Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Educator, Author

Part 5: Experiential Learning and the Future of Higher Education


Over the past two years, I was responsible for implementing our university’s strategic plan. One of the cornerstones of that plan was experiential learning. So, I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about experiential learning over the past two years. As I’ve also been thinking about the future of higher education, one of the things that I become increasingly more convinced of is how very important experiential learning will be to grow the kind of human skills that I’ve been talking about in this series. Creativity, courage and connection grow out of application, and as Aoun says in Robot-Proof, “Students acquire content knowledge…in the classroom. They integrate them through controlled assignments…,completing projects, or conducting laboratory experiments. But when they apply them to a novel context, they actually achieve mastery. This is where experiential learning comes into play.”

Aoun also shares some interesting data about what employers are looking for in our graduates. He says that 96% see integrating practical experiences into our educational programming as important and in a separate study 85% of respondents believe that experiential learning (through Northeastern’s coop model in particular) helps students be better prepared for the job market. At my own university, we’ve seen feedback from both potential students and current students that they specifically want experiential learning opportunities. They want to get out of the classroom and apply their knowledge and skills in the world in an academic structure that gives them the support that they need to be successful in learning and growing.

And yet, I also see that our traditional higher education structure often gets in the way of students taking advantage of these opportunities. Our accrediting agreements, degree and course hour structure, even semester or quarter structure when combined with degree plans can put students in such restrictive, lock step programming that they have no flexibility to seek out experiential learning. Another challenge that we have at my institution that I don’t think is an isolated issue is that we have worked to build such a strong “campus culture” that our students often voice the fear of leaving campus in case they miss out on something exciting.

In my mind there are some key solutions to these problems. First, we need to take a hard look at the curriculum and structure that we’ve designed. As Davidson argues in The New Education, hours per course, degree plans and so forth were all developed for a different age and different needs. Our accrediting bodies need to recognize this as well, and we all need to begin to think about how to use all levels of instruction and assessment to aid in the development of student learning rather than constricting it.

We also need to consider how we might build experiential learning into degree plans and provide funding opportunities for students to participate. For example, internships and applied research experiences, even when required, are often unpaid. We know the high value of these experiences in providing students with opportunities to apply their knowledge in a real world setting. Study abroad experiences can become prohibitively expensive unless the institution prioritizes such experiences and finds ways to off set costs for students. And yet, in this increasingly connected, global society, cultural competency and agility are incredibly valuable. Let’s work to find ways to provide funds that allow all students to participate in some way.

From a cultural perspective, we need to think about how we build experiential learning  into the expectations of our students. Rather than fearing missing out, we need to consider how to give students opportunities to share what they’ve learned when they come back and continue to build on the community and/or skills and knowledge that they were able to begin while in their experiential learning activity. Unless we’re intentional in addressing these issues of curriculum, cost and culture, we will struggle to integrate experiential learning into our student experience. Those institutions that do that integration well have figured it out, and so can the rest of us.

Experiential learning provides that final step in learning, giving students the chance to take what they’ve learned and apply it in real world, messy situations that require them to problem solve creatively, demonstrate cognitive flexibility, and think critically. I believe that experiential learning is the key answer to some of the questions I’ve been proposing we consider in this series. To be clear, by experiential learning I don’t mean active learning opportunities in the classroom, which I use frequently myself and believe are beneficial. I mean opportunities to apply classroom learning in the real world through experiences like internships, research or creative activities and study abroad. What we’re looking for with experiential learning is the chance to, as Miss Frizzle would say in The Magic School Bus, “take chances, make mistakes and get messy.” If our institutions aren’t intentionally, actively providing students with these kinds of opportunities, we are not preparing them for world readiness. If we want to move into the unmade future that produces creative, flexible problem solvers who can make real change happen in the world, we must provide students with planned academic experiential learning opportunities. And, we must re-evaluate our culture, curriculum and the cost to the student so that experiential learning is a congruent part of the comprehensive academic student experience at our institutions. When we are able to do that, we’ll be moving into an exciting future for higher education.

Aoun, J. (2017). Robot-proof : higher education in the age of artificial intelligence. Cambridge, Massachusetts : The MIT Press, [2017].

Catmull, E. E., & Wallace, A. (2014). Creativity, Inc. : overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration. New York : Random House, [2014]

Davidson, C. N. (2017). The new education : how to revolutionize the university to prepare students for a world in flux. New York : Basic Books, [2017].

JOHNSON STEVEN. (2010). Where Good Ideas Come from the Natural History of Innovation. Riverhead Books.



2 comments on “Part 5: Experiential Learning and the Future of Higher Education

  1. JAA
    October 17, 2018

    Thank you, JS, for this great summary of so many complicated and important ideas. And thanks also for helping me re-fill my Amazon cart! You always have great resources.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      October 17, 2018

      Thank you for reading! I’m especially enjoying Robot-Proof right now. It’s got me thinking so much about the kinds of questions we ask about where we go from here. In the past few weeks I’ve ended up in several conversations about “job readiness” vs “world readiness,” and in this time of such great flux, that may be one of our critical questions to consider. Which of those two is our main concern?

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