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Developing in experiential education

Dealing with a common challenge: Crafting reflection activities

Educators often inquire about reflection activities and how to craft them into their course or program.

The research around reflection in experiential education suggests that reflection should be continuous, contextualized, and challenging. In other words, it is best when integrated throughout the experience, for example before, during, and after the experience so students have multiple opportunities to reflect.

Reflection activities need to be created with guided questions or statements that are directly connected with the program or course topic and the experience that students are having. So, rather than ask students to “explain what you did at your internship,” a better guided prompt would be: “describe your internship responsibilities and tasks and how this relates to the civic professionalism article we read in class. What aspects of your pre-professional experience connect to this framework of civic professionalism?”

Reflection prompts also need to challenge learners to move from their current levels of knowledge and experience to new levels through this meaning-making activity. We want students to be able to describe their experience, analyze it, and critically reflect on the learning. Those three levels may guide your reflection activities: describe, analyze, and critically reflect.

Using ePortfolios to curate learning experiences and reflection

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As an experiential education educator for over 20 years, I have been utilising a learning activity that emphasises critical reflection on experiences. That activity is an eportfolio or a learning portfolio. The research around eportfolios tells us that this digital collection of a student’s work over time is actually making learning visible. It is a fantastic way for a learner to demonstrate their learning through critical reflections and multimedia artifacts in a digital format.

So to begin, an educator will need to choose the platform for the learning portfolio. It may be an open source or it may be a purchased platform for the institution. Then the focus of the reflection activities and assignments need to be built within the course. And once those are built within the course, how they’re going to be assessed and how learners will be communicating them in multimedia formats will need to be determined.

Let me give you the example of this activity that I’ve built within many of my courses. In an experiential learning course, I often will utilise the eportfolio to show the work that students have done over time and building multiple reflections throughout the experience before, during, and after the experience that students are having. When students are building an electronic portfolio or a learning portfolio, they’re building web pages as part of this digital collection. And each webpage is an opportunity for students to reflect and to include different artifacts. And by artifacts, we mean actual forms of learning that are represented in multimedia formats or written papers and other forms of reflection.

So for example, in the activity that I’m sharing, each webpage that we have students do will include directions for them to reflect and share about their experience. The first webpage is the About Me page. And in this page, students are able to describe who they are and what is important to them.

The second web page is the Organisation Page. And that is where students are able to explore the external organisation where they may be doing their service learning or community-based learning experience or they may be interning or doing their work-integrated learning experience, perhaps where they may be studying abroad or doing research. As they explore this organisation, they’re able to analyse their organisation and learn more about it.

Next, students are able, in the next portion of their portfolio, to demonstrate their reflections in a variety of different ways. And in those reflections, to share what they’re learning and perhaps projects that they’re working on on-site. The next page, then, is an action plan. And students are able to share what they’re going to do beyond the experience and in planning for the future.

And the final page is the summative reflection, that final reflection where students are able to connect everything together to look back at what they learned at the beginning of the experience, as well as the projects they have completed and what has led them to the end of the experience. This entire activity allows learners to see their learning over time and to reflect at multiple points and it also allows them to demonstrate what they have done and what it means to them.

A tool worth considering when applying experiential education in your context is an ePortfolio. An ePortfolio is a digital collection of a student’s work overtime that makes learning visible over time.

In this video, Patrick Green explains how you can get started with ePortfolios, what you need to consider and how they can be structured to maximise learning.

Using the DIAL framework

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So to take experiential education to the next level, we need to look at how we actually begin to design the experiences and the learning. It’s really common for experiential education educators to begin with the experience, and we actually want to start with the learning. If we remix some of the experiential learning theories and frameworks that exist, we will then be able to design, in a more appropriate way for the learning of our students.

For example, my colleague, Dr. Bill Heinrich and I recently have published an article on the DIAL framework. DIAL is an acronym for Design, Instruction, Assessment and Learning. The focus of this framework is allowing educators to design for the learning rather than the experience. In other words, the point of entry for this is not the experience in and of itself. The point of entry is actually the design and planning for the learning. That includes the experience, the reflection, assessment, and always ends with significant learning for our students.

So first let’s break apart the DIAL framework. The design element is really important in starting with backward design of what you hope students learn, how you’ll assess that learning and how you’ll develop rich learning activities and experiences to accomplish that learning. Next is the instruction. What teaching and learning style approaches and activities will you build into your program or course in order to accomplish the type of learning that you want your students to have?

Next is assessment. How will you build in rich assessment activities, including reflection activities that serve both as learning and assessment approaches to the type of learning you want students to have? And finally, what are the dimensions of learning, or the different types of learning, you want students to have and how will you allow them to express or articulate that learning within your course and program? How can we approach experiential learning differently in order to increase and deepen the learning and allow our students to be self-directed authors of their own education and their own learning? The DIAL framework is one way to deepen experiential education and allows students to achieve that type of learning.

If you’re confident in your use of experiential education, you may want to think about how you can take your practice to the next level. One of the ways of doing this is to make use of the DIAL framework.

The DIAL framework is an integrated approach to designing learning experiences that challenges us to think deeper about the learning environment and how to connect the experience to rich reflection activities.

DIAL stands for:

  • Design
  • Instruction
  • Assessment
  • Learning

The DIAL framework recognises that, while we often start with the activity and the experience that will achieve the learning, we should start by thinking deeply about the learning and then build the experience.

DIAL builds on the work of Dewey, Kolb, and many others, and was developed by Patrick Green and Bill Heinrich.

Heinrich W.F. and Green P.M. (2020). Remixing Approaches to Experiential Learning, Design, and Assessment. Journal of Experiential Education. 2020;43(2):205-223.


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