels on the module including 1984 and Wide Sargasso Sea.  The experiences and insights were theirs, but I offered them a context through which to view the experience.

4) Show that this is a process which never ends.

I had modeled the expectations for my students already, but there were also many times throughout the semester that I had the opportunity to prove to them that experiential learning is really a process that never ends.  Indeed, I find myself surprised by insights all the time.  While giving them a brief introduction to the Wellcome Collection in the lobby, I highlighted several of the galleries and collections that would be of particular relevance to our module; the downstairs galleries on body modification, I explained, however, were not going to be especially helpful for their assignment.  But after walking through all the other galleries with them, pointing things out and discussing objects as we went, I went downstairs to by myself to these very ‘irrelevant’ galleries.  When I was down there, I found something extraordinary: one of the key pieces in the exhibition was a classical Greek sculpture of Daedalus with his wings.  This is an image that reverberates throughout Joyce’s Portrait.  When I saw this classical motif ceverly displayed alongside much more contemporary images of body modification, I began to think about Joyce’s text in new ways.  I ran upstairs to find as many of my students as I could, and we gathered around the sculpture to discuss its significance, both within the exhibition and within Portrait.  And they couldn’t help but notice that this extraordinary object was in the one gallery that I said would not be relevant to them.  But it became an excellent example that experiential learning insights can come anywhere and everywhere, even if you don’t expect them.

5) Value and support synchronicity along the way.

The menu of four trips was only the starting point for the semester, and many more opportunities came up.  When rereading 1984 I was reminded of the Ridley Scott 1984 advert for the first Apple Macintosh, and forwarded  a link to students as a possible topic for their experiential learning response.  When Kazuo Ishiguro came to speak on campus, students asked if that might be used for their response.  (Of course!)  The whole aim of experiential learning is to break through the fanciful barriers that have been built up between the esteemed world of literature and the world around us.  By allowing this part of the module to adjust as new experiences entered the frame, students were able to see that this was not just a form of assessment, but, rather, a way to think about literature and culture.

There is no real formula for creating powerful, transformative learning experiences for students–it really is a continual process of experimentation that isn’t too dissimilar to the goals of experiential learning itself.   In January I will be taking up an Assistant Professorship at a leading research university, which places considerable emphasis on experiential learning.  And I know that my use of experiential learning in the classroom will undoubtedly grow and change in the coming years.

3 thoughts on “Making the Most Out of Experiential Learning: 5 Things That Work for Me

  1. Fantastic Allan – I’m working on something similar for my 18th-century literature modules – I’ve noticed similar things about my own practice. I’ll respond with something more fully-fledged when I’ve had a chance to think more on next year’s module. Good luck for January!

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