Joe Henry — Experiential Learning: It’s been happening for years

Joe Henry, dean of students at King’s University College at Western University, London, Ontario

There has been much discussion in the postsecondary education community about the importance of experiential learning as an innovative pedagogy and key path to smoothing the transition to the job market for graduates. Research indicates that when students can connect their experiences in the classroom to outside the classroom, engagement increases and the transition to that all important first job becomes much easier. We only have to look at the success of a variety of co-op programs or study-abroad experiences as key reference points.

However, what I feel has been missing in much of the current dialogue on experiential learning is that this is not a new phenomenon. While I have no issue with the expansion of experiential learning being embedded in curricular programs on university campuses, I would argue that students have for generations, accessed and created a myriad of co-curricular, extra-curricular and work opportunities on campus that have allowed them to develop the skills necessary to think about their coursework in different ways or gain the experience necessary for that first job post-graduation. Let me give some examples.

Within the co-curricular area, you don’t have to look farther that the variety of residential life positions available on campuses as a source of great learning for students. While student resident assistants or dons may come from a variety of academic backgrounds, the skills and competencies gained through supporting a floor of new first-year students is quite immense. Whether it’s through mediating conflicts, leading resident activities or mentoring, these student leaders learn quickly about managing priorities, leading teams and effective communication. I know many leaders in higher education and in other fields whose first work experience was part of a residence-life team and was the foundation to their future success.

In the extra-curricular space, I look to the various student governments on our university campuses. I have had the privilege in my almost two decades of work in student affairs to work and advise these tremendous student leaders. These students not only run large and complex organizations, but in many cases do so while completing coursework or volunteering in our communities. The competencies gained in time management and working with diverse voices certainly show in their accomplishments on campus but they also are skills that employers increasingly covet in a variety of industries.

Finally, I look at the many areas where students are employed on campus. Sometimes you will see students working as library assistants or helping to sort out IT-related issues. You can look at almost any department on our campuses and students will be working and gaining skills and competencies that will help them as they think about graduate school or moving out into the workforce. While these positions might not be directly related to their course of study, the transferability of skills, undoubtedly will benefit them in the future and benefit universities as important sources of new talent.

There are various other activities from student clubs, varsity sports and challenge contest opportunities that are open and available to students. Increasingly our universities, both large and small, are recognizing this learning through co-curricular records, which provide external validation and the chance for students to reflect on their experiences. More importantly, they assist students to further gain the language necessary to translate their skills and competencies to employers.

It is, therefore, critical that as discussions about the importance of experiential learning continue to evolve, we must build and create on the foundation of co-curricular, extra-curricular and on-campus work programs that have existed within universities for many years. These roles are not simply about balloons, photocopying and pizza. These opportunities present real and effective means for our students to add context to their classroom learning, better understand themselves and others, and eventually transition to meaningful careers after graduation.

Joe Henry is the dean of students at King’s University College at Western University, London, Ontario.

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