Making Experiential Learning Work in Your Classroom

How to best support and assess your students during experiential learning activities

What is experiential learning?

In experiential learning, students work together to solve real-world problems and address issues that are relevant to them. Experiential learning focuses on each student’s learning process and experiences. This includes building on students’ prior knowledge, creating student-centered activities, and encouraging reflection. Students gain a deeper understanding of concepts and develop 21st century skills while being highly engaged in the material.

Getting Started

In order to be the most successful with your first experiential learning attempt, take these three steps.

        1. Identify the needs of your students. Consider the experiences and backgrounds of your students. What skills do your students currently have and what do they need to develop? What content have they mastered and what do they still need to practice?
        2. Develop a project idea. Work backwards from a topic that will capture the attention of your students while offering an authentic opportunity to learn the appropriate academic standards. Look at issues affecting your community or find inspiration from a question asked in class.
        3. Identify potential issues. By proactively considering issues that may arise, you and your students can get the most out of this valuable learning opportunity. Experiential learning activities will often take more time and resources to be successful, which is important to consider before jumping in. When is the best time to start? Who is available in the community to help? What types of household materials can students start collecting now (think toilet paper rolls, tissue boxes, grocery bags, etc.)?

Classroom Management

An experiential learning classroom does not look like a traditional classroom. Students take charge of their own learning while the teacher takes on more of a coaching and facilitating role. This can be a struggle for teachers to manage, especially if they are used to being in the spotlight! Below are some ideas for how to manage students in this new setting.

Project Selection

Choose your experiential learning activities wisely. The topic should pose a relevant and engaging problem to your students. This will capture their attention and keep students on task. While you want students to be driving the learning, do ensure that boundaries are in place and support is available. Clear expectations will better facilitate learning.

Grouping

Experiential LearningCollaboration is usually an essential part of experiential learning, but collaboration is not always a skill that comes easily for students. Consider the needs of your students when designing groups. Some classes may work better in small groups, while others need a whole class approach. The grouping may change has you progress through the experience depending on the location or type of activity. For your first attempt, choose the groups for your students based on who you know will work well together, who the leaders are in your classroom, and which students are likely to get off task if placed in the same group.

Utilizing a group observation checklist can assist you in identifying groups that are and are not working. Look for things such as:

  • Sharing responsibilities
  • Asking clarifying questions
  • Having on-topic conversations
  • Letting all members speak
  • Staying on-task

Monitor and Manage

Experiential learning may require students to be moving around the classroom and interacting with other students in ways that are not typical. This could even include working independently or leaving the school campus to conduct research or attend a field trip. Your students may not be used to this type of freedom and need to be taught how to work effectively in this manner. Set several benchmarks, time limits, and check-ins to monitor students’ work. Provide time management tools such as goal sheets to help students use their time efficiently. As a facilitator, you must continuously evaluate how the project is progressing and make adjustments as necessary. You may realize that many students are struggling with specific part of the project and decide to stop and give a quick lesson for the whole class around that concept.

Assessment

The authentic nature of experiential learning presents a unique challenge when it comes time for assessment. You must select a method of assessment that matches the expected outcome. Traditional tests and research papers can be used, but you may want to include alternative products and allow the students to choose. Even if each student has created something different, you can equally assess the students’ ability to make connections and apply key concepts. The most important pieces to look for in any product are integration, communication, and conclusions.

Artifacts

Some experiential learning experiences take time, including time spent outside of the classroom. Artifacts can provide evidence of connections made throughout the experience. These can include notes, email correspondence, interviews, reflections, and journal entries. Journals are especially valuable assessment tool for service learning and internships where you may not be present.

Rubrics

Rubrics are the best way to assess authentic experiential learning, particularly when the final student products are varied. Rubrics can clearly differentiate levels of student performance, as well as guide the students’ performance. By making a rubric available for students, you are allowing them to meet and exceed expectations.

Remember to focus on content standards and connections when creating your rubric. This includes accuracy and methodology. When selecting the criteria for your rubric, focus on descriptors that determine success in the desired goal. This will ensure that you grade the end result and mastery rather than guessing at the process.

By following these tips, you and your students can get the most out of experiential learning activities. Learn about more ways to supercharge your STEM classroom with 5 Practices for Teaching STEM.

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Alexandra D. Owens

Alexandra Owens is a STEM Education consultant based in Charleston, SC. She taught middle school science for many years and is now completing her doctorate in STEM Education at Texas Tech University.
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