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Experiential Learning Report

Preface

As part of a communication course, five students develop and design a local advertising campaign for the March of Dimes; two sophomores and a junior in natural resources work cooperatively with a senior teaching assistant to design, conduct and publish field research in wildlife ecology; and a CALS student, during the summer of her sophomore year, teaches an inner-city summer program on urban environmental issues and policies, a program she developed and will evaluate as part of an education course.

Could these seemingly disparate situations have anything in common? This subcommittee would answer a resounding "Yes." All of these students are involved in experiential learning.

Background/Information

During the last several years, strategic planning efforts at Cornell have affirmed both the College's and the University's commitment to undergraduate education, and, more specifically, to the goal of "educating students to become life-long learners, productive citizens and leaders in society." At the university level, efforts were directed toward devising strategies to achieve this goal. One outcome was delineation of a "common core of intellectual skills and traits" associated with success in these roles. In spring 1995, the College's Policy Committee was asked to review this objective. As a result both the Policy Committee and the College's faculty endorsed a policy on undergraduate education which included development of a "common core of intellectual skills and traits." (See Appendix for CALS Policy on Undergraduate Educational Gains)

What mechanisms or strategies could be used to achieve this objective? Experiential learning was suggested as one approach with great potential. Under the auspices of the Committee on the Support of Teaching and Learning, the Experiential Learning Subcommittee undertook an evaluation of this option.

One must learn by doing the thing, for though you think you know it - you have no certainty until you try. (Sophocles)

As this aphorism suggests our most profound learning experiences are those in which we've taken an active role in the learning process. If students are to truly understand what we teach them, they need to put concepts to work, to use information to solve real problems, and to apply principles in the pursuit of accomplishing personal and professional goals. As a college, we recognize this fact by engaging students in a wide variety of experiences inside and outside the classroom.

How effective are these learning experiences both for understanding and for intellectual and personal development? By definition, all of the intellectual skills and traits outlined in the "common core" go beyond the acquisition of information, concepts, and principles. As intellectual skills, they require students to use the content learned in courses to accomplish actual tasks. Communicating, reasoning, working cooperatively with others, setting goals, pursuing lifelong learning, and integrating theory and practice all depend on learning opportunities beyond traditional lectures, discussions and laboratory exercises. Students need opportunities for well-planned, thought-provoking, supervised and evaluated experiences in situations that are as close as possible to those that they might face once they leave Cornell. Such learning experiences help students not only to develop these intellectual skills and traits, but also to make personal and professional (career) choices, evaluate their own progress, and gain self-confidence.

Whenever someone learns from an experience, that person might be said to be involved in experiential learning. While all forms of instruction may give students some experience and therefore be considered 'experiential,' 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. Traditional teaching and learning is typically teacher-directed, content-driven, text-oriented and classroom-based. Experiential learning, on the other hand, involves active participation of the student in the 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.

Optimizing Experiential Learning

A. Guidelines and Criteria

Not all experiential learning is equally educative. In fact, a particular learning opportunity may not be educative at all. Even worse, it may be miseducative, teaching bad habits or false information. In order to promote high-quality experiential learning, the committee proposes ten criteria that optimal or ideal experiential learning opportunities should meet.

We view the first five of these as necessary (essential) criteria, critical to any successful experiential learning option for credit. Assistance in identifying and obtaining not for credit experiential learning opportunities is available through the college's Career Development Office.

