Health Benefits from Nature – Part 4 Materials & Methods


This research was conducted in accordance with approved guidelines, and all protocols were received Institutional Human Research Ethics Approval (Behavioural & Social Sciences Ethical Review Committee, University of Queensland), project number 2012000869. Informed consent was obtained from all respondents. The full survey is available in the Supplementary material.

We surveyed 1538 Brisbane residents aged 18–70 years to obtain information on health and experiences of nature. The survey was delivered online by Q&A Market Research Ltd to their existing market research database of potential respondents, and carried out in November 2012. This time period was chosen as it is prior to the onset of higher summer temperatures, ensuring that the outcomes were minimally affected by seasonal conditions and because it is prior to the summer holiday period which could also affect participation and the measured behaviors53. Brisbane City has high overall levels of public green space (>200 m2 per person) and tree cover (36%), both of which are spread rather evenly across the socio-economic gradient54. Thus baseline exposure to nature outside of the experiences measured in this study (i.e. through day-to-day activities at home or work) is likely to be high across city residents.

The respondent group was recruited based on whether they fulfilled a number of stratification criteria across a range of factors, which ultimately ensured that the socio-demographic distribution closely reflected that of the actual population (Table S1), according to age (similar numbers above and below 45), sex (similar numbers of males and females), income quartiles within the city, and respondents’ addresses were spread evenly among four spatial zones reflecting the four quartiles of tree cover across the city (Figure S1). A Pearson’s rank sum test was conducted to compare the proportion of representation within the different stratification criteria against that of the real population, and showed that the characteristics of the surveyed population were well correlated with that of the actual population (correlation coefficient = 0.67, t = 7.14, p < 0.0001).

Socio-demographic variables that are tied to health outcomes were collected, including age, sex, personal annual income, highest formal qualification, presence of children under 16 in the home, the primary language spoken at home, and number of days the respondent normally spends at work per week. Respondents also provided information on their height and weight, from which we calculated BMI. The Australian census-derived Index of Relative Socio-economic Disadvantage (IRSD) was used as a measure of the level of socio-economic disadvantage in the respondent’s neighbourhood, calculated for the finest possible spatial scale (Statistical Area 1, mean area = 0.44 km2,55). We also measured a person’s connection to nature using the Nature Relatedness scale33, as this could moderate any benefits gained from experiences of nature. All variables are described in detail in Table 3.

Table 3 Descriptions of the variables tested for correlation with each of the four health responses.

Full size table

How to cite this article: Shanahan, D. F. et al. Health Benefits from Nature Experiences Depend on Dose. Sci. Rep. 6, 28551; doi: 10.1038/srep28551 (2016).

Health Benefits from Nature – Part 3 Discussion


The results here suggest that nature experiences in urban green spaces may be having a considerable impact on population health, and that these benefits could be higher if more people were engaged in nature experiences. Specifically, our results suggest that up to a further 7% of depression cases and 9% of high blood pressure cases could be prevented if all city residents were to visit green spaces at least once a week for an average duration of 30 minutes or more. The societal costs of depression are estimated at AUD$12.6 billion per annum for employed Australians alone34, and the direct costs of hypertension in the United States have been estimated at US$48 billion35. Given that our results show nature experiences, if causal in nature, could simultaneously lead to a suite of health benefits for mental health (depression), physical health (high blood pressure), social health (social cohesion), and a positive health behaviour (physical activity), the cumulative cost savings across all health outcomes could be immense if this behavioural change was targeted.

Our finding that the duration, and frequency of nature interactions are varyingly associated with the four health outcomes has potentially important implications for the design of health interventions, and also reveals new hypotheses that warrant further attention. For example, while provision and quality of green spaces is undoubtedly important, health programs aiming to reduce the prevalence of depression or high blood pressure might also focus on behavioural interventions, for example, promoting longer duration green space visits. In contrast, improved social cohesion in communities is a well-known benefit of public green spaces36,37, and interventions that aim to enhance social cohesion might fruitfully focus on increasing residents’ frequency of visits38. Social cohesion is itself important for public health, as it is positively associated with physical and mental wellbeing39. These flow-on benefits are likely to add considerably to the economic and social value of urban green space.

Here physical activity was associated with both higher duration and frequency of green space visits, which is important given it can reduce the risk of a wide range of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity40. Green spaces are often considered settings that directly facilitate exercise41, and visiting green spaces can incidentally entail walking, running or cycling. Vegetated areas also offer shade and improved temperature regulation42, providing a pleasant location for physical activity. This is particularly relevant in cities such as Brisbane, a sub-tropical location with hot summers and a mean of 113 cloudless days per year43. However, while many studies have found that more people undertake physical activity (e.g. cycling and walking) in greener neighbourhoods17, the results are sometimes mixed; for example, these patterns could be due to other activities such as gardening44, or because active people self-select into greener neighbourhoods45. While our results add to the body of knowledge on this subject, these varying explanations require further attention.

Our measure of nature intensity (vegetation complexity) showed no association with any of the health outcomes measured. Other studies have found that higher levels of plant, butterfly and bird species richness (or perceived species richness) can enhance a person’s feelings of restoration13,14, and future work might fruitfully explore the effect of such measures within the nature dose framework. There are also other hypotheses describing relationships between health and vegetation complexity; for example, studies have found that more people tend to visit public green spaces with moderate levels of vegetation cover (rather than high or low)46, and vegetation is also likely to influence the perception of safety of an area25. Systematic consideration of nature dose-response relationships will therefore be critical to understanding how to enhance health outcomes from exposure to nature.

We observed significantly fewer cases of depression and high blood pressure in people who spent an average of 30 minutes or more visiting green space in the survey week, and there was some indication that longer duration visits may be associated with an even lower prevalence of depression. However, here we traded-off accuracy in detecting differences across the incremental increases in dose for achieving a high level of representation across the population (i.e. sampling did not target respondents with varying durations of nature exposure). Given that this type of dose-response relationship could contribute further evidence for causality according to Hill’s criterion47, future studies would benefit from achieving relatively even sampling representation across the relevant nature dose levels. An added consideration when interpreting the results outlined here is that the effects of depression itself can influence a person’s activity levels48, and so could reduce the likelihood that a person visits green-space. The same effect could also occur for high blood pressure, where people who have other risk factors such as obesity might also be less likely to visit green spaces (note, BMI and physical activity were considered as covariates here, so these effects are somewhat accounted for). Thus, studies that explore changes over time within individuals and across populations could be a particularly powerful way to further elucidate dose-response relationships between nature and health.

