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Make Experiential Learning REAL on Your Campus: Principles for Success

Curriculum Planning and Development

Make Experiential Learning REAL on Your Campus: Principles for Success

As the cost of attending college has risen, so have the voices questioning the value of the college experience. How many articles have we all read questioning whether the debt incurred to complete a four-year degree is worth it? One clear strategy for showcasing the value of a traditional university experience is to integrate high-impact practices into the undergraduate curriculum. These practices, first identified by George Kuh, have been rigorously studied, and there is now ample data documenting that students who engage in high-quality applied learning experiences fare better than their peers who do not. This fall our institution will be implementing a campus-wide experiential learning requirement (called REAL, which stands for Relevant, Experiential and Applied Learning), and we would like to share some guidance on what to do if you are tapped to forward such an initiative. While we can’t possibly provide a blueprint that will fit every institution, we do have some general principles that can set you on the right path.

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As the cost of attending college has risen, so have the voices questioning the value of the college experience. How many articles have we all read questioning whether the debt incurred to complete a four-year degree is worth it? One clear strategy for showcasing the value of a traditional university experience is to integrate high-impact practices into the undergraduate curriculum. These practices, first identified by George Kuh, have been rigorously studied, and there is now ample data documenting that students who engage in high-quality applied learning experiences fare better than their peers who do not. This fall our institution will be implementing a campus-wide experiential learning requirement (called REAL, which stands for Relevant, Experiential and Applied Learning), and we would like to share some guidance on what to do if you are tapped to forward such an initiative. While we can’t possibly provide a blueprint that will fit every institution, we do have some general principles that can set you on the right path.

There is always more than one why

First, be sure you know why your institution wants to institute an experiential learning graduation requirement, and understand that different groups on campus will give you different reasons. If you are tasked with implementing the initiative, your job will be to balance all of those varying goals. At our institution, why almost always connects to our foundational commitments to equity and access. While experiential learning benefits all students, it is a particularly powerful tool for addressing equity gaps and for bolstering student confidence and career readiness.

Experiential learning tells a philanthropically rewarding story

Images of students on medical mission trips, working in a research lab, engaging with businesses and community partners, exploring archives, and serving as peer mentors: these are highly compelling visual images that remind us of the essential human focus of our educational work. Be sure that you strategize to capture and share these images. Boards, alumni, donors, and employers see themselves in these images, and that identification creates a positive, concrete reason to invest their time, talent, and dollars. The desire to pay it forward is powerful. Experiential learning is an efficient and proven way to identify, nurture, and launch students into a more secure future. Who doesn’t want to be a part of that story?

Broad stakeholder engagement

Broad stakeholder engagement is critical throughout the process of standing up an experiential learning initiative for two important reasons: first, it ensures a solid anchor for you and your campus partners when complexity (e.g., unexpected costs, technological snafus) rears its head; and second, it creates a sound structure that will mitigate the shock waves all new initiatives create.

Take time to establish relationships with faculty and with administrative offices throughout the institution to understand what these stakeholders need and expect, and how they can help. The registrar’s office, IT, student affairs, financial aid, academic advising, and faculty development all have roles to play alongside your faculty leaders. These partners will help you address barriers such as scheduling bottlenecks or policy conflicts. They also have access to the systems that push information to students, and they have purview over the collection of student data. In short, your campus partners will be instrumental in clearing the path so the work gets done. It will be very hard to get anything done without their support.

Governance and administrative structures

Curriculum belongs to the faculty. Make this your mantra and work within the existing faculty governance structures. Steering clear of convenient shortcuts will also lead you to a sustainable process that empowers the faculty responsible for experiential learning—its delivery, documentation, and impact.

That said, be realistic about where to administratively locate the initiative to achieve the goals your institution has identified. In most cases, placing the initiative firmly under the provost and in service to the academic mission makes sense. There may, however, be important arguments for drawing dotted lines of responsibility, accountability, and even resources to other units. This is not ideal: too many captains often make for a stalled ship, but these partnerships can pay off for students.

Use your data to make a compelling case

One of the most important parts of your leadership role will be building a case for experiential learning as an embedded part of the curriculum. This will mean building a case for change: Why should programs, systems, and people be asked to do things differently? Keeping your institution’s big why in mind, knowing the data points currently available, and separating anecdotal beliefs from informed hypotheses will be a full-time job for the first few months. But once this environmental scan is complete—through diligent requests and meetings with your institutional research office, registrar, department chairs, student affairs leads, and whomever else might be identified as a keeper of data—you can begin building a strategy for action.

You will need to work with your campus partners to build the data infrastructure to learn whether students’ experiential learning participation is having the hoped-for effect on their behavior, skills, or knowledge. Don’t lean too heavily on any one data point. Use indirect and direct measures, and leverage the data you are probably already collecting from such tools as the Freshman CIRP, the NSSE, and your First Destination Survey. Build your assessment measures as opportunities arise. For example, if your institution is revamping program review processes, advocate to include the program’s experiential learning or high-impact practices in the review. Consider as well whether you can collect information on relevant faculty presentations, conferences, and grants, and use this to build a case for why such activities should be included in faculty reward and recognition structures.

Embrace your role as a partner in change

At the end of the day, yours is a change-management project focused on supporting student academic development. Not everyone will be ready for change, and no two departments will be equally ready to accept what a graduation requirement will bring. Our advice: lead with empathy and be actively curious. Seek to understand the context within which your colleagues and students operate. Rather than walk into a room with answers and directives, take the time to ask authentic questions; additionally, be prepared to listen and, where possible, to act on what your partners and students have to say.

For example, ask your institutional research office whether they routinely disaggregate demographic data. You might get a helpful, “Absolutely!” but you might also get a useful primer on the complexity of data management at your institution. Ask advisors what departmental and student characteristics they suggest you look at to understand inequities in student participation and outcomes. You will likely be surprised by their depth of knowledge regarding student behavior. Ask department chairs where in the curriculum and co-curriculum students are likely to engage in experiential learning. You might find a great case study, proof of concept, or a partner eager to explore grant possibilities. Asking frequent questions will lead to strong working relationships with your campus partners. It will also help you see the complex systems and networks that will be impacted by your project, and your partners will appreciate being brought to the table when their expertise can make the most difference.

Now is the time to act

High-impact practices and experiential learning are relatively low-cost and effective strategies for addressing the challenges before us. What you are doing matters and will make a difference for students now and into the future. We are with you and hope this brief introduction to what has worked at our institution will be of service.


Erin Webster Garrett, PhD, is the assistant vice provost for Relevant, Experiential and Applied Learning and an associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Constance C. Relihan, PhD, is the dean of University College and a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.