Monday, June 1

Maximizing the Impact of Experiential Learning: Empowering Students by Developing Transferable Skills in the Classroom First

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The following article describes an approach to maximizing the impact of experiential learning by first developing transferable skills in the context of in-class activities.

By Steve Joordens

The specified process, captured within a technology called peerScholar, provides structured practice with these skills first in the context of peer assessment, and then in the context of the formative use of feedback. A specific approach for using this process in combination with experiential learning is proposed.

Important points to consider include:

  • In the modern world, transferable skills are critical to student success in both their careers and their lives more generally.
  • Experiential learning is currently a “hot” approach for allowing students to develop these skills in authentic settings.
  • The success of experiential learning, however, depends on the extent to which students are ready for the challenge.
  • Educational institutions should therefore place a strong emphasis on preparing students before they work with external agencies, which means we need to take a more formal approach to the development of skills.
  • An evidence-based process now exists for the formal development of skills, a process that gives students practice thinking critically and creatively, while communicating critically with peers.
  • The exercise first occurs in the context of peer-assessment, and then occurs again in the context of formative revision informed by peer feedback.
  • This process can be managed by existing technologies, requires little in the way of additional time and resources from faculty, can scale to any course at any level, and is valued by both faculty and students.
  • The formal proposal then is that the described process be employed early in the education process, and that it continue to be employed throughout. Meanwhile experiential learning can be phased in, with more intense experiential opportunities being presented once students have developed their skills further.

The Changing Job Market

Our graduates will enter a continually evolving job market, which includes jobs that didn’t even exist as little as a few years ago. Most graduates will move from job to job, as many as five to seven times, before settling into a career. Therefore, those of us who see education as a form of empowerment must do a better job developing so-called transferable skills in our educational systems—skills such as critical thought, creative thought, effective communication, and enhanced metacognitive awareness. These skills allow one to succeed across a range of life and work contexts, and if we could better develop them in our students they would be more flexibly able to succeed.

Experiential Learning

One approach to preparing our students is through experiential learning. Generally speaking, experiential learning involves the student working with external agents on real world problems. The authenticity of these contexts enhances learning, and generally students are required to use skills like those highlighted in the previous section. Thus, they are gaining practice with problem solving and communication in a real-world context.

However, the success of experiential learning depends on how well students can apply their knowledge to real world problems. The term “problem solving” can be broken down in terms of two specific skills: 

  • Critical thought allows one to see flaws or inefficiencies.
  • Creative thought allows one to find alternative approaches. 

Of course, to share one’s ideas and to base them on the proper information in the first place, students also need good receptive and expressive communication skills.  If the student brings all of these skills to an external agency, then all works well. 

But what if the student does not possess these skills, or possesses them, but at a level of proficiency that is still low? When this happens, experiential learning can go wrong. Working with our students can become a waste of time for external entities, and the students themselves may feel overwhelmed and underprepared. If we wish to optimize the positive impact of experiential learning it would do us well to develop these critical transferable skills in our classrooms before we send students to work with external agencies. 

Skill Development

This is a big ask! Universities have traditionally transferred knowledge to students rather than develop skills, and the process of skill development differs markedly from the process of knowledge acquisition. While knowledge can be transferred via a single great lecture, reading, or resource, developing skills is very different. 

Skills always start out weak, and then are slowly strengthened via repeated practice using the skill, preferably in a structured manner within a context that provides rich feedback. Our educators already have a lot on their plates, and our curricula are generally well defined. How, within the constraints of our educational institutions, can we provide this kind of repeated structured practice with critical thought, creative thought, and effective communication that our students need? 

Given how important skill development is to the future success of our students, my Advanced Learning Technologies Lab at the University of Toronto Scarborough has made this issue the primary focus of our work. Over the last decade we have devised a process that provides a formal structured approach to skill development, we have embodied that process with an educational technology called peerScholar. We have conducted research directly with and on this technology to verify its efficacy, and to optimize its impact.

Structured Peer Assessment

The process begins with structured peer-assessment. Students first create some composition in accord with instructions and then are required to formally assess the work submitted by a subset (typically four to six) of their peers. The instructor can guide the assessment steps as they wish. For present purposes imagine that part of what students are asked is to do when assessing each peer is the following: 

“Think of all the ways this composition could be improved, then zero in on the one thing that, if improved, would lead to the largest overall improvement of the work. Clearly express to your peer what that one thing is, and then give them an idea of how to go about improving it.”  

