Experiential Learning

After teaching as Adjunct Faculty for 25+ years, and full-time faculty for graduate students for eight years, I have found that the best way to reach students of all ages and levels of experience is to give them hands-on assignments that safely allow them to work in the real world.  In my full-time teaching role, I had two such classes.  Here is how the first class worked.  I taught it over 10 times.

The first class was a master's level consulting course.  We brought in a not-for-profit client who faced operational issues not related to their type of practice, which was primarily psychological services.  These organizations were typically small, operating on a limited budget, and with little knowledge of how to run an organization effectively.  The leader of the organization would visit with the class in the first or second week, talk about the challenges they were facing, set up contact information for the students, and the experiential learning would begin.  While I taught the basics of consulting, the students looked at each component through the eyes of their new client.  The first half of the class was spent on role-playing case studies in class.  There were enough students to have two groups.  In each group, students would split into two smaller groups; one small group would role-play the consultant, and the other would role-play the customer.  Every week, they would switch roles so as to experience the case from each side.  As the role plays took place in class, the rest of the class who was not role playing would serve as observers, giving feedback specifically on what they liked about the role play, and why, and what they thought could be handed differently, including why and how.  In this fashion, students learned (1) how to listen for understanding of the other party's perspective; (2) how to ask relevant questions; (3) how to talk professionally with a client/consultant; (4) how to creatively solve problems; (5) and how to give meaningful feedback.  

In the second half of the semester, students would work on the real client's issues.  This included phone calls and/or visits to the client's site to gather more information; Internet research on the client's organization as well as similar organizations in the area; creation of new solutions customized for the client; and, including all documentation to make their presentation totally turn-key.  Their solutions could not require an outside consultant for implementation, and could not cost the client anything beyond a minimal investment.  After all, they were seeking our help because they did not have the money to invest in a consultant!

The students had little business experience, so really had to do a lot of research on their projects.  The students didn't all know one another, so had to learn to work together effectively in order to be successful.  The students were somewhat reluctant to do role plays and expose themselves to assessment by me and by their peers.  And, the students were, in every class, dedicated to do their best possible work to support their clients.  And, in every class I taught, since outcomes for the clients were overwhelmingly amazing, students ended the class with expanded knowledge, confidence, and a desire to help others.  

I can't tell you how many students have used their class consulting experience on their resumes, and how many times I have validated their performance and learning to prospective employers.  Many of them ended up in consulting roles early in their careers.  

The bottom line in terms of college readiness is that we need to provide more of this type of learning.  Students entering college, whether undergrad or graduate, don't know what they don't know.  Talking about it in a way that makes it real is hard to do, and easy for them to forget.  But actually doing it, and seeing it make a difference, sticks with them forever.  And, if there are older students in the class who do have some related experience, even better because they can validate what you are teaching and add ideas of their own.  The rest of the bottom line is that this is an approach to education that excites, informs, and validates both teacher and student.  

What more could we, as teachers, ask for?

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