  • The experience should be purposeful. If planned in advance with explicit goals and intended learning outcomes, the experience is more likely to be productive. Of course, expected outcomes may evolve as the situation develops. However, goals specified in advance help ensure that the student will not drift and will make a conscious effort to shape the experience in productive ways. This aspect of experiential learning is usually accomplished by deliberate planning sessions and assessments of what the student wants to learn from the experience, as well as by taking course requirements into consideration.
  • The experience should provide opportunities for reflection. Journaling and systematic recording of the experience help the student to reflect on feelings and attitudes about the learning experience, understandings and skills emerging from the experience, and implications for subsequent experiences.
  • The experience should be supervised, with on-going faculty involvement in all phases of the experiential learning process.
  • The student's work should be evaluated. Grades, determined by the faculty member supervising the experience, should be based on what the student learns not on how many hours the student works. Methods of evaluation could include papers, seminar presentations, and for off-campus experiential learning, site visits, on-site supervision, as well as consultations with students and site supervisors. The number of credit hours should be predetermined.
  • The learning should, as nearly as possible, occur in or simulate a "real-world" context. "Real-world" contexts differ from traditional classroom settings (e.g., lectures, discussion sections, problem sets, etc.) in several ways. Settings are "real-world" to the extent that a) they are less controlled, b) issues and problems that arise are complex, lacking a neat formulation or precise definition; and c) working with others is required. True experiential learning options require at least a minimal level of fulfillment of this criterion.

Meeting one or more of the following additional criteria could further enhance or enrich an experiential learning option.

  • The experience should present a continual challenge to the student. It should build on the student's current knowledge and past experience and take the student beyond that level. This aspect can be accomplished during the initial planning sessions, when the faculty member determines the student's background in relation to the potential experiential learning opportunity.
  • The experience should incorporate active learning. The student should not be an on-looker or mere observer of either the planning process or the experience itself. The student should be expected to take an active role in formulating the plan, in carrying it out, in modifying it as needed, and in evaluating it.
  • The experience should be enriched. Provisions for access to materials, other people, resources and support systems (e.g., computer, phone) should be made.
  • There should be adequate opportunity to learn. Adequate time and quality of opportunities for the students to achieve their goals should be ensured.
  • The learning experience should involve the application of concepts/knowledge learned in the students' regular course work and offer sufficient breadth to allow generalization beyond the environment of the learning experience.

In many instances, development of ideal or optimal experiential learning opportunities may be difficult. Still, well-designed options, that, at a minimum, satisfy the five necessary criteria, can significantly enhance student learning and provide students the background and knowledge needed to more fully benefit from subsequent, more intensive and independent experiential learning situations. Experiential learning effectively places students in a new context for learning, and prepares them to learn in and from the world outside the university.

B. The Process

Effective and optimum experiential learning involves a multi-step, interactive process for the student, faculty member and others participating. Among the recommended steps in this process are planning, experiencing or doing, sharing, processing, generalizing, applying and feedback for further planning. A more detailed description of this process is outlined in "The Experiential Learning Cycle" in the Appendix.

Experiential learning by definition is less-controlled than traditional learning. As a consequence, for many students even well-designed experiential learning is unfamiliar and unsettling. While the challenges faced by students in these more real-world settings provide important opportunities for student growth and development, more pitfalls also exist. These include unrealistic or limited expectations, logistical problems, inadequate foresight and planning, inadequate delineation of the rights and responsibilities of students and/or cooperating organizations or businesses, and excessive frustration. To avoid these pitfalls and to ensure successful learning experiences, students need adequate preparation, continual guidance and support, and clear mechanisms for accountability.

Selected Examples of Experiential Learning Programs in CALS

A number of courses and programs in the college provide opportunities for experiential learning. The following annotated descriptions of selected experiential learning programs in CALS exemplify the possibilities and potential benefits for such programs. (This listing represents a sampling of relevant CALS courses, and should not be interpreted as including all of the relevant experiential learning opportunities in the college.)

We have grouped these examples into three categories or levels: Level I - On Campus, Part of Class; Level II - On Campus, Relatively Independent: and Level III - Off Campus, More Independent.

I. On Campus- Part of a Class

The following example meets all five necessary criteria, and demonstrates how experiential learning can be incorporated into an introductory course.

