The Value of Experiential Learning

My first few years of teaching were very challenging. I had many students who appeared unmotivated.
They would talk while I was giving a lecture.  I strongly desired to try a new approach or teaching method.  
One new approach is experiential learning.

Experiential Learning Definition:

Experiential learning can be defined simply as any activity in which the student gains direct
knowledge of something as a participant or observer.  Experiential learning may involve project based
learning or problem based learning..

Example of Experiential Learning:

A good example of the experiential learning approach comes from social psychology courses
I have taught.  I could have just lectured about theories and research findings related to jury decision
making. Instead, I decided to have students participate as mock jurors.  They read a summary of a
court case and then deliberated to reach a verdict.  I felt that this experience would make it more
interesting and meaningful for the students. They might be more motivated to think carefully about
relevant theories and research findings. They also may like social psychology to a greater degree.

Experiential Learning and Attitudes

 Certain elements of the organizational culture of a department or school may affect attitudes
about the subject matter that is being taught. One of these elements is experiential learning.
Experiential learning may be part of a department's teaching philosophy. It may be incorporated
into the training of new teachers.
 If experiential learning fosters a more positive attitude towards a subject matter, it could also
have other important benefits. People may take additional courses, select an occupation, and have
a life-long commitment to learning!
 There is some evidence that supports the idea that experiential learning can foster a more
positive attitude towards the subject matter. Clements (1995) compared two groups of students taking
a developmental psychology course. One of the groups (labeled the experiential group) had
an additional activity involving the observation of people for 1-2 hours. Examples of these
observations include observing newborns at a hospital and parent-child interactions. This experiential
group also had class presentations of this activity. The other group (labeled the lecture group) did
not have this additional observation activity. However, both group had another observation
assignment. During the time the experiential group had the class presentations of the observations,
the lecture group had the time devoted to lecture and videotapes. All students evaluated the course
on a number of dimensions. One of these dimensions pertained to the interest in the subject, and
another pertained to how valuable the subject matter was. The average rating (mean) for increased
interest in the subject matter was higher in the experiential group than in the lecture group.
Moreover, the experiential group had a higher average rating than the lecture group with respect to
how valuable the subject matter was. These differences were statistically significant. However,
there was no statistically significant difference between the two groups with respect to final grades.
 There are some alternative explanations for the findings.  First, the participants did not appear
to be randomly assigned to the two groups. The experiential group appears to be students in the
development course after the revision (added experiential component) in the class was made.
Thus, it is unclear how these students may differ from the students who were in the lecture group
(before the revision was made). Second, it is possible that added time devoted to lecture and
videotapes in the lecture group decreased interest in the subject matter.  Although this seems
unlikely, the explanation cannot be ruled out.

Experiential Learning and Academic Performance

Hakeem (2001) compared two groups of students.  Some of the students were in a class that
had an active-learning project, and others were in a class without the active-learning project.
All the students took a particular business statistics course.   An example of one of the possible
projects for one semester is the collection of data from students pertaining to their GPA and hours
watching television each week.  There were two examinations for the study.  One of the exams
involved descriptive statistics, and the other involved confidence intervals and hypothesis tests.
There was no statistically significant difference between the two groups on the exam involving
the descriptive statistics.  In contrast, the average score on the other exam was higher for the
group with the active-learning project than for the group without the project.
 The difference in results for the two exams may reflect differences in relevance.  The active-learning
project may have been more relevant to learning the material for the exam involving hypothesis tests.
This may have been true because the project required the testing of hypotheses and writing a report
with summarizing their results.
There may be other interpretations of the findings.  We do not know how the two groups may
have differed on such factors as ability or motivation.  The idea that the two groups may not have
been equivalent with respect to ability or motivation cannot be completely ruled out.
However, the fact that there was no statistically significant difference between the two groups on
the exam involving descriptive statistics casts doubt on this explanation.   Another explanation is that
the students with the active-learning project may have spent more time studying than the students
without the active-learning project.  It is not clear from the article whether the students in the two
groups differed in the effort they made in studying the material.  It would be good to compare an
active-learning group with another group that did a project that involved less active learning.   

Conclusions

  The findings reported in this article provide some evidence to suggest that experiential learning
activities or techniques may be beneficial because they foster a more favorable attitude towards
a subject matter or improve learning.  However, not all alternative explanations for the findings
can be ruled out.  Moreover, the impact of experiential learning techniques on attitudes and
performance may depend on type of project, test, and subject matter. (1)   Nonetheless, the
experiential learning model or approach may create a win-win situation for students and teachers.  
When students seem bored or confused listening to lectures, experiential learning seems like
a great alternative.  This may be especially true when teaching statistics.  Also, because it may
take a great deal of effort for teachers to present polished and informative lectures, experiential
learning may be a more cost effective and pleasant approach for teachers.  Instead of lecturing
on some days, teachers could have students work on complex projects that involve the applying
concepts, ideas, or findings to solve an important real-world problem. The teacher could observe
and help students solve the problems.

Notes

1.  I did not intend to report all the findings on experiential learning.  I only wished to describe a few
of the findings in this article.

References

Clements, A. D. (1995). Experiential-learning activities in undergraduate developmental psychology.
Teaching of  Psychology, 22, 115-118.
Hakeem, S. A.  (2001).  Effect of experiential learning in business statistics.  
Journal of
Education for Business, 95-98
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