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Experiential education in practice

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  • Lark Hovey: I got started in experiential education because I started working at RICA (Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture). I had the opportunity to apply to be a lecturer at RICA. And one of the first faculty development opportunities that we had, was to be part of the NSEE, Experiential Education Academy. And from there, we’ve been able to integrate the 8 Principles of experiential education at RICA, and it’s been a growth experience ever since.
  • Cynthia P. Stewart: I graduated with my master’s degree in 2007, and I received a position at an off-campus program through Trinity Christian College, in Palos Heights, Illinois where they had an off-campus program called, Chicago Semester. There, I was one of the faculty members where I taught inter-religious courses, and I also oversaw the academic internships for the students who moved to Chicago for one semester. While I was there, I was introduced to the National Society of Experiential Education. And that’s where I went to my first conference meeting. And there, I learned about the Experiential Education Academy. And I learned that as I would take courses, each time that I went to a conference, that I would be able to graduate and get a certificate. So that was the first time that I, within higher education, learned about Experiential Learning within higher education.

Experiential education is a great way to create meaningful, authentic, and impactful learning experiences with outcomes that students will absorb, remember, and apply for years to come.

Introducing experiential education into your course or program can be a little daunting at first, but it can be done.

In this section, Cynthia Stewart and Lark Hovey take you through their experience of applying this approach and pick a few of the good practice principles to suggest how they can be applied in your context.

Applying the principles of good practice

In the following videos, Cynthia and Lark describe their approaches to implementing some of the principles of good practice in the NSEE Framework.

Applying the principles of good practice


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Intention is an important part of experiential education at RICA and one of the ways that we set our intention for experiential education is through the orientation program. In the orientation program, we have 10 days to work with new students and during that time we have several sessions introducing them to what is experiential education. Our students often come from backgrounds of more traditional learning in the classroom where they often don’t have a lot of experience even having opportunities for critical thinking and being creative in the classroom, let alone hands-on learning.
So we want them to start at RICA with an understanding of why we have this philosophy of learning and setting our intentions starts at orientation when we introduce them to experiential education and make sure that everyone is on board with the concept so that the learning can be successful.

Orientation and Training

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One of the key things for the internship site is that they have to orientate students. A lot of students have not been in a professional setting before. So it’s really good for internship sites, within the first two weeks that a student starts, that’s one of the requirements that we ask site supervisors, is to orientate the students, give them a training about your organization. What is your onboarding?
So treat them as if they are a new employee, coming to work. So as an intern, it’s very good for them to learn, what is the work, the work hours that they would need in terms of meetings that they would have to go to. What is the dress code? Learning about the mission of the organization, orientating them, you know, to what it means to be in a professional setting.
Orientating them to, what are the roles of the supervisor with the intern, the roles of working with other co-workers, just the general orientation training of students. One of the things that I also do in my course is I have students, in the very beginning do, what’s called an Organizational Analysis.
That’s a way for the student to sit down with the site supervisor and learn, what’s the mission of this organization? What’s the values of this organization? What’s the location of this organization? What’s the population for whom this organization is serving? So then, once they have learned that as an intern, when it’s time for them to go into the real world, they now can ask those questions when they are looking for their career, the place where they will work as a career.


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I teach a course here at Loyola University Chicago, called Organizational Change and Community Leadership. Within that course, one of the first things at the beginning of the semester is that we allow students to come up with their own learning objectives and their own goals. Within that course, students are in an academic internship as well as they are taking the course. So a faculty member and the supervisor are the liaisons to help the students to come up with those learning objectives in those goals.
So we’re like the coach to help them to figure out the learning objectives. So for example, to students within a professional setting would like to to increase their time management skills. So they’re authentically saying, I had to learn what it means to manage my time, I’ve been in classes all three years of college, but now I need to manage my time in regards to managing my internship as well as my coursework and any other extracurricular activities. So that allows the authenticity of the students to come out.


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Reflection is an important part of the learning process at RICA. We like to have continuous reflection, including reflecting before, during, and after an experience. Before we want to activate our prior knowledge. Some of our students at RICA, which is an agricultural institution, have actually worked in the field. Some students have lived in an urban environment and have never worked in the field. By accessing our prior knowledge we can then build on that knowledge with a new experience.
So, continuous reflection is extremely important before, during, and after. Through this process, before, during and after, we can also activate contextualized reflection, connecting reflection, and challenging reflection. One of the challenges that our students face is that there is a perception that agriculture is for old people and that it is not cool. So, we like to incorporate some of these challenging questions into the curriculum so that students as they have an experience can also reflect on how does this connect to agriculture socially, economically, and, and not just connecting it to the course that they’re in, but also the other courses that they’re taking regarding business, communications, and the like. So, reflecting on that experience deepens the learning and allows them to then apply that experience in new ways and also to replicate that experience better than before.
So here at Loyola University reflection is very key. It’s key within what we call the engaged learning curriculum. Students throughout the semester are asked to reflect on their experience. So, while they’re taking an academic internship or even a service learning course, it’s good for them to be able to incorporate what they have learned through readings, through lectures, through their internship experience, and even just their personal experience, that it’s time for them to step back just a little bit and to actually reflect on their experience.
So, we give them some questions, just some lean-end questions, and it allows the students to reflect. So, one of the questions is how did you connect your in class and out of class engaged learning experience? Another question that we ask them is how did your engaged learning experience help you connect to the university’s mission? So one of the missions here at Loyola is we are a diverse community. We’re seeking God in all things and working to expand knowledge in the service of humanity through learning, through justice, and through faith. And we ask all students enrolled in an engaged learning class to complete a reflection on that statement of our mission.
And also another question that we ask students to reflect on is how did the engaged learning experience in this course affect your personal, your intellectual, your civic, and/or your professional development? So that’s very key for students to be able to reflect. In my course, what I do is I have students reflect every other week. So they, they have guided questions and I’ve heard from students at the end of the semester that they thought that the reflections was busy work at first, but towards the end of the semester, they valued that reflection ’cause it caused them to stop, and to reflect, and to think, which a lot of times they don’t have that in courses because it’s a continuous lecture, you know, do this paper, but they don’t get that time just to stop and to think about what they’re experiencing.