  • FOOD 102 - Contemporary Perspectives in Food Science. The goal of this course is to familiarize students, who are beginning their studies in the field of Food Science or related fields, with the food industry and its relationship to food science and technology. Students are given an opportunity to meet and interact with professionals from the industrial world. The course has two major, interconnected components: in-class presentations and discussions by professionals from industry or by Cornell professionals with experience in industry, and tours of related food industry sites. The classroom and site tour portions of the course are arranged sequentially. In-class presentations included descriptions of the industry, the presenter's company, aspects of food science in the industry, basic steps in the industrial process students will see on the tour, and significant issues and problems in the industry. Industry tours spotlight the ways food science impacts the business. After each segment (in-class presentation and tour) student questions are sought and then answered during the next class. Food industries included in the course are a large and a small food research center, a snack food manufacturer, a dairy plant, a large scale brewer and a poultry processor.

The following example, a more resource intensive course supported by both significant human and financial resources, meets all ten criteria for an optimal experiential learning opportunity.

  • ARME 425 - Small Business Counseling. Students in this course learn to apply business principles to the management of existing businesses, confront the problems facing small personal enterprises, and witness the effects of firm-level decision-making. Students, in teams of two, work with local businesses. Businesses are selected with care and student teams are matched in a systematic way. Each team has clear goals and a faculty mentor. Students meet with business owners every week, then follow up with memos and meetings with the team mentor. The students are challenged and often frustrated as they strive to solve actual business problems. These challenges have proved to be productive, forcing students to integrate knowledge gained from management, marketing, and analytic skill courses, and to exercise both their judgment and best creative energies to find practical solutions.
     

Evaluation is clearly and explicitly outlined from the beginning of the course. Journals of personal reflections are kept, with a minimum of one entry per week, and serve to facilitate communication with faculty mentors. Mentors meet with student teams once each week to evaluate their progress and to help guide research efforts. Learning is spread over the fourteen weeks of the course. Every week students must complete another part of the project. Each team is required to keep a detailed notebook, documenting all meetings, centralizing all research materials, and containing drafts of materials written by the team. Outside experts provide substantial enrichment to the course. For example, an expert on surveys presented a workshop and then helped students with individual projects. Another speaker on the subject of strategic planning later corresponded with students by e-mail.

Additional Useful & Related Models

AN SC 401 - Dairy Production Seminar; AN SC 402 - Animal Science Seminar; COMM 376 - Communication Planning & Strategy; COMM 411 - Leadership from A Communication Perspective; ED 240 - Art of Teaching; LA 302 - Site Design; SCAS 190 - Sustainable Agriculture

II. On Campus- Relatively Independent

  • AN SC 456 - Dairy Management Fellowship. All students who have a sincere interest in dairy production and careers in related industries are eligible. The program integrates basic concepts in animal husbandry, crop production, and business management with real-life situations, letting students examine how dairy management decisions can lead to profitable dairying. The program challenges students to realize that in the ever-changing dairy industry their education will continue far beyond their Cornell experience.

    Through numerous field trips, students in the Dairy Fellows Program visit, analyze, and evaluate progressive dairy farms and agriservice operations on site and attend a variety of university and industry-sponsored conferences. They interact with leading industry representatives, and with teaching, research, and extension personnel in real decision-making situations. Fellows learn how to integrate and apply business and dairy herd management principles to actual situations. The field trips and numerous laboratories teach hands-on skills that are practical in the field of dairying. Throughout these activities, the Dairy Fellows Program challenges students to focus on personal and career development and achieving personal and career objectives. It offers students the opportunity to challenge and directly apply concepts learned in class and work experiences to the dairy industry. (See Appendix for additional information.)

Additional Useful & Related Models

Undergraduate Research Courses in Various Departments; ABEN 496 - Senior Design Project; ARME 429 - Small Business Advisory Group; ARME 403 - Farm Management Study Trip; Biometry 495 - Statistical Consulting; COMM 376 - CPS II; Comm 405 - Comm. Leadership Challenge; COMM 439 - Interactive Multimedia Design; Entm 264 - Practical Beekeeping; Entm 456 - Stream Ecology; Freehand Drawing 211 - Drawing; Freehand Drawing 316 - Advanced Drawing; Freehand Drawing 417 - Scientific Illustration.