This study used a self-report online survey, an approach which brings a number of benefits (such as the large sample size and a high level of stratification across the population), as well as limitations. For example, recalling events can pose challenges, question order can affect responses, and many other factors can affect how well a person responds to questions49. While we used measures to minimize these limitations, other methods such as longitudinal studies using tracking technologies might provide complementary understanding of nature-dose relationships. Future research exploring the role of a broader range of socio-demographic and community factors related to health outcomes, but which also have the potential to influence interaction with nature (e.g. marital status and crime) will also shed light on the mechanistic pathways linking nature exposure to health.

Nature relatedness, or the differences in the way people view their connection with the natural world, could both drive interactions with nature and enhance wellbeing in its own right50. We found that higher levels of nature relatedness predicted greater feelings of social cohesion and higher levels of physical activity. This supports other research which has found that people with higher nature relatedness scores also often report better wellbeing, happiness and life satisfaction33,51, and lower levels of anxiety52. A limitation of studies so far within this area is that they are often single time-point studies, and research is needed to whether actively altering this trait might influence health and wellbeing.

Interactions with nature simultaneously deliver mental, physical and social health outcomes for a population through multiple pathways22. By harnessing the synergistic potential of these pathways, contact with nature has the potential to lower not just the prevalence of single chronic conditions, but also multiple chronic or acute medical conditions that co-occur within one person. However, here we have also shown that the different components of experiences of nature (the frequency, duration or intensity) variously influence the health outcomes. This has important implications for the design of health interventions targeting improvements in the four health domains examined here. Ongoing efforts to unpack the nature-health relationship will be vital to combat the emerging public health challenges associated with urbanization, and to ensure that investment in green space provides value for money21,22,23.

How to cite this article: Shanahan, D. F. et al. Health Benefits from Nature Experiences Depend on Dose. Sci. Rep. 6, 28551; doi: 10.1038/srep28551 (2016).

Health Benefits from Nature – Part 2 Results


The first stage of our analysis was to examine the relationship between individual-level experiences of nature and four health outcomes in a population sample of 1538 residents of Brisbane City, Australia. These health outcomes included whether the respondent scored as having mild or worse depression determined from an established 7 item questionnaire28, whether the respondent reported being under treatment for high blood pressure, perceptions of social cohesion derived from three survey questions29,30,31, and the self-reported number of days on which physical exercise occurred for more than 30 minutes during the survey week.

We measured experiences of nature across three components, including the usual frequency of outdoor green space visits across a year, the average duration of visits to green space across a week, and the intensity of nature (measured as the highest level of vegetation complexity within any of the green spaces that a respondent visited, following a hypothesis that higher levels of vegetation lead to greater health outcomes; Table 1, Fig. 2). Multivariate analyses revealed that a longer duration of individual nature experiences was significantly linked to a lower prevalence of depression and of high blood pressure, and increased physical activity. A higher frequency of green space visitation was an important predictor for increased social cohesion, and both duration and frequency showed a significant positive relationship with higher levels of physical activity (Table 1). These multivariate analyses accounted for key covariates including age, gender, Body Mass Index (BMI; weight in kilograms/square of height in meters), and socio-economic indicators including the income, education, and neighborhood socio-economic disadvantage (Index of Socio-economic Disadvantage, IRSD; Table 1)32. We also found that people with a stronger self-reported connection to nature (measured using the Nature Relatedness scale33) had greater levels of social cohesion and physical activity, but did not show a reduced prevalence of depression or high blood pressure (Table 1).

Table 1 The relationship between four health outcomes (the response variables), socio-demographic covariates and nature experience predictor variables.

The bivariate relationships between health responses (A–D) and nature experiences, comprising (i) the average duration of visits to green space; (ii) the normal reported frequency of visits to green space; and (iii) the nature intensity, measured as vegetation complexity within the best visited public green space

We examined the dose-response relationship between the odds of a respondent being recorded as having high blood pressure or depression and incremental increases in the duration of nature experiences, while accounting for covariates (Fig. 3, Table 2). We found that the odds were significantly lower than the null model for depression when reported green space visits were an average of 30 minutes or more (i.e. the confidence interval did not overlap with an odds ratio of one; Fig. 3A), with a slight increase in mean gains until a duration of 1 hour 15 minutes. For high blood pressure, there was also a significant health improvement after 30 minutes of exposure, though the dose-response curve showed high variability at higher exposure levels (Fig. 3B). The power of the test for high blood pressure and depression was reduced at higher durations (indicated by wider 95% confidence intervals).

Figure 3: Dose-response graphs showing the adjusted odds ratio from logistic regression for incrementally increasing average duration of green space visits.

95% confidence intervals are shown. An odds ratio above one indicates an individual is more likely to have the disease where the threshold of green space visitation is not met.

Table 2 The odds ratios for a person having depression or high blood pressure where specific risk factors are present (the result for each variable was calculated while accounting for all their other risk factors; i.e. multivariate analyses), and the proportion of disease cases in the study population attributable to various risk factors (average population attributable fraction).

We found that the proportion of cases of depression and high blood pressure in the population that can be attributed to city residents failing to spend an average of 30 minutes or more during a green space visit across the course of their week (the ‘population attributable fraction’) was 0.07 for depression, and 0.09 for high blood pressure (Table 2); that is, there could be up to 7% fewer cases of depression and 9% fewer cases of high blood pressure if the entire sampled population met the minimum duration criteria of 30 minutes or more.

How to cite this article: Shanahan, D. F. et al. Health Benefits from Nature Experiences Depend on Dose. Sci. Rep. 6, 28551; doi: 10.1038/srep28551 (2016).

Health Benefits from Nature – Part 1

Health Benefits from Nature Experiences Depend on Dose
Nature within cities will have a central role in helping address key global public health challenges associated with urbanization. However, there is almost no guidance on how much or how frequently people need to engage with nature, and what types or characteristics of nature need to be incorporated in cities for the best health outcomes. Here we use a nature dose framework to examine the associations between the duration, frequency and intensity of exposure to nature and health in an urban population. We show that people who made long visits to green spaces had lower rates of depression and high blood pressure, and those who visited more frequently had greater social cohesion. Higher levels of physical activity were linked to both duration and frequency of green space visits. A dose-response analysis for depression and high blood pressure suggest that visits to outdoor green spaces of 30 minutes or more during the course of a week could reduce the population prevalence of these illnesses by up to 7% and 9% respectively. Given that the societal costs of depression alone in Australia are estimated at AUD$12.6 billion per annum, savings to public health budgets across all health outcomes could be immense.


