This blog was originally published on WISE.
When I ask people about the most impactful parts of their college years, the first response is rarely about class content or an assignment. It’s most often an experience. The time they shadowed a doctor in a hospital and, even though they’d dreamed of a career in medicine since childhood, realized they didn’t enjoy the reality of the work. It’s the research trip they took with a professor to Central America to study in the field. It’s the late-night debates and mischievous adventures that forged lifelong friendships. These are the moments that shape character and inspire careers. Yet, most higher education does not focus on experiential learning or, at best, leaves it to chance.
Put simply, experiential learning is gaining knowledge through cycles of doing and reflecting. Different from traditional academic learning, which typically occurs in a classroom, this type of learning is active and in “real world” environments. An analogy I often use is if I want to learn how to ski, I can know the content of all of the best books about skiing techniques and history, but not until I’m falling down a mountain do I really learn how to ski. The same can be said for learning how to be a marketing professional, a web engineer, or a good manager. Experiential learning bridges theory and practice by challenging learners to apply concepts in real situations.
Students practice intercultural skills as they navigate Berlin during an Exploration Day.
At Minerva University, where I worked for five years, the curriculum is designed to facilitate student learning not only across disciplines but also in a variety of global contexts. Concepts that students learn in one class appear in another, challenging them to practice transferring what they’ve learned to new situations. While many universities have study-abroad, internships, and project-based learning programs, what Minerva does differently is create a common language throughout all of these experiences, a universal set of learning outcomes throughout the university curriculum. This integration of concepts across different contexts enables students to learn and apply concepts at a deeper level, with direct relevance to their careers and life.
For example, students study in seven different cities during their four undergraduate years, where they are immersed in new cultures and can practice the skills learned through class in changing and novel contexts. Different experiential methodologies, such as location-based assignments, require students to go out into the city, interact with people, and report back their findings. Exploration Days challenge students to navigate new cities physically and culturally, learning how to interact and communicate effectively in the process. Civic projects connect teams of students to local professionals to collaborate on a challenge faced by their organization. Through these projects, students practice problem-solving and develop a sense of civic responsibility to contribute to the cities and communities in which they live. They begin to view each “city as a campus” for learning, challenging the notion of what a “classroom” can be. Over time, by engaging in a variety of experiences around the world, Minerva students develop a unique worldview in addition to gaining professional and cross-cultural skills to prepare them for life after graduation. It is the application of concepts in real situations which deepens their understanding of and preparedness for the world.
Students share a “thank you” card with a local Taiwanese woman who hosted them for dinner with her family during the announcement of the 2020 presidential election in Taiwan.
Through my experience designing immersive learning journeys at Minerva, I’ve learned a few core principles that can help any educator incorporate impactful experiential learning into their curriculum:
Students wake up at sunrise to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Without a greater emphasis on experiential learning, colleges risk sending graduates into careers without a solid understanding of how the concepts they have learned actually interact with the real world. As universities think about the kind of graduates they want to put out in the world and how they can best prepare them to thrive in it, integrating real-life experiences into the curriculum becomes a necessity.