III. Off Campus- More Independent

  • ED 420 - Internships in Cornell Cooperative Extension. Students choose from a published list of potential internship projects and project sites and arrange for their summer employment in ongoing county or regional extension programs involving everything from farming to human nutrition to education to urban planning and architecture. Related coursework and planning with CALS faculty, and identification of specific internship objectives for each student precede the summer work experience. On-site supervisors evaluate and partially determine students' grades for the internship. Students develop a written summary of their internship experiences, and formally synthesize and present their experience to others during a seminar course in the subsequent Fall semester. During the summer students may receive pay at prevailing rates or may participate in the internship for credit only. Students receive academic credit during the Fall. ED 420 illustrates the opportunities for mutually beneficial linkages of on-campus academic programs with off-campus Cornell programs in communities throughout the state. (See Appendix for additional information)
  • ABEN 672-Agricultural Drainage. With advice and suggestions from instructors, the class selects a research or agricultural systems project that will require them to analyze various field sites, determine their topographic, edaphic and hydrological characteristics and problems, and design one or several alternative soil drainage systems for each. For example, one recent class surveyed an old orchard where surface and subsurface drainage required substantial improvement. They were provided specifications for a proposed research project at the site that required sampling of runoff and leachate from replicated locations in the orchard. Subgroups of students independently developed competing bid-plans for hydrological drainage and sampling systems, including installation blueprints with estimates of materials and costs. One of their plans was subsequently selected and actually installed at the site. This situation provided a realistic scenario for students to apply the conceptual and technical course curriculum, and experience the actual challenges of site analysis, system design, and construction bidding. Coincidentally, the researchers gained valuable technical assistance with their project-amply compensating the time they spent advising or consulting with these students.

Additional Useful & Related Models

Programs: Shoals Marine Laboratory (25 courses); Sea Semester (17 credits); Cornell in Washington (ALS 500, 12-16 credits); Cornell in Albany (ALS 400 for up to 6 credits with additional classroom component); and Human Ecology Urban Semester (12-15 credits).
Courses: ARME 449 - Global Marketing Strategy (2 day NYC trip); COMM 496 (Formal internships; See Appendix for additional information); ED 403 and 432 - Teaching; INTAG 402 & 602 - Tropical Agricultural Course and Field Trip (5 credits); and LA 412 - Professional Practice.

Questions, Issues and Policy Recommendations

Adopting experiential learning as a strategy for enhancing undergraduate education in CALS raises issues and questions at the faculty, student, and college levels. We have sought to identify major issues and questions and to suggest, wherever possible, an individual or group who could address and positively impact that issue.

A. Faculty Issues

Among the important faculty issues are time, evaluation and motivation.

  • Faculty time: Experiential learning can be an intense, time-consuming venture. This is especially true if the experience includes extensive pre-planning and adequate reflection upon completion. Also, if experiential learning opportunities are to be available for all undergraduates, then the faculty time commitment could become exorbitant. Obviously, time currently dedicated to other ventures will have to be reduced, if experiential learning is to receive priority. [Who? Department Chairs and Associate Dean for Academic Programs]
  • Faculty motivation: A critical question to be addressed is how to motivate faculty to adopt experiential learning. Programs for faculty improvement in teaching (such as Thornfield) can be used to create greater faculty awareness and interest. Highlighting and publicizing existing examples of good experiential learning programs can also increase faculty enthusiasm. However, efforts to establish a credible reward system for recognizing innovative development of new experiential opportunities are perhaps the most critical issue to address. [Who? CSTL, the College's Faculty Enhancement Program; How? Target specific individuals for inclusion in such events as the Thornfield Workshop]
  • Faculty evaluation: Evaluation of faculty performance, commitment, and contribution to student development through experiential learning poses problems. Whereas faculty time commitment to conventional courses can be approximated based on variables such as credit hours, class size, and class type (lecture, lab, discussion, etc.), individualized instructional experiences present a more difficult target for assessment. For example, how are faculty efforts as mentors for honors projects assessed? The increases in diversity of projects and programs that would define the scope of experiential learning activities add to the complexity of this issue. [Who? Evaluation Subcommittee of CSTL]

B. Student Issues

Student issues include activity versus learning, opportunity, and off-campus evaluation and reporting.

