Experiential Education: A Pedagogical Approach for All Ages

Published on March 30, 2021

The following text was first posted on York University’s Teaching Commons on 11 February 2021.
By Virginia Grimaldi

I have been an educator for over a decade and have taught every age group from kindergarten to university, in four different continents. One pedagogical approach that I have found a lot of success with in my teaching practice on the whole is the implementation of experiential education (EE) into my various classrooms. In this article, I argue that EE can be utilized in university settings with similar success.

Experiential education is a student-centered pedagogical approach that first teaches a new theory/concept, then immerses learners in an experience that highlights the concept, and finally encourages reflection about the experience to develop new skills, new attitudes, or new ways of thinking.[1] The benefits of EE in post-secondary institutions can be found here: https://www.ryerson.ca/content/dam/experiential/PDFs/bestpractices-experiential-learning.pdf. For more on experiential education in the context of York, you may watch Introduction to Experiential video (BOLD Showcase 1) or interactive module (BOLD showcase 3) available here: https://moodle.yorku.ca/moodle/course/view.php?id=164654

At the university level, EE can take many forms, including field trips, lab experiments, role playing, and work placements, or anything that offers a balance between an activity and the underlying content/theory. The goal is to foster engagement in purposeful, meaningful endeavors that encourage a “big picture” perspective. Moreover, we all know it’s not a good idea for anybody to be sedentary for too long due to a multitude of health reasons. Study after study shows there’s a link between active bodies and active minds. EE experiences help get students moving.

Lots of university learning requires students to read about those in a different time, place, and experience. Something as simple as having them put themselves in the shoes of those they are reading about – by giving them as much information about the context – is a component of experiential education. In February, I decided to experiment and see if this EE approach would work in my first-year history tutorial, and, importantly, how the students would feel about it. No pedagogical theory can be useful unless we know how students themselves react to it.

I chose a reading on the course syllabus that I found rather dry to use for my experiment. Students had to read the article “Children’s Rights from Below: Canadian and Transnational Actions, Beliefs, and Discourses 1900-1989” by Dominique Marshall. The article is broken up into four parts, each with a declaration of children’s rights published in various decades. Students were broken up into eight groups, two for each section of the reading. Group one took a kids’ perspective on the document published and group two were asked to represent the perspective of those who created the document a.k.a adults. Then they answered the following questions: Were these documents created for the well-being of the children i.e. were the children’s best interests represented? Were they created to help children flourish/exert agency or were they a means of social control? Do you think the adults that created these documents valued the same thing as the children? Their families? Were children consulted? Were there class, race, gender, age considerations? Each group assigned a note taker to jot down the groups’ ideas.

After a lively and fruitful discussion, I asked students to give feedback on this type of tutorial learning on their way out. I gave them each a sticky note and asked them to write down whether they liked it or did not and why (school teachers call these “exit cards”). The results were as follows. Eighteen of them liked it and some gave the following comments: “We should do it more often”, “gives us an opportunity to engage with the material and others in our class”, “5 stars”, “a fun participation mark”, “was nice to bounce ideas off others”, “really effective when mixed with the usual formats”, “I felt more comfortable in a group setting”, “made that boring article come to life”, “really helped me understand the reading”, “it’s so cool!” “Yes!!!”, and “a good way to increase understanding.” Four of them were not so keen and commented, “I prefer regular tutorial style” and “I don’t like it.” Sadly, these four did not provide the reasons. If I were to continue this type of tutorial teaching, I would’ve tried to work with these students’ needs going forward. I uploaded the typed notes of each group on Moodle so everyone could access them (which proved useful when it came time to study for the exam) and I constantly referred back to the documents throughout the rest of the course. e.g. “Remember when we discussed how children were often spoken for…”

EE students must do more than just “act out the scene” or “go exploring.” Reflection on what they just did and how it relates to the curriculum being learnt is part of the process. In university, this can also provide you with something written to grade. Assessment methods include: rubrics; creating a reflective journal/portfolio; an essay, report, or presentation on what has been learnt (with references to course material); short answer questions of a ‘why’ or ‘explain’ nature; one-on-one oral assessments with the instructor/TA; self-evaluation and/or group evaluation of a task performed; and so on. Students working with professors in a major data collection and analysis project related to their discipline can prepare a paper together. It is beneficial for students to examine their own personal values and identify their own ethical lens. These strategies can increase motivation and engagement, encourage self-directed learning, facilitate the exploration of the relationship between academic theory and practice, increase clarity around academic and career goals, enhance professional networks, help students realize work realities and expectations, increase confidence, maturity, and self-management, and improve problem-solving, critical thinking, research, communication, and teamwork skills. Moreover, getting feedback about your own teaching lets students feel that you are on the same level and helps you become a better instructor.

Disclaimer: Yes – there are a lot of restrictions, boundaries, ethical considerations, etc. that go along with EE. Nonetheless, I believe the hoops are worth jumping through when you can as the benefits of incorporating EE into some of our learning engagements can help both instructors and students succeed.

[1] Lewis Jackson, Rosemary S. Caffarella, and Rosemary Shelly Caffarella, Experiential Learning: A New Approach(San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994), 5.

About the Author

Virginia Lynn Grimaldi is a practicing elementary school teacher and a Ph.D student in History at York University. She has taught all age groups, from 3 to adult, all around the world, both in private and public schools. Currently, she is researching archives as political entities, and looking at the ideological, political, or national intentions encoded within them. As a social/cultural historian-in-the-making, her main research attempts to answer questions concerning gender issues, the power of melodrama and media, sexuality, discourse, and human agency in nineteenth century Britain. Her dissertation explores gender expectations under the “politics of respectability” in Victorian London through a Foucauldian lens. In looking at the options, or lack thereof, for single, unwed, and pregnant working women in London in the mid-1800s, she hopes to highlight the societal and governmental influence on the private lives of London’s “fallen” women at the peak of the Industrial Revolution.

Virginia is the recipient of numerous academic awards, including this year's Albert Tucker Award in Graduate British History and the St. George's Society of Toronto Endowment for Graduate Student Award. She recently received acclamation as T.A. Representative on the Committee on Teaching, Learning and Student Success, where she works with faculty, representatives, and other representatives on programs to help support a culture of effective and excellent teaching and learning at university. Currently, she holds a Teaching Assistantship for the York University course “Growing up in North America.”




Sign in to add a comment

Related Articles

Alberta’s Curriculum Controversy

Alberta’s Curriculum Controversy

Carla L. Peck, PhD University of Alberta Alberta’s Curriculum Controversy* When I first arrived in the province in 2007, Alberta Education was implementing a new K-3...

Embracing Historical Empathy

Embracing Historical Empathy

Sara Karn is a PhD student in the Faculty of Education, Queen’s University. Her dissertation research explores historical empathy in Canadian history education. Sara is a...

Latest from Twitter

RT @IHAF_RHAF: "Stupeur et consternation": la lettre ouverte de l'IHAF et de @CndHistAssoc au premier ministre Ford dénonçant les abolition…

View all Tweets

Contact Us

Canadian Historical Association
1912-130 Albert Street
Ottawa, ON, K1P 5G4