Urbanization is emerging as one of the most important global health issues of the 21st century 1, 2, with cities becoming epicenters for chronic, non-communicable physical and mental health conditions 3, 4. There is growing recognition of the crucial role of urban green spaces in addressing this public health challenge 5, 6, with over 40 years of research showing that experiences of nature are linked to a remarkable breadth of positive health outcomes. This includes improved physical health (e.g. reduced blood pressure 7 and allergies 8, lower mortality from cardiovascular disease 9, improved self-perceived general health 10, 11), improved mental wellbeing (e.g. reduced stress 12 and improved restoration 13, 14), greater social wellbeing 15, and promotion of positive health behaviors (e.g. physical activity 16, 17). Consequently, cities across the world are investing in the provision, management and enhancement of public green spaces, with the 100 largest cities in the US alone spending over US$6 billion in 201518. Advice about how to achieve health outcomes from green spaces currently remains very general 19, 20. Evidence on how frequent or how long nature experiences need to be, or what types of nature are needed, is vital to ensure that investment in green space provision can cost-effectively help to meet the public health challenges of urbanization 21, 22, 23.

Here, for the first time we use the nature-dose framework posed by Shanahan et al.21 to quantify the link between health outcomes and experiences of nature, as measured by intensity (i.e. the quality or quantity of nature itself), and the frequency and duration of a city resident’s experiences. We focus on examples of health issues across four domains for which there is some prior evidence that nature exposure can provide benefits. These health issues are also particularly relevant for cities, and include mental health (the prevalence of depression), physical health (high blood pressure), social wellbeing (social cohesion), and a positive health behaviour (physical activity). These health outcomes could be tied to experiences of nature through a range of mechanistic pathways (some of which are outlined in Fig. 1)22. For example, a higher level of vegetation within a landscape (a measure of nature intensity) may be linked to enhanced physical, mental and social wellbeing through providing a visually complex environment that can lead to reduction in stress24, reduction of mental fatigue 25, or by adding to the look and feel of a place and so providing a pleasant location for social or physical activities 22 (Fig. 1). Similarly, variation in duration and frequency of nature exposure could also influence the long-term health outcomes people experience, with even short-duration exposure to natural environments shown to deliver an immediate reduction in blood pressure 7 and greater feelings of restoration 26. Yet despite this, whether and how the intensity, frequency or duration of nature exposure leads to long-term and lasting effects on health remains unexplored.

Figure 1: Hypothesized pathways to the mental, physical, social and behavioral health outcomes from experiences of nature explored in this study, based on the framework outlined by Shanahan et al.22.

Unpacking the relationship between health outcomes and the three components of nature dose also allows for the exploration of dose-response relationships, including whether there is a minimum dose where some effect of natire on health might be seen21,27. Here we therefore use dose-response modelling to determine how rates of high blood pressure and depression vary in response to nature experiences, including whether the outcomes plateau or continue to improve21. We examine the scale of the population health benefits that could arise if these nature dose recommendations are met, and the impact of this on the public health purse.

How to cite this article: Shanahan, D. F. et al. Health Benefits from Nature Experiences Depend on Dose. Sci. Rep. 6, 28551; doi: 10.1038/srep28551 (2016).

A dose of nature

A dose of nature: Two three-level meta-analyses of the beneficial effects of exposure to nature on children’s self-regulation


Children with greater exposure to nature demonstrate higher levels of self-regulation

Two separate meta-analyses were conducted on the effect of exposure to nature on children’s self-regulation. One meta-analysis included only correlational studies; the other quasi-experimental (non-random assignment to intervention and control groups) and experimental (random assignment to intervention and control groups) studies. A meta-analysis is a statistical technique used to combine evidence presented in a number of other individual studies. Combining evidence yields a more precise and accurate estimation of effects than what an individual study can do. The literature search for these meta-analyses yielded 31 studies: 15 correlational; 16 (quasi-)experimental.

The meta-analysis on the correlational studies showed a small but significant positive association between nature and self-regulation in children. These results indicated that children living in greener neighborhoods or who have more frequent exposure to nature demonstrate better self-regulation than children with less nature exposure. Studies using parent-report to assess exposure to nature showed stronger associations than studies using an index of surrounding greenery. The meta-analysis on the (quasi-)experimental studies showed similar results: Children with more exposure to nature showed better self-regulation than children in a control group with less exposure to nature. Overall, more than 50% of the included studies showed significant positive effects of exposure to nature on children’s self-regulation. Two reported a significant negative effect.

These meta-analyses support the idea that a natural environment is beneficial for child development and that it can have a positive impact specifically on children’s cognitive, affective, and behavioral self-regulation. The fact that there was no evidence of sample characteristics – such as children’s age, gender, and ethnicity – influencing the results, suggests that exposure to nature is beneficial for all children within the targeted age-range (4-12 years).

This research suggests that “nature may be a promising tool in stimulating children’s self-regulation, and possibly preventing child psychopathology.” While these findings have meaningful implications for public health and clinical practice, more rigorous experimental studies are recommended.


Weeland, J., Moens, M.A., Beute, F., Assink, M., Staaks, J.P.C., Overbeek, G., (2019). A dose of nature: Two three-level meta-analyses of the beneficial effects of exposure to nature on children’s self-regulation. Journal of Environmental Psychology

Outdoor adventures and adolescents’ mental health

Outdoor adventures and adolescents’ mental health: Daily screen time as a moderator of changes


Outdoor adventures may compensate for some negative mental health conditions associated with exaggerated screen time in adolescents

This study investigated whether outdoor adventure programs may produce different effects for adolescents with high versus low levels of daily screen time (ST). The study also investigated the possibility of excessive media consumers profiting the most from outdoor adventure programs. Previous research provides evidence of excessive ST having detrimental effects on psycho-social health and outdoor adventure programs having positive effects on psycho-social health. Building on that research, this study aimed to determine if outdoor adventure programs may be effective in countering negative mental health impacts of ST.

Seventy-six adolescents (age 13-20) completed questionnaires before and after participating in a 10-day outdoor adventure program during which time they were without access to the internet and television and had no service for mobile phones. All of the camp activities – which included canoeing, rappelling, rock climbing and hiking – took place in natural surroundings and were designed to promote personal development and team building. The questionnaire included an assessment of perceived stress and subjective well-being. The questionnaire also collected information about the participants’ daily leisure screen time. Researchers used the questionnaire responses to categorize participants into two groups: high media consumers (more than three hours of ST per day) and low-to-moderate consumers (3 or fewer hours of ST per day).

glenhaven park campsite

Pre-post assessment results showed significant positive changes in the mental health scores of both groups of media consumers. Excessive media consumers, however, showed greater gains than low-to-moderate consumers. These results applied across the different types of mental health measures (i.e., stress perceptions and indicators of well-being). While the excessive media consumers showed greater gains in mental health and well-being, they also entered the program with lower levels of mental health indicators.