  • Activity versus learning: Students (and faculty) must be made aware of the difference between an activity and a learning experience. A perception held by many faculty is that experiential learning is nothing more than credit for work. The concept of a fully planned experience, including rigorous reflection on the activities, needs to be promoted. Student awareness of this expectation is also important. [Who? Teaching faculty involved in experiential education]
  • Opportunity: If experiential learning is to become part of the fabric of our undergraduate teaching philosophy, then all students must have the opportunity to participate. Many programs, such as honors or undergraduate research or teaching for credit, require minimum standards of academic achievement. Opportunities for students at all academic levels must exist. The issue of accommodating large numbers of students becomes even more important in an environment of shrinking financial and faculty resources.[Who? Director of Academic Programs, Dean of the College, University President]
  • Off-campus evaluation and reporting: Critical to the success of any experiential learning program is that all participants feel that the exercise was educational, worthy of the credit received, and transcended the scope of possibilities offered in normal classroom environments. Therefore, a system to evaluate the quality of the experience needs to be established along with guidelines to assess student performance. Often nonacademic personnel will be involved in the experience, and guidelines for effective communication between the university's representative and an off-campus supervisor must be established. [Who? Curriculum Committee]

C. College Issues

College issues include evaluation of experiential learning, priorities given to experiential learning, and interaction of learning experiences with functions of research and outreach programs.

  • Evaluation of experiential learning: Evaluation of learning experiences is a critical issue for the college. Analogous to evaluations of proposed new courses, experiential learning opportunities must meet certain criteria for control of quality and duplication. Assessment of the amount of credit merited by the experience also requires guidelines. The curriculum committee should be involved in determination of merit for formal programs that are routinely available and that are advertised in the course catalogue. The curriculum committee should also establish criteria for the more informal opportunities that nonetheless require guidelines. [Who? Curriculum Committee]
  • Priorities for experiential learning: The college needs to demonstrate a desire to increase student exposure to experiential learning. A strong commitment to support activities in this area will be necessary to motivate faculty to more fully participate. This commitment must come from various sources, including the Dean of CALS. [Who? Dean of the College, Director of Academic Programs, Department Chairs]
  • Extension and Research: Teaching is one of three functions of CALS. Opportunities for experiential learning, however, cross over into the other two functions--research and extension. The college already has venues for students to experience research through undergraduate research courses and through honors programs. Extension, by its very nature, could provide excellent opportunities for experiential learning, and the college's academic and extension programs should be encouraged to explore this area. [Who? Directors of CCE and Academic Programs, Department Chairs and Department Extension Leaders]

Recommendations

To foster the development of experiential learning as a strategy for enhancing undergraduate education, the subcommittee would make the following recommendations/suggestions.

  • Those currently offering experiential learning options are encouraged to reevaluate and, if necessary, to modify their programs in order to meet as many of the ten criteria as possible. High priority should be given to meeting the five necessary criteria; further improvements will accrue as additional criteria are met.
  • Others interested in this approach are encouraged to experiment on a small scale, initially developing an experiential learning activity or component for their course or program that fulfills the five necessary criteria. We suggest beginning small, and letting success build on success.
  • Attention should be given at multiple levels, the program, the department, the college, to addressing issues raised in this report. In particular, we would recommend that efforts be directed first toward those faculty and college issues that could have an immediate positive impact on the development and quality of experiential learning opportunities (ex., faculty motivation/development, faculty evaluation, evaluation of experiential learning).
  • For experiential learning to become a high priority in the college, a reorientation of the college’s priorities is needed. Additional investments of both human and financial resources will be required in order to fully reap the educational benefits of this approach.