I work for a post-secondary institution in Ontario, Canada. Over the years, post-secondary institutions have been increasingly focussed on opportunities for experiential learning. In 2019, the Ministry of Education for the Ontario Government unveiled its strategy for funding post-secondary institutions and one of the metrics is “the number and proportion of graduates in programs with experiential learning”. What does it mean to have a program with experiential learning? What are the spaces where effective experiential learning takes place?
The Ontario government defines experiential learning as learning “beyond the classroom” including workplace tours, job shadowing, mentoring, cooperative education and other apprenticeship or workplace exposure programs. The rationale for the Ontario government’s initiative is that students benefit from learning that goes beyond the classroom because it helps youth understand the diverse industries and jobs, exposes them to career options they may not know about, develops workplace skills, facilitates the application of their learning to the workplace, and informs their career and education paths to facilitate a smoother transition into the workforce.
I don’t take issue with any of these rationales. They all have merit. However, I find this definition and description very limiting for two reasons: 1. Education serves a purpose beyond job-readiness. Education is an opportunity to exercise our brain, to develop our communication skills, to grow our understanding on a range of important topics, and to learn how to become better citizens who are engaged in - and knowledgeable about - a range of issues. Experiential learning can enhance these skills by giving students the opportunity to develop communication skills with diverse members of the community, to explore different topics from a range of vantage points, and to practice civic engagement through activism or practical work experiences. 2.Experiential learning does not have to take place outside the classroom. Skills-building can happen in a range of learning environments. University classrooms are an excellent space for building the capacities needed for excelling in work and in community life. I elaborate on the importance of the classroom space for experiential learning below.
During a discussion on experiential learning with my work colleagues, several examples of strategies used to promote experiential learning within the classroom were shared. These examples included simulations, case studies, pitching proposals to a panel of judges (similar to ‘The Dragon’s Den’), designing three-minute presentations, group projects designed to teach students team-building skills, etc. The skills learned in these experiential learning examples are directly related to the skills needed in the workplace. These transferable skills can be learned in the classroom.
One reason for growing interest in community-based or workplace-focussed experiential learning might be explained by student demand for such opportunities. I’ve reviewed more than 800 student co-op reports over the past four years and have observed a tendency among students to view job-related work as practical, and academic study as exclusively theoretical. However, we know this is not true. Course work requires students to develop a range of highly practical skills from communication competencies to teamwork skills. Even theory can be highly practical for informing critical thinking and problem-solving. Perhaps we could do more to deliberately reinforce these skills and explain how practical classroom skills are transferable to careers.
Another reason for the demand for workplace experiences can be attributed to the perceived networking opportunities that arise from linking up with potential employers before graduation. This could true but I am not aware of research that has documented job success rates comparing in-class experiential learning with workplace experiential learning. Nevertheless, the perception of the importance of networking and on-the-job exposure is prevalent. At the very least, students can list workplace experiences on their CVs. It is worth noting, however, that in many instances, students can also be coached on how to articulate their range of skills and competencies on their CVs in ways that more fully reflect their knowledge and skills beyond listing places of work.
The issue is then more related to deliberate efforts to mentor students on how to identify and explain their competencies. A lack of concrete examples and limited opportunities for students to express what skills they have learned and how they have learned them is a challenge educators need to address. One strategy is to have students write cover letters at the end of the course to explain (using examples) how the skills they have learned in the course have prepared them for a job in their field of study.
There is also a tendency to introduce skills-building and experiential learning in upper level courses. First and second year students are often told they will gain that exposure later in the degree. Students would benefit from experiential learning and intentional skills-building much earlier in their studies.
When opportunities for workplace learning are available (whether through cooperative education, community service learning, etc.,), there is no guarantee that students will have the capacity to articulate the skills they have learned. The ‘learning’ part of experiential learning requires reflection between the workplace and the classroom.
Skills development through experiential learning does not happen haphazardly. Well-facilitated learning requires resources and dedicated staff who carefully link skills-building across experiential learning and theoretical content. Education and employment are commonly understood as one-directional (courses are meant to prepare students for the workforce). In my experience, it is rare for students to consider their academic studies as a space to reflect on what they learned in their co-op program. Well-facilitated learning means that experiential learning coordinators can play a role in shaping the multi-directional flow of knowledge and reflection.
There are many ways we can enhance the student experience through diverse forms of experiential learning. Students will benefit from a range of options and diverse experiential learning experiences throughout their studies. However, we would all benefit from a refocussing on the classroom as a space for experiential learning. In the classroom, a range of experiential learning tools can be employed to develop the transferable skills students will need to market themselves when they are ready for the workforce. Courses offered in institutions of higher education can also be the spaces where reflection on a range of “outside the classroom” experiences are more fully learned through guided discussions.
The Ontario government and post-secondary institutions need to consider the range of experiential learning options (inside and outside the classroom, and between these spaces) when they apply the metrics for post-secondary learning outcomes. Counting the number of co-op placements students have taken part in or the number of workplace tours completed will not be a useful indicator of learning or skills development.