What is Undergraduate Experiential Learning?
Experiential learning is learning by doing. Reflection on that experience is also a key component of experiential learning. You may see it also referred to as hands-on learning or real-world learning.
Vincent Onyemah, associate professor of sales and marketing at Babson College, puts it a little more eloquently: “Experiential learning is knowledge acquisition by doing in the context of a reality that is closest to what you will likely face when you graduate.”
Lauren Beitelspacher, a marketing associate professor and division chair at Babson, recommends thinking of it as a continuum. “Some people consider working on a case study as experiential learning because you’re talking about an actual business with actual problems and outcomes,” she explains. “That’s the baseline of experiential learning. At the opposite end of the continuum, you have an experience where you’re completely immersed in a live business and live business problem.”
Experiences like analyzing live data or meeting with guest speakers to understand business challenges may fall in the middle of that continuum.
There are also internships, externships (job shadowing), research opportunities, and more that schools may consider experiential learning. As U.S. News & World Report points out, many experiential learning opportunities may even happen outside the classroom with student organizations and activities.
But experiential learning in the classroom gives a more formal framework for combining real-world experiences with more academic-minded coursework that you don’t necessarily get from a service project with a fraternity or sorority. Both are valuable to a well-rounded college experience, but experiential learning done right has several key components.
Beitelspacher notes that every class is different and each professor has their unique spin when it comes to experiential learning, but the model remains similar: “There’s the experimenting and then the reflection on what you tried. I’m linear. I like to teach the concept, have the experiential learning application, and reflect on what we learned.”
The reflection piece—or the breakdown—she says, is at the core of the experiential learning model. There are several ways to do that piece alone. It may mean a class discussion or a two-minute paper where you take two minutes and write down what you learned. “You really see how everyone’s brain works differently, combine that, and it leads to a powerful discussion.”
Other professors opt to begin with experiential learning and then teach the concept learned during the reflection portion. “Ultimately, we have to teach you the concepts to give you the language,” she explains, noting that to be successful, students need to know what they’re doing, what it is called, and the theory behind it.
The different pieces of experiential learning—lecture, applied project, reflection, reading a case study—allows students of all learning styles to absorb the concepts. Students with broad learning styles may feel like they’re hitting the same concept more than they need.
“It’s great for students to gain exposure to different teaching styles,” emphasizes Beitelspacher. “You’re going to work with all types of communication styles in your career. It’s up to you to ask questions and advocate for yourself.” Just as you would in the workplace.