In order to conform with this instruction, students must first think critically to find the primary weakness of the work, then must think creatively about how it can be fixed, and then must expressively communicate these thoughts effectively to the peer. Then they move on to the next peer and do it again, then again, then again, etc. That is, they are gaining repeated structured practice thinking critically and creatively, as they learn to express critical feedback effectively.

As they go through this process they are seeing how their work compares to that of their peers. They get a very strong sense of the relative quality of their work, and when they see peers who are doing better than they did, they are seeing and analyzing an exemplar that they can use to improve. Thus, in addition to the structured practice students are also enhancing their metacognitive awareness, their understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses.

The process then continues by providing further practice with these transferable skills, this time in the context of formative revision. While a given student was assessing a subset of peers, a similar subset was assessing that student’s composition. In the third phase of the process students see the feedback that other students gave to their work and, again, are asked to formally assess it. Once again the instructor has control over the specifics of the assessment, but imagine as part of their assessment students were asked the following question: 

“This peer has given you feedback on how your work could be improved. If you revised your work in accord with this peer’s suggestions, how much do you think it would improve the final quality of your composition?”

Once again, to answer this question students must first think critically about the feedback, think creatively about how they might implement it in a revision, and then think critically about how much better that composition may be. This time they are doing all of this in the context of receptive communication—listening to what somewhat else thinks. They do all of this for the feedback provided by the first peer, then they do it again, and again, etc. Once again, repeated structured practice with the transferable skills most critical to problem solving and communication.

Peer Scholar

Integration 

Part of the appeal of this approach is that fact that it can be integrated into our institutions with minimal disruption. The process is managed by technology and requires little extra time or effort on the part of the instructor. Yes, they must define the activity and ultimately add their own grades and comments, and it’s highly recommended that they also grade the feedback students provide to peers. 

However, the vast majority of the learning is driven by the students, which is as it must be to develop skills. This is active “assessment as learning” and both students and faculty attest to the value of this process and their desire to see it used more widely. In addition, the process is scalable in that that it can be used in the context of any course and at any level of instruction. No matter what you teach, and how busy you are, you could be adding this to your course now and, when considered at an institutional level, these factors mean that students could be practicing the same skills across a wide range of course contexts, supporting a generalization of the skills to any context.

Returning to experiential learning, my proposal then is that early on in their education students should be exposed to the sort of formal skill-development process described above, perhaps managed by peerScholar or by some other technology capable of the task. This stage of skill development would occur within a safe classroom context, and students would benefit from both peer and expert feedback in a relatively low-stakes context. We then continue to build these skills as we phase in experiential learning opportunities.

Experiential Learning Within the Classroom

An aside is necessary here. Early on experiential learning was primarily identified with co-op work terms. That is, students left our institutions to work somewhere else. More recently though, technologies like Riipen allow a less embedded form of experiential learning to happen within our classrooms. That is, students may do a final project in some class that involves them working, through e-mail and/or virtual meetings, on a problem defined by an “external” entity. 

In fact, we have recently worked with Riipen to create a module that allows their approach to work within even very large courses, including large first year classes. Thus, experiential learning now falls on a continuum that can be thought of in terms of how intense the interaction with the external entity is. The most intense interactions would occur in co-op settings, but classroom experiences of varying intensities are now possible.

Conclusion

As students develop their skills, we can place them in increasingly more intense experiential contexts. Doing so will properly prepare our students for what can be relatively high stakes interactions, maximizing their success and, in so doing, also maximizing the experience for the external entity. This strengthens trust and cements bridges that can allow our experiential opportunities to grow.


About the author:

Professor Steve Joordens in the Director of the Advanced Learning Technologies Lab at the University of Toronto Scarborough.   He teaches a very large Introduction to Psychology class at his institution, and also on Coursera.org.  His research focuses primarily on the creation and assessment of educational technologies, especially those focused on formal approaches to skill development.  His teaching and research have won him a number of institutional, provincial and national awards recognize a sustained and significant impact on higher education in Canada.

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