These findings provide a strong argument for a wider use of outdoor adventure programs for health promotion, especially for adolescents who tend to spend a great deal of time involved with media consumption.  Providing time away from their “normal” (mediatized) lifestyle may compensate for the negative health impacts of leisure ST. Another potential impact relates to the possibility of participants making changes in their mediatized and sedentary lifestyles at home. This study adds to the existing literature by being the first to address different effects of outdoor adventure programs according to daily levels of ST.


Mutz, M., Müller, J., Göring, A., (2019). Outdoor adventures and adolescents’ mental health: Daily screen time as a moderator of changes. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 19(1), 56-66.

Glenhaven Park June 2018

Effects of childhood setting and interaction with nature

Effects of childhood setting and interaction with nature on academic performance in introductory college-level course in the environmental sciences


Growing up in rural settings and having prior interactions with nature is associated with better academic performance in college environmental science courses

This study aimed to gain a better understanding of why college students struggle in introductory environmental science (ES) courses and what might be done to adjust teaching practices to promote success and persistence. Over 700 students across eleven introductory ES courses completed a 23-item online survey. Items on the survey included demographic questions and questions relating to student’s interest in ES-related topics, amount of prior ES coursework, childhood residence setting (rural, urban, suburban), and frequency of childhood interactions with components of natural environments (forests, soil, plants, etc.). Researchers then linked survey responses to students’ final grades in their ES course and looked for possible associations.

Results showed that higher grades were positively linked to (a) growing up in a rural setting, (b) having plans to pursue an ES-related career, (c) interacting with forests prior to entering college, and (d) having an understanding of ecosystem processes. Additionally, over 40% of the students with frequent childhood interactions with nature reported that such interactions helped them in their ES course. Over 50% of the students who reported not interacting with forests at all before college earned a below-average grade in their ES course. Factors not significantly associated with student grades in ES courses included academic rank, gender, prior ES coursework, and the number of ES-related extracurricular activities a student participated in during high school.

Overall findings of this study indicate that students from more urban settings and those with fewer childhood interactions with natural environments under-perform relative to their counterparts in introductory ES courses. Population trends indicate that colleges can expect an increase in the percentage of students from urban backgrounds and with limited interactions with natural environments. These findings call attention to the need for further work in identifying and addressing implications for educational practice.


Spero, M.A., Balster, N.J., Bajcz, A.W., (2019). Effects of childhood setting and interaction with nature on academic performance in introductory college-level course in the environmental sciences. Environmental Education Research, 25(3), 422-442.


Only 7/3 of U.S. 8th graders perform at
or above standards for science and math ?
Green schoolyards promote academic achievement through hands-on, experiential learning and by enhancing the cognitive and emotional processes important for learning.
Green schoolyards provide experiential learning across many subjects.

GREEN Help students focus attention and regulate behavior

SCHOOLYARDS Enhance attitudes and engagement with school

CAN Support creativity, critical thinking and problem solving

Seeing nature and greenery from school buildings can foster positive academic outcomes.

Methods for Assessing Experiential Activities

There are many potential ways to assess experiential activities, both external and internal. These methods are tied to reflection, helping learners to focus their learning while also producing a product for assessment purposes. Moon lists several examples:

  • “Maintenance of a learning journal or a portfolio
  • Reflection on critical incidents
  • Presentation on what has been learnt
  • Analysis of strengths and weaknesses and related action planning
  • Essay or report on what has been learnt (preferably with references to excerpts from reflective writing)
  • Self-awareness tools and exercises (e.g. questionnaires about learning patterns)
  • A review of a book that relates the work experience to own discipline
  • Short answer questions of a ‘why’ or ‘explain’ nature
  • A project that develops ideas further (group or individual)
  • Self-evaluation of a task performed
  • An article (e.g. for a newspaper) explaining something in the workplace
  • Recommendation for improvement of some practice (a sensitive matter)
  • An interview of the learner as a potential worker in the workplace
  • A story that involves thinking about learning in the placement
  • A request that students take a given theory and observe its application in the workplace
  • An oral exam
  • Management of an informed discussion
  • A report on an event in the work situation (ethical issues)
  • Account of how discipline (i.e. subject) issues apply to the workplace
  • An identification of and rationale for projects that could be done in the workplace” (2004, p. 166)

Of these methods, Qualters singles out the learning portfolio as one of the most comprehensive methods of assessing experiential learning. Learning portfolios are distinguished from standard professional portfolios through their inclusion of a reflection component. It therefore becomes more than just “a showcase of student materials,” and instead becomes a “purposefully designed collection connected by carefully thought out structured student reflections.” Beyond assessing student learning, well-constructed portfolios can be used for accreditation, university-wide outcome assessment, and to document and understand the learning process at both the level of course and program (Qualters, 2010, p. 60).

John Zubizarreta proposes a simple model for a learning portfolio with three fundamental and interrelated components:

  1. Reflection
  2. Documentation
  3. Collaboration (2008, p. 1).

This conception of a learning portfolio mirrors that of a teaching portfolio, pairing a concise, reflective narrative with a series of appendices containing appropriate evidence for each area of reflection. Zubizarreta believes that “the value of portfolios in improving student learning resides in engaging students not just in collecting representative samples of their work for assessment, evaluation, or career preparation, but in addressing vital reflective questions that invite systematic inquiry” (2008, p. 2). Portfolios engage students in “intellectually challenging, creative, rigorous work,” and serve as both a process and an end product. This recalls the above-stated definition of experiential learning as being as much about the means as about the ends, and the necessity of devising assessment methods to measure success in both the process and the product.

Keeping Zubizarreta’s three fundamental components in mind, it is important to remember that there is no right way of constructing a portfolio, and each portfolio will be different depending on the program of study or experiential learning activity. Zubizarreta provides the following generic table of contents to give suggestions as to the potential contents of a portfolio and a logical order that can be used to drive learning:

  1. Philosophy of learning: What, how, when, and why did I learn? A reflective narrative on the learning, process, learning style, value of learning
  2. Achievements in Learning: What have I accomplished with my learning? Records—transcripts, course descriptions, resumes, honors, awards, internships, tutoring
  3. Evidence of Learning: What products, outcomes do I have to demonstrate learning? Outcomes—research papers, critical essays, field experience logs, creative displays/performances, data/spreadsheet analysis, lab results
  4. Assessment of Learning: What measures and accounting to I have of my learning? Instructor feedback, course test scores, exit/board exams, lab/data reviews, research project appraisals, practicum reports
  5. Relevance of Learning: What difference has learning made in my life? Practical applications, leadership, relation of learning to personal and professional domains, ethical/moral growth, affiliations, hobbies, volunteer work, affective value of learning
  6. Learning Goals: What plans do I have to continue learning? Response to feedback; plans to enhance, connect, and apply learning, career ambitions
  7. Appendices: How coherently have I integrated evidence with reflections and self-assessments in the portfolio? Selected documentation for areas 1 through 6 (Zubizarreta, 2008, p. 4).