Monitoring and Continuous Improvement

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At RICA, monitoring and continuous improvement are important to our curriculum. We have a few mechanisms in order to monitor and continuously evaluate, one of which is the Curriculum Moderation Committee. The Curriculum Moderation Committee reviews courses before they are taught.
This can include a course that has never been taught before, or a course that has been taught before and is incorporating improvements based on feedback and experience. We get feedback not only from our own experience, but also we have student course evaluations that elicit information from the student’s experience to know what was working and what was not working so that we can make the experiential education curriculum better every year.


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So one of the things that’s important is right in the middle of the semester, we do what’s called a midpoint evaluation. So I give the site supervisor a form where they would fill out that form, and that form is pretty much giving students on a sliding scale, like from one to five, how the student is doing with communication, with creativity, with feedback, with completing assignments.

Also, what improvements could the students make? What are they doing well in, and what are your suggestions for the second half of the semester? So it’s very good to do those midpoint evaluations. And I always encourage the faculty member as well as the student and the site supervisor to all be in that meeting.

One of the requirements that I have the students do is to read an article that’s called Thanks For The Feedback- The Science and the Art of Receiving Feedback by Douglas Well and Sheila Sheen. It’s a really good article about thanks for the feedback, which allows students to know that it’s a good thing to get feedback.

It’s okay to get that feedback, because it allows you to see where you need to grow and also to see what you’re doing well in. So evaluation is very important. And then also at the end of the semester, we come back and we revisit and see how the student did within, from the midpoint to the end of the semester, and students are graded for their internship.

So then that site supervisor gives the student a grade. And usually in my course, that’s about 40% of their total grade for the course.

Why and how to get started now

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  • Cynthia P. Stewart: So for the students, one of the things that I think is the benefit is that it helps them to gain transferable skills so that they can then, after they graduate, take those skills and take it into the workplace for their career. So transferable skills like communication skills, time management skills, creativity, being able to work in teams, all of those skills are very important that students learn when they do experiential learning at an internship site, or even with service learning. Another thing is developing competencies, so that they can gain the knowledge and the skills, and within those competencies, they could see where they are growing and how they are achieving those competencies. Another one is just the opportunity where they are learning about different cultures and different work environments. A lot of our students are working, doing internships with populations for whom they may not have ever had a lot of interaction with. Also, it gives them the opportunity for career development skills, where they are now able to build their resume with their internships, so now they’re building their resume with their skills. They also learn about cover letters and how to write a really good cover letter and also interviewing skills. And one of the things that I do within my course is that I always tell students that at the end of the semester, that they sit down with their site supervisor and actually say, “Can you look over my resume? Can you give me some key points about my cover letter?” And also, I always tell students do have your site supervisor give you a letter of recommendation, even if it’s a blanket letter of recommendation, but at least to have something so that when you leave, you have that person that you could go back to when you need that letter of recommendation. And lastly, I would say for the student, is that they’re applying the theory that they’ve learned throughout various courses, that they’re now applying that into a professional, practical setting.
  • Lark Hovey: Experiential education has benefits for the educator, in that it’s like having built-in formative assessment. Instead of having to intentionally give pop quizzes or activities where we can observe students applying certain skills or concepts, we see them applying and practicing these skills and concepts all the time, so we don’t have to really think about formative assessment. Formative assessment’s happening all the time. So we are able to work with those students in a coaching fashion to help them make adjustments, to reflect on their learning, and to learn along the way without really having to do anything extra.
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  • Cynthia P. Stewart: The first thing I would say is come in with an open mind and be able to be flexible because unexpected things will happen. Sometimes students are at the internship site and something unexpected may come up where a site supervisor is transitioning into a new position, or they might be leaving to go to another place, moving out of town, and then that’s where a glitch comes in, and that’s going to affect the student. It’s going to affect the class. So being flexible enough to work with that site and you may have to find another site for a student. You never know, so definitely being flexible.
  • Lark Hovey: I would recommend for someone who wants to use experiential education in their own teaching, that you keep your mind focused on the mission, whatever your mission is. At RICA, we want to teach agriculture. We want to teach innovative agriculture and so if you put the mission statement at the top of your meeting notes, so that every single time you come for a meeting, you see the mission, it keeps your mind on target. I like to think of it like you’re driving down the road and instead of looking at each light pole, you’re looking at the horizon and that’s what your mission statement is. You’re not looking at each step in front of you. You’re looking far into the distance, so that you stay on track. So putting that mission statement at the top of your meeting notes, or even printing it and putting it on your wall can make sure that you stay on target and that your mind is focused on the mission.
  • Cynthia P. Stewart: So one of the recommendations I would say is to create an affinity group with other faculty members who are teaching academic internships or service learning courses so that you all can bounce ideas off of each other.
  • Lark Hovey: Another recommendation would be to get everyone on board from the beginning. That includes faculty, student success, administrators, and students. Everyone needs to believe in the process before they can execute it effectively.
  • Cynthia P. Stewart: The National Society of Experiential Education has great resources on their website. As you become a member, I highly recommend the National Society of Experiential Education and I also recommend going to the conferences and being able to hear from leaders, and then there are really great books about academic internships that I would say is just some really good resources.


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