Experiential learning – Crucial for college students inside & outside the classroom

Karsten Burgstahler
Master’s student, University of Florida

Kartsen Burgstahler

Kartsen Burgstahler

You’ve probably heard one of your students say (or you remember yourself as a student saying) “When am I EVER going to use this in real life?”

Part of your job as a teacher is to get students to think critically, but you don’t want them to learn just for class and then not be able to transfer that knowledge when they need it out in the field.

That’s why experiential learning is so important.

You give students a chance to work with real world problems – and, in some instances, actually work  – and see how what they’re learning now will benefit them in their careers.

Some reasons to use experiential learning in your classroom:

(1)  You don’t want your students to get stuck in situated learning. For example, you don’t want students to learn how to use an operating system on a computer and then expect the next operating system to work the same way. You want students to learn the way to master any operating system they may come across.

(2)  Experiential learning puts students in real-world situations. They can now see how professionals in their chosen field use the same concepts being taught in the classroom.

(3)  You want your students to recognize that they are actually learning. So reflection is crucial – they need to see the thought process they went through to arrive at an answer.

Some types of experiential learning:

(1)  Case studies – Students are given a complete story and must decide if the ending is appropriate – or if they would resolve the problem differently. For tips on how to construct a good case study, see the Fisch article listed in the references.

(2)  Problem-based learning – Fairly similar to the case study, but the big difference is you don’t give your students all the facts.

Schmidt and Moust (2010) defined four types of problem-based learning: explanation problems, fact-finding problems, strategy problems and moral dilemma problems. The researchers provide plenty of information on these types, including good examples, in Chapter 5 of the 2010 publication Lessons from Problem-based learning. Attached is a link to the chapter in Google Books (free to access).

(3)  Role playing and games – Students place themselves in a professional’s shoes and try to respond to a problem the way a professional would.

(4)  Internships/Service Learning – The ultimate in experiential learning – your students are actually out in the field, doing work. Be careful, however, as internships have sparked controversy recently. There’s a debate as to whether unpaid internships are legal, and while the classic stereotype of the intern who does nothing but get coffee and make copies is on its way out, this type of work is still a problem students could encounter.

Students can also take internships for credit. The College of Journalism and Communications places requirements on for-credit internships, such as requiring 100 hours of work for each hour of credit. The college actively strives to ensure internships aren’t of the “coffee and copy” variety. Here’s a complete example from the college’s telecommunications department.


Fisch, L. (1997). Triggering discussions on ethics and values: Cases and innovative case variations. Innovative Higher Education [H.W. Wilson – EDUC], 22, 117.

Svinicki, M. & McKeachie, W. J. (2013). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (14th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Schmidt, H. and Moust, J. (2010). Designing problems. In van Berkel, H.J., Scherpbier, A, Hillen, H. and van der Vleuten, C. (Eds.), Lessons from Problem-based Learning, (pp. 31-45). New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press.

Karsten Burgstahler is a master’s student in the College of Journalism and Communications. This blog post is based on a teaching presentation he made in Mass Communication Teaching (MMC 6930).


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