To plan a learning portfolio project, Zubizarreta provides a short rubric that asks instructors to first identify the purpose of the portfolio, and then answer the following questions:

  1. What kind of reflective questions should students address?
  2. What kinds of evidence or learning outcomes would be most useful?
  3. How will students engage in collaboration and mentoring during the process? (Zubizarreta, 2008, p. 4)

The purpose of a learning portfolio “strongly determines the themes of the reflective narrative, as well as the types of documentation or evidence selected in the appendices.” A planning rubric representing this can be a table with three columns—purpose, theme, and evidence—and the content of these columns can be quite broad. For example, if the purpose of the portfolio is “improvement,” then the themes could be “development, reflective inquiry, focus on goals, philosophy of learning,” and the evidence for that could be “drafts, journals, online threaded discussions, emails, statements of goals, classroom assessments, research notes.” If the purpose of the portfolio is “problem solving,” then the themes could be “critical thinking, creativity, application of knowledge, flexibility, curiosity,” and the evidence for that could be “problemsolving log, lab reports, computer programs, spreadsheet data analyses” (Zubizarreta, 2008, p. 5).

No matter what the contents of the learning portfolio, a well-designed project will keep students, active, engaged, and reflective, helping them to “own their own learning as more independent, self-directed, and lifelong learners.” To that end, Zubizarreta cites a recent trend amongst universities to supply alumni with perpetual server space, enabling students to maintain their learning portfolios electronically long after their time in university, “a nod toward a true conception of portfolio development as a lifelong commitment to learning” (Zubizarreta, 2008, p. 6).

Extract from :
Prepared by Michelle Schwartz, Research Associate, for the Vice Provost, Academic, Ryerson University, 2012 

Assessment of Experiential Learning

Assessment is an integral part of the experiential learning process. It provides a basis for “participants and instructors alike to confirm and reflect on the learning and growth that has and is occurring.” Further, proper assessment methods engender a “reflective process that ensures continued growth long after specific learning opportunities have been completed” (Bassett & Jackson, 1994, p. 73). Without the “appropriate assessment tool, such as a self-assessment, the educator might not ever realize that significant learning occurred. Therefore, classroom educators should search for assessment techniques that measure more than just the ability to remember information” (Wurdinger, 2005, p. 69).

The assessment of experiential activities presents a unique problem to instructors. Because in experiential activities the means are as important as the ends, “it is important to look at assessment as more than outcome measurement. While outcomes are important to measure, they reflect the end product of assessment, not a complete assessment cycle” (Qualters, 2010, p. 56). It is therefore necessary to devise unique assessment methods to measure success in both the process and the product—each area requires separate learning outcomes and criteria (Moon, 2004, p. 155).

Another difficulty when developing assessments has to do with the variability of experiential activities. Because students are working on different projects, or participating in different external activities, they can’t all be expected to learn the exact same things, and each student may take away something different from the experience. Beyond the variability of activities, there is also the variability amongst the different students.

In experiential learning, these two types of variables are often uncontrollable, and thus have to be accounted for when developing assessment methods. Ewert and Sibthorp have broken these “confounding variables” down into three areas based on what part of the experiential learning cycle they affect. The confounding variables are either precursors, concomitant, or post-experience (2009).

Precursor variables “exert their influence prior to the beginning of an experiential education experience.” They are “the antecedent that an individual ‘brings into’ the experience.” These variables include:

  • Prior knowledge and experience: “Participants with more or less past background and knowledge have both the ability to learn and benefit from (or not benefit from) different lessons from the experience.”
  • Demographics: The age, sex, and socio-economic status of students have an impact on what students learn.
  • Pre-experience anxiety, motivations, and expectations: These three items can “influence a participant’s readiness to learn, engage in, and benefit from the experience.”
  • Self-selection into a specific program or experience: The various reasons for why each student has chosen to participate in an experiential learning activity can create fundamentally different cohorts every time the program is run. The inherent differences between groups or individuals are often difficult to isolate from the “variance between experiential education experiences” (Ewert & Sibthorp, 2009, p. 378).

Concomitant variables “often arise during an experiential education experience and influence the outcomes during, or immediately after, that experience” (Ewert & Sibthorp, 2009, p. 380). These variables include:

  • Course specifics: This refers to the structure of the program, including the length, the specific activities, and the influence of the instructors.
  • Group characteristics: The attributes and characteristics of the individual students make each group different. This impacts both their individual experiences as well as the experience of the cohort.
  • Situational impacts: These “specific, non-structured, or unanticipated events” can have both a positive or negative effect on learning.
  • Frontloading for evaluation: This is a type of experimental bias in which the instructors or students “consciously or unconsciously influence the student results because of the evaluation process.” For instance, instructors might alter the experience to match the findings they hoped to see, or students “might, through a pretest, be predisposed to learning certain course outcomes” (Ewert & Sibthorp, 2009, p. 381).

Post-experience variables exert their influence after the completion of an experiential education activity. These variables include:

  • Social desirability or self-deception positivity, in which students respond to an evaluation survey with what they think instructors want to hear, rather than what they really feel.
  • Post-experience euphoria, in which a short-term feeling of excitement and accomplishment obscures the true feelings of a participant.
  • Post-experience adjustment or re-entry issues refers to the time that students need to adjust back to “normal” life after they complete their experiential activity. Collecting data during this period may not reflect how the student will feel after they get some distance from the program.
  • Response shift bias can occur when “the testing or measurement of a self-perception variable occurs at different times, and the participant’s understanding of the variable changes over this time period.” For instance, a student may, through the learning they experience over the course of their program, change their view of what constitutes “productive teamwork skills,” and thus their self-assessment at the beginning of the program cannot be accurately compared to their self-assessment after the program, as these assessments would be measuring different things (Ewert & Sibthorp, 2009, p. 382).

