by Hillary Hart, Distinguished Sr. Lecturer, Director, Faculty Innovation Center, UT Austin
Undergraduate education at the University of Texas at Austin includes a wide and growing array of immersive, engaging learning experiences led by faculty. The UT Faculty Innovation Center (FIC) suggests that providing experiential learning opportunities means creating assignments and activities based on real-life situations or primary research that engage students in reflective, data-driven problem-solving with no predetermined right answers. This learning occurs when undergraduates work closely with UT Austin faculty in research labs, studios, and world-class collections to discover knowledge and create new insights. For instance, some programs use the campus as a living laboratory for students to collect data that they then analyze and share. Students also have an increasing number of opportunities to apply what they are learning in internships and service in the Greater Austin community, across the state and the nation, and around the world.
Here is one example of a campus-based learning opportunity.
Lydia Steinman, Nutritional Sciences, discovered that many of her students were unaware of the fundamentals of healthy cooking and eating. To help remedy the problem, she asked her students to create 2 – 3 minute instructional videos that use cooking demonstrations as a platform to teach the principles of good nutrition. These videos were assembled into an online resource called Cook ‘em.
The availability, however, of these high-impact learning experiences varies dramatically across UT Austin’s academic programs. Students may also face significant challenges in incorporating experiential learning into their degree plans because of conflicting course requirements or restrictions on the credit that may be awarded for experiential learning. Indeed many faculty and administrators are unsure of exactly what Experiential Learning is.
And, as many studies have shown, assessment of what is termed “high-impact” learning experiences has depended mainly on student self-reporting (see an example of such a study in Coker et al, 2017). Creating “an instrument able to capture what is actually learned is easier said than done,” as Goshen and Washbush (2004) conclude. There is general agreement on the value of experiential learning done with some rigor, but we have a ways to go in determining specific benefit to students of various types of EL.
To study and promote these unique learning experiences, a Working Group of faculty, commissioned by the Provost, Maurie McInnis, has been looking at EL opportunities for UT students on and off campus The goal is to find these transformative learning experiences (as far as we can measure them currently) and ensure they are integrated into degree programs. The group is also exploring how to support faculty and academic units in developing, scaling, and assessing experiential learning. Partnering with the Faculty Innovation Center, the group is constructing a definition of experiential learning that focuses on several essential “hallmarks,” rather than on typologies (internships, independent research, service learning, etc.):
- The instructor prepares students for the experience, using relevant scholarship, concepts, frameworks.
- Students have some agency in defining and pursuing their own questions/activities (this may not always be true in internships).
- Students reflect on the experience and on why they did what they did.
- Students produce or contribute to something with impact beyond the classroom or course. OR Students engage with an audience beyond the course instructor.
And one more important hallmark:
Failure is possible and can be part of the learning process.
Even when the instructor is not responsible for what the student does during the bulk of the experience (as in an off-campus internship), the preparation and reflection hallmarks (1 and 3) can be accomplished and are probably the most important for student learning.
As chair of the Working Group, I look forward to exploring this topic with BVA colleagues and to communicating the results of our efforts to understand, encourage, and scale experiential learning in research universities.
A few References:
Academic Affairs Forum, 2017. “Integrating academic and career development: Strategies to scale experiential learning and reflection across the curriculum,” Educational Advisory Board, 2017
Coker, J.S.; Heiser, E.; Taylor, L.; and Book, C, 2017. “Impacts of experiential learning depth and breadth on student outcomes,” Journal of Experiential Education, Vol 40 (1) 5-23.
Gosen, J. and Washbush, J., 2004. “A review of scholarship on assessing experiential learning effectiveness,” Simulation and Gaming, Vol. 35, No. 2, June 2004, 270-293.