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Experiential Learning Report

Executive Summary

From its studies, the subcommittee concluded that experiential learning offers an excellent strategy for achieving the College's objective for undergraduate education, viz. fostering the development of a "common core of intellectual skills and traits" among our students (CALS Faculty Policy on Undergraduate Educational Gains).

Communicating, reasoning, working cooperatively with others, setting goals, pursuing lifelong learning, and integrating theory and practice could be enhanced by expanding learning opportunities beyond traditional lectures, discussions, and laboratory exercises. Students need opportunities for well-planned, thought-provoking, supervised and evaluated learning experiences in situations similar to those they will face once they leave Cornell. Such experiences help students not only to develop critical intellectual skills and traits, but also to gain self-confidence, evaluate their progress, and make personal and professional choices.

The committee adopted a definition of experiential education that contrasts it with more traditional forms of teaching and learning. Experiential learning occurs when students are placed in a situation where they think and interact, learn in and from a real-world environment. While traditional teaching and learning is typically teacher-directed, content-driven, text-oriented and classroom-based, experiential learning involves active participation of the student in planning, development and execution of learning activities, is shaped by the problems and pressures arising from the real-world situation and occurs most effectively outside the classroom. For experiential learning to occur within the classroom, the instructor must use strategies that simulate or incorporate real-world situations.

Achieving the greatest benefit from this strategy requires both carefully crafted learning opportunities/situations and a well-designed learning process. To promote development of credit-bearing experiential learning opportunities of the highest quality and to assist interested faculty, the committee identified the criteria and processes characteristic of optimal experiential learning options. Ten criteria were identified; the first five of which were regarded as necessary for any successful experiential learning option.

  • The experience should be purposeful, planned in advance with explicit goals and intended outcomes.
  • The experiences should provide opportunities for reflection.
  • The experience should be supervised, with on-going faculty involvement in all phases.
  • The student's work should be evaluated, with grades based on learning, and the number of credit hours predetermined.
  • Learning should, as much as possible, occur in or simulate a "real-world" context.

Options could be enhanced or further enriched by meeting one or more additional criteria.

  • The experience should present a continual challenge to the student
  • The experience should incorporate active learning, with the student an active participant in all stages of the experience from planning to evaluation.
  • The experience should be enriched, with access to materials, resources and support systems.
  • There should be adequate opportunity to learn, with adequate time and quality of opportunities.
  • The learning experience should involve the application of concepts/knowledge learned in the student's regular course work.

These characteristics are offered, not as prescripts, but as guidance for faculty committed to improving teaching and learning in the College. Effective and optimal experiential learning involves a multi-step, interactive process for the student, faculty member, and others participating. A more detailed description of this process is outlined in the Appendix of this report.

Examination of current courses and programs indicated that experiential learning opportunities already exist in a variety of courses and departments in the College, at three different levels: Level 1 (On Campus- Part of a Class), Level 2 (On Campus- Relatively Independent), and Level 3 (Off Campus- More Independent). Annotated course descriptions in this report exemplify these offerings. These courses and the faculty involved in them could serve as guides and mentors for faculty interested in this approach.

Critical issues for faculty, for students and for the College outlined in this report must be addressed in order to most fully and effectively utilize this strategy. Various committees, administrative entities and others, including CSTL, could play an important role in addressing these issues.

Finally, the committee makes four recommendations- to current faculty involved in experiential learning, to faculty interested in developing experiential learning options, and to the organizational and administrative entities of the College- that would foster the development of experiential learning as a strategy for enhancing undergraduate education.

  • Faculty currently offering experiential learning options are encouraged to reevaluate and, if necessary, to modify their programs to meet as many of the ten criteria as possible.
  • Others interested in this approach are encouraged to experiment, beginning small and letting success build on success.
  • The organizational and administrative entities of the College are encouraged to begin now to address the issues raised by this subcommittee.
  • These same groups are encouraged to reevaluate and reorder the College's priorities in order to make experiential learning a high priority.