Effective assessment methods must be able to take these variables into account, and be able to both “separate perceived learning from genuine learning” as well as capture accurate levels of growth and change in students (Qualters, 2010, p.59). To accomplish this, Qualters provides this list of criteria for good assessment:

“ongoing, aimed at improving and understanding learning, had public and explicit expectations, set appropriate standards, and was used to document, explain, and improve performance. But it also seemed reasonable, doable, and logical to the faculty, as it drew on methods and models of the discipline as well as educational methodologies” (Qualters, 2010, p. 60)

To set about creating effective assessment methods, Qualters suggests asking the following “essential questions”:

  1. Why are we doing assessment?
  2. What are we assessing?
  3. How do we want to assess in the broadest terms?
  4. How will the results be used? (Qualters, 2010, p.56)

Having produced answers to the essential questions, Qualters then suggests that the next step be to move from the general to the more specific, answering “burning questions.”

“These are the questions that all parties involved in the experiential experience are really concerned about answering. For example, faculty may be concerned with capturing whether or not students are using classroom theory in practice; students may wonder how the experience enhances their discipline knowledge; administrators may be concerned with out accreditation will view these activities; staff may be apprehensive about the processes involved in setting up the activities; and the site personnel may be anxious about how student involvement affects their clients. By eliciting burning questions, you can develop and prioritize assessment mechanisms to provide useful answers, not just accumulate data” (Qualters, 2010, p. 57).

With the answers to these questions in hand, instructors can then go about developing their assessment strategy. Qualters recommends the use of Alexander Astin’s I-E-O (Input-Environment-Output) model:

  • Input: Assess students knowledge, skills, and attitudes prior to a learning experience
  • Environment: Assess students during the experience
  • Output: Assess the success after the experience (Qualters, 2010, p. 58)

To demonstrate the use of this model in the process of developing an effective assessment method, Qualters provides the example of a health education course in which students worked with the homeless:

  • Input: Students were surveyed for their attitudes and assumptions about the homeless, their conceptions of the homeless community, their concerns, and what they hoped to gain. Their current skill level was assessed through a “mini observed structured clinical experience.”
  • Environment: During the experience, students were required to keep structured reflective journals as well as participate in collective reflection. They were also given periodic structured observations to assess any increase in their knowledge and skill.
  • Output: After the experience, students were given the same attitudinal survey, they were asked to identify any insights or thoughts they had about working with the homeless, and they were given another “mini observed structured clinical experience” to assess any gains in skill level.

Qualters believes this method was successful for the following reasons:

  • Because students only conducted their necessary tasks as part of the experiential portion of the course (i.e. practicing taking blood pressure with the homeless community, not sometimes in class and sometimes on site), skill development could be measured absent of any of Ewert and Sibthorp’s confounding variables.
  • The observations, journals, and collective reflections “allowed the faculty to understand student learning processes as skills improved and attitudes evolved.”
  • The pre- and post- experience surveys were “able to surface student attitudes and misconceptions prior to going into the community, an important step in addressing and structuring the experience to prove or disprove their beliefs… faculty could understand how students were thinking, direct their reflection to make connections with prior knowledge and theory, and help them identify new insights as they reflected through writing and in groups.” The results from these surveys not only improved the current course, but allowed instructors to gather the necessary data with which to improve future course iterations (Qualters, 2010, p. 60).

When developing assessments for experiential learning, it is also important to keep the assessment method student-centered. Much in the same way that students are given power over their learning in the experiential classroom, they should also be given a role in assessing their own learning. Wurdinger reports on three ways in which students can conduct self-assessment in the experiential learning:

  1. Student involved assessment allows students to define how their work will be judged. They choose what criteria will be used to assess their work, or help create a grading rubric.
  2. Student involved record keeping allows students to keep track of their work. This could be done through the creation of portfolio that documents student progress over time.
  3. Student involved communication allows students to present their learning to an audience, such as with an exhibit or conference (2005, p. 70).

Another important point to remember when designing assessments is that although in many cases what is being assessed in the experiential classroom is reflective work, assessment shouldn’t be aimed directly at the actual reflective writing of learners. The reflective writing should be seen as an aid to learners in working through a process, not as a final product. Rather than assess such raw material, require students to re-process their reflection in the form of a more finished report or project. Students should be required to use their primary reflective material “either to support an argument or to respond to a question.” It may even be “useful to ask student to hand in their reflective writing as evidence that it has been completed in an appropriate manner” or require them to “quote material from their reflective writing” in their finished product. Requiring students to “reflect on their primary reflections is likely to yield deeper levels of reflection with improved learning” (Moon, 2004, p. 156).

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Prepared by Michelle Schwartz, Research Associate, for the Vice Provost, Academic, Ryerson University, 2012 

Teaching Experiential Learning to Teachers

Not surprisingly, the most effective method of training instructors to use experiential learning in the classroom is experientially. Warren presents a model for teaching experiential education that is project-based and student-directed.

In Warren’s model, the experiential component of a course in experiential education theory is “the students’ active creation of the class itself. Students determine the syllabus, prioritize topic areas, regulate class members’ commitment, facilitate actual class sessions, undertake individual or group-inspired projects, and engage in ongoing evaluation” (Warren, 1995, p. 250).

In this model, the students (and future experiential educators) are given the opportunity to facilitate every aspect of the class, providing them the necessary skills to run their own experiential classrooms. The model includes:

  1. Group work, providing students with direct experience of group dynamics and the management of group work.
  2. Group, class, and/or individual projects that “support an in-depth look at a particular aspect of experiential education theory.” The class can decide whether the project will be collective or not, adding another opportunity for group decision-making.
  3. Constant reassessments as the class learn from their experience. The students rework the components of the class, refining the syllabus, and resetting the ground rules. “Collectively, [the class] determined what, specifically, being prepared for the class meant, agree they wanted to start and end class on time, and verbally announced to their peers what their level of commitment was.”
  4. Student Co-Teacher from a previous class to assist with the course. “Having participated in the struggles of self-direction firsthand in the previous year, the student co-teacher brings an invaluable voice of experience to the new group.” This student co-teacher brings perspective, credibility, and is “yet another way to redistribute power” from instructor to learner.
  5. Evaluation in this model takes three forms.
    1. Facilitation feedback where students are “critiqued on how they ran a particular class… It allows class members immediate access to ideas on how to structure future teaching attempts.”
    2. Mid-course assessment helps keep learning on track, even when a mid-semester slump or class conflicts may have brought about feelings of disengagement or lethargy. This assessment is directed by the instructor and is meant to “gauge satisfaction and frustrations with the class… Because we do the repair work at mid-semester instead of waiting until the end, students feel as if they have the power to change their immediate educational experience.”
    3. Peer evaluation in which class members reflect on the growth and learning of their peers and write constructive evaluations of their classmates (Warren, 1995, p. 256).
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Prepared by Michelle Schwartz, Research Associate, for the Vice Provost, Academic, Ryerson University, 2012 

