Learning experiences beyond the classroom

Many of us are familiar with the adage “learning by doing.” What might be less well known is that the person most often credited with popularizing that phrase is the American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey. He proposed that with action, practice, and application students would come to fully understand the relevance of the subjects they examined. Since the publication of his book Democracy and Education (1916), many others have embraced this perspective. The more current version of this idea is captured by experiential learning or experiential education.

Examples of experiential education include apprenticeships, clinical placements, cooperative education, field work, practicums, service learning, and student teaching. What experiential education offers students is the chance to take what they have learned and apply it in real-world environments. These real-world experiences must incorporate reflection and examination of the learning process in order for it to be fully experiential. Linking practice and application with reflection makes students active and engaged participants in their learning process. Students move from doing (the hands-on experience) to reflecting on what happened (sharing their experiences with classmates and others), analyzing their experience (themes, issues, problems, realizations), identifying how what they learned is applicable or relevant in a more general way, and then considering how they may apply what they have learned to other situations.

At Wheaton, students have many opportunities for experiential education. Here are two examples:

  • Research/Clinical: At this fall’s Internship Showcase, a student majoring in neuroscience described her work with a science professor at Brown University who had a research project at the affiliated medical school. This professor told her she could access some data and identify a particular topic for further investigation. She said she was both “terrified and excited” by the challenge and honored that he entrusted her to use data wisely, responsibly, and ethically. She identified an interesting question concerning ACL injuries and likelihood of recovery in NFL players. Her investigation has resulted in her co-authoring articles with her clinical supervisor. And beyond that she discovered that her passion for science could be married to her interest in medicine and she is exploring MD/PhD programs.
  • Service learning: This fall, students in Professor Karen McCormack’s Sociology course “Evaluation Research” are benefitting from a partnership Professor McCormack has with the Taunton Housing Authority. The students serve as external evaluators for the A Better Life grant, which funds initiatives focused on increasing residents’ self-sufficiency. Since this is a three-year grant, these students are not only advancing their own knowledge but building upon the work of their peers. In this story profiling the partnership, one student who completed the class last year explains how her experience led her to complete an internship this summer with a nonprofit focused on support for residents in low income housing. She subsequently told me that when she graduates, she hoped to get a job that involves housing policy and reform.

These examples illustrate how invaluable experiential education is to our students. They often come to realize the core value of a liberal arts education as they refine their skills in writing, critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, and managing different opinions. They gain confidence in their ability to proactively transfer knowledge and skills to specific situations. Through experiential learning, students are better able to articulate what they have learned and the applications to their majors and other areas of study.  In addition, they hone social and cultural skills in a professional environment, and demonstrate agency in their learning.

All of these are skills that employers prefer in future workers. In “Fulfilling the American Dream: Liberal Education and the Future of Work,” a survey of 501 business executives and 500 hiring managers, 93% of executives and 94% of hiring managers were more likely to hire applicants with internship or apprenticeship experiences. A significant majority also felt the same regarding students who had completed a community project with people from diverse backgrounds, and ones who had completed a collaborative research project involving peers.

At Wheaton, we will continue our commitment to experiential education because it prepares our students to use what they have learned in ways that not only benefit communities but also position them for post-graduate success.