Pros and Cons of Experiential Learning

Hands-On LearningInside Higher Ed published an opinion piece that argued that experiential learning is not beneficial to students and in fact, takes them away from classes where they could gain more knowledge about their chosen fields. I don’t buy the author’s argument. For one thing, he offers absolutely no evidence that experiential learning impacts students negatively. His evidence is “it’s clear to me”.  He puts forth some examples of choices students might have to make when experiential learning options are required:

A junior majoring in political science can either: (a) take a nonrequired upper-division course in statistical analysis (taught by a professor of statistics, not a political scientist) or (b) do a service-learning experience with a state legislator.

A junior majoring in environmental science can either: (a) take a nonrequired upper-division laboratory course in the biochemistry of water-based environmental toxicity or (b) work with the Fish and Game Department monitoring the impact of pollution on the local duck population.

A senior history major can either: (a) spend the summer at the Middlebury College Language Schools to become competent as a reader, writer and speaker of French or (b) work with an archivist at a local historical library.

He uses these examples to forward the crux of his argument:

Although each of the activities listed above is worthy, it is clear to me that, in the long term, the (a) options will serve the student much better than the (b) options. Each (a) option provides the student with the opportunity to study and learn a difficult subject matter, something valuable that can’t easily be learned “experientially.” But in the climate that currently exists on so many campuses, the student will likely be pushed toward taking the “real-life” option that has short-term, rather than long-term, benefits.

I look at these options and think about how I might advise a student. What I would advise them to do would depend on the student’s goals. It’s not a clear-cut, black-and-white, this-is-obviously-best decision. For example, in the first case, if the student’s goal is to become a politician and run for office, then b) is better. That’s hands-on experience that might provide the student with connections to people who can support her run for office someday. It can also provide her the inside view of the job to know, sooner rather than later, whether running for office is something she wants to do. If, on the other hand, the student is more interested in being on the policy side of things, an adviser or working for a think tank, primarily analyzing information to provide recommendations, then a) seems like a better choice.  In each case, one could come up with student scenarios where each option is a better choice. It depends.

Personally, I’m a fan of experiential learning for students. I find that it helps them bring together different disciplines in order to solve problems. This might happen in a classroom environment, but I find it almost required in an experience.

At my school, our seniors participate in what we call externships, providing seniors the opportunity to work in labs, in senate offices, corporate offices, bakeries, and more. Depending on the students’ goals, the experiences are very different. Some want to explore careers, some just want something different to do. The students return from these experiences and share what they’ve learned in presentations to the underclassmen and faculty. I’ve been to many of these presentations and frequently, I hear the refrain of having to leverage knowledge across multiple disciplines to get work done. Sometimes this is explicit. One student, working in a cancer research lab, noted that her preconceived notion was that this was primarily about biology. Contrary to her belief, she found that, yes, knowing the biology was important, but as this was a drug test, she had to know her chemistry. To calculate the appropriate concentration levels of solutions, she needed math, and to analyze the results of the trials, she needed computer science.

While higher ed might have more opportunities for students to synthesize information in this way within their classes than we do at the secondary level, I still contend that chances are good that this combination of skills is more likely to happen in real-world situations than in a classroom setting.

Aside from the benefit of synthesizing learning, experiences also offer the opportunity to learn differently. Not everyone learns effectively by simply studying in a classroom. Some students learn by doing, by applying the “book knowledge” to something real. And there’s nothing quite like the pressure of a boss needing something done right to inspire figuring something out or a public presentation to potential future employers to make sure you really know your stuff.

And sure, the author argues, there will be plenty of time to do this after college (toward mundane ends, he says). We should, he argues, value the special time of intellectual engagement that one can only get from college classes. First, this presumes that every college student is fully engaged in the intellectual activities of the college classroom (hello? have you been in a college classroom lately?). Second, this presumes that people don’t engage in intellectual activity outside of college. It elevates the college classroom experience to a level that it just doesn’t deserve:

As educators, we should be proud that we give our students, while they are students, the opportunity to interact — through their reading and writing, their laboratory work, and our instruction — with what the best minds have discovered and developed within our various disciplines. This is something the “real world” is unlikely to offer them regularly once they leave college.

It’s as if public libraries and the Internet (even with its flaws) don’t exist as ways for people to “interact . . . with what the best minds have discovered.” It’s almost a cri de coeur, advocating for the special place higher education and professors should hold in the public conversation. I’m an advocate of higher education, but to argue that it’s the only place for intellectual activity seems to be at best misguided and at worst, blindly elitist.

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