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.