Teaching Reflection

Since reflection is such a crucial component of a successful experiential learning process, it is imperative that students understand exactly what reflection is and how to use the process to deepen their learning. To do so, Moon has articulated a two-stage process for training students in reflection. The first stage is called “presenting reflection.” In this stage, students are provided with examples of reflective writing, and are led through a discussion and some small exercises that get them accustomed to the concept and methodology of reflection. The second stage works to deepen the students’ understanding of reflection, moving from basic to more complex forms (Moon, 2004, p. 134). Here is a skeleton of this model, as laid out by Moon:

Stage 1: Presenting reflection

  1. “Discuss how reflective writing differs from more familiar forms of writing
  2. Consider the issues around the use of the first person
  3. Give examples
  4. Generate discussion of learners’ conception of reflection
  5. Enable practice and opportunities for feedback
  6. Give a starting exercise that does away with the blank page
  7. Support the further development of reflective writing with exercises/activities
  8. Set up situations in which learners can share their ideas
  9. Be prepared to support some learners more than others
  10. Be open about your need to learn about this form of learning and how to manage it
  11. Consider what reflection, reflective writing, reflective learning are
  12. Consider why reflection is being used to facilitate the current area of learning”

Stage 2: Facilitating deeper reflection

  1. “Introduce a framework that describes levels of reflection. Use example to demonstrate deeper reflection activity
  2. Introduce an exercise that involves ‘standing back from oneself’
  3. Introduce exercises that involve reflection on the same subject matter from different viewpoints (people, social institutions, etc.)
  4. Introduce exercises that involve reflection on the same subject matter from the viewpoints of different disciplines
  5. Introduce exercises that involve reflection that is obviously influenced by emotion reaction
  6. Introduce methods of deepening reflection by working with others (eg critical friends, collaborative activities)
  7. Use second-order reflection” (Moon, 2004, p. 143).
Extract from :
Prepared by Michelle Schwartz, Research Associate, for the Vice Provost, Academic, Ryerson University, 2012 

Running Experiential Activities: The Role of the Instructor

The role of the instructor in the experiential classroom is different than in the traditional classroom. In the experiential classroom, the instructor is a guide, a cheerleader, a resource, and a support.

Because students must take control of their own learning, the instructor must work to both relinquish their authoritarian influence and become, instead, “an integral member of the evolving group.” Students “accrue power as their initial promise of academic freedom becomes realized… After the students have attained selfdetermination, intervention by the teacher acting as a leader… occurs only in situations when the group lacks the skills to deal with obstacles they encounter” (Warren, 1995, p. 251).

When thinking about the role of the instructor in the experiential classroom, it can be helpful to ask several critical questions:

  1. Whose experience is it?
  2. Whose definition of success is being used?
  3. What is the goal of the activity for the student?
  4. How invested is the instructor in guaranteeing a certain student outcome?

These questions can help instructors explore any pre-conceptions they might have, or discover areas in which they haven’t fully relinquished control over learning (Chapman, McPhee, & Proudman, 1995, p. 243).

Warren lays out the teacher’s role as encompassing the following areas:

  1. Informed consent: “Students need to know what they are getting into so they can make responsible choices.” An instructor should provide “a precise course description and a detailed introduction to both the potentials and perplexities of the class.”
  2. Establishing a concrete vision: To help students make the leap to self-determination, instructors must “provide some initial structure and focusing.” The instructor provides a “concrete vision of the class by suggesting the course goals and what the students might expect from such an endeavor.” The instructor also “facilitates the first several weeks of class to give direction and set a model” for future class sessions.
  3. Setting ground rules: By setting “basic operating principles by both statement and example,” the instructor creates a safety net for students, empowering them to take risks. Some potential ground rules, as suggested by Warren, are: “the use of ‘I’ statements to express feelings, active listening, use of inclusive language, constructive feedback, and intolerance of oppression.”
  4. Providing process tools: In their work either in class groups or as part of teams within placements, students need the appropriate skills for being part of collaborative projects. For each of these skills, Warren suggests ways to help students develop their capabilities:
    1. Thinking as a group: “In order to come up with what they want to learn,” students should be “introduced to brainstorming and prioritizing strategies.”
    2. Decision-making: Explain consensus decision-making and then help students test it out by starting with small decisions that grow gradually more complex.
    3. Leadership: To ensure all students can practice being leaders, the instructor can point out the many potential leadership roles, such as “timekeeper, feelings articulator, group collective conscience, minority opinion advocate, question framer, summarizer, focuser, and gate keeper.”
    4. Problem solving: Providing students with opportunities to solve simple problems at the beginning will help them refine the skills they need to solve more complex problems in the future.
    5. Feedback and debriefing: Because evaluation and reflection are a crucial component of experiential learning, the instructor must ensure that feedback and debriefing occurs. “Insisting on quality feedback time early in the course sets an expectation for continuation during the latter sessions” (Warren, 1995, p. 251).

As much as it is the responsibility of the instructor to allow students to take control of their own learning, there are teaching techniques that can enhance reflective and experiential learning. Moon lists the following methods:

  1. Wait time: When lecturing, the instructor should take opportunities to pause between sentences and give students the opportunity to reflect or question what they’ve just heard.
  2. Confronting learners with their misconceptions: “Learners are helped if their misconceptions are pursued to the end, not just corrected.”
  3. Concept maps: Find out how learners see a topic by asking them to draw a concept map—the differences in each learner’s map “may demonstrate differences in thinking and therefore material on which to reflect.”
  4. Require learners to explain and apply: Asking students to explain a concept and then apply it to something else will help determine which students have picked up the necessary skills of critical thinking and reflection, and which have not. Further, “if learners know they will be required to explain something, they are likely to adopt a deep approach to the learning of it.”
  5. Questioning: The types of questions used both in class and in assessments matter when it comes to experiential learning. Open questions, leading questions, and questions set as problems to be considered are all effective ways of encouraging reflection. “Often the simplest questions are the most difficult to answer and demand the most thought” (Moon, 2004, p. 162).

Once students have been provided with the necessary skills and information, the instructor then steps back and serves as a resource person, cheerleader, and facilitator.

  • Instructor as resource: After topics have been selected and projects have gotten underway, the instructor becomes the “resource for readings, speakers, films, and programs. By having a ready repertoire of provocative resources, the teacher can influence the quality of the course content” (Warren, 1995, p. 255).
  • Instructor as cheerleader: Because experiential learning often forces students outside of their comfort zone, the instructor must help build their confidence in the process. Students often “need someone to point out that their struggles are an important part of growth toward success.” The instructor should reframe conflicts and difficulties in a positive light, show faith in the students, and exude enthusiasm for the process (p. 255).
  • Instructor as facilitator: During the learning process, the instructor must create, support, and model a safe environment where students feel valued, trusted, and respected. Verbally remind students that they are in control of their learning experiences, give students the power to make meaningful choices, and model each behavior in a variety of ways to make sure the concepts are fully understood and absorbed (Chapman, McPhee & Proudman, 1995, p. 243).

Finally, instructors must provide a sense of closure when bringing the experiential process to an end. The instructor should help students to understand what they’ve accomplished over the course of the experiential activity. “As they articulate their growth, students can better internalize what self-determination has taught them… they can also postulate future applications of the theories learned. Asking for written and verbal selfevaluations and encouraging a closure celebration” are ways for instructors to assist students with closure (Warren, 1995, p. 255).

Extract from :
Prepared by Michelle Schwartz, Research Associate, for the Vice Provost, Academic, Ryerson University, 2012 

Designing External Activities

In her book on experiential learning, Jennifer Moon discusses the difficulty of implementing successful external activities in the classroom. For instance, in the case of placements, it is important to remember that learning “from work experience mimics everyday learning. It is disrupted and non-routine, emotion is involved… much of the learning is incidental or informal… there are different points of view for virtually any issue…. Making something of this chaotic learning situation is confusing for a learner who is used to being ‘fed’ information in lectures” (Moon, 2004, p. 165).

There is also the “danger of trapping learner understanding within their own work setting.” The students’ “understanding and working knowledge becomes over-localized and cannot transcend the present and the particular” (Moon, 2004, p. 167). The underpinning principle of the external activity therefore must be the use of reflection to focus on the process of learning, allowing the experience to be generalized to other situations (p. 164).

outside education

To help structure external experiences, instructors should “incorporate the pattern of inquiry so that students are thinking and solving problems” while still involved in the experiences (Wurdinger, 2005, p. 11). The pattern of inquiry is discussed in greater detail in the section of this document on designing classroom activities.

To help learners make sense of their experience, it is crucial that learning be focused. Moon suggests that learning can be focused with the following:

• Carefully structured learning outcomes

• Briefing sessions and/or handouts

• Opportunities for reflection

• Tasks that directly apply what has been learned from the placement

• Assessment criteria (Moon, 2004, p. 165)

To help clarify what she means by the importance of helping students understand how their particular experience applies to the world as a whole, Moon has listed areas of potential learning that “should be included in learning outcomes and assessment criteria” for external activities (Moon, 2004, p. 164). When planning an external activity, instructors should consider this list and select the most appropriate items to expand upon.

As part of an external experiential activity, a student should learn:

• about work and workplace practices,

• how organizations work,

• communication skills and about working with people,

• about personal work behavior patterns,

• to evaluate their own performance,

• to work with feedback from others,

• about their own career aspirations,

• to plan and complete projects,

• to learn from experience,

• about self-management,

• to use reflection and reflective practice,

• key employability (or other) skills “not easily gained elsewhere in the curriculum,”

• self-confidence and a willingness to take initiatives, and

• to enhance their orientation toward lifelong learning (Moon, 2004, p. 164).

The other major hurdle that instructors must successfully leap when developing external activities is the identification and recruitment of placement sites and supervisors, and the negotiation of agreements that will benefit both the site and the students. Cantor describes several key ingredients for successful placements:

  1. Programs should be designed to make them of “sufficient duration that employers are motivated to invest in training and use the program as their primary recruitment source.”
  2. Placement opportunities should be “substantive enough to be challenging even to highly educated or experienced adults.”
  3. Instructors should “locate the positions in the curricula with great professional potential and a dearth of entry-level opportunities” (Cantor, 1995, p. 87)

Instructors should visit the potential site and list the benefits that will “accrue to each, and the expectations of each partner… there should be a written agreement listing the kinds of activities that the students will be doing as part of the placement. Make sure there is a mutual understanding of the working conditions, salary (if any), hours of work, attendance, and evaluation process. These need to be spelled out in the written agreement. Make sure limits of liability are understood” (Cantor, 1995, p. 88).

When negotiating with potential partner institutions, Cantor reminds instructors to expressly state that mentors are expected to help “learners explicitly understand learning as it is occurring,” that expectations between mentors and learners must be “mutually understood and agreed upon, and reviewed periodically,” and that “concrete exhibition of learning and skills should be encouraged to enhance the learners selfconcept” (p. 85).

If it is the student’s responsibility to select their placement, instructors should guide their selection by helping the student identify their career goals, complete an environmental assessment, review the potential positions, develop suitable terms, complete the placement, and then review their experience (p. 84).

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Prepared by Michelle Schwartz, Research Associate, for the Vice Provost, Academic, Ryerson University, 2012 

Designing Classroom Activities

In experiential classrooms, “students can process real-life scenarios, experiment with new behaviors, and receive feedback in a safe environment. Experiential learning assignments help students relate theory to practice and analyze real-life situations in light of course material” (Lewis & Williams, 1994, p. 8).

To help structure classroom activities, Wurdinger suggests Dewey’s “pattern of inquiry.” The reason this pattern of inquiry is so effective is that “thinking occurs not only after an experience but also throughout the entire experience.” The pattern begins with a student’s inquiry into a problem. The student then develops a plan to address the problem, tests their plan against reality, and then applies what they’ve learned to create a solution. The experiential component of this model is the application of knowledge (2005, p. 8).

When implementing an activity using the pattern of inquiry, remember that the activity should be student centered. The activity should be hands-on, and require the students to solve a problem that is relevant to their lives. Student interest is critical—students must be able to design their activity, not feel that it has been assigned to them: “Projects are more meaningful than tests because students must think, plan, and execute their ideas to produce something from their own creativity” (Wurdinger, 2005, p. 13).

According to Wurdinger, there are some key things to keep in mind when implementing classroom activities:

  1. The importance of being able to make mistakes: Students are accustomed to being penalized for making mistakes. Instructors in an experiential classroom must work hard to overcome the stigma attached to mistakes by actively celebrating them as opportunities for learning. “Allowing students to make mistakes may also lead to a situation where they retain more information because it is a more challenging learning process” (2005, p. 9).
  2. The importance of personal relevance: Discover what the students are interested in, and then select the appropriate problems. “When interest is internal, as opposed to being forced, students become both emotionally and intellectually invested in the learning process” (2005, p. 18).
  3. The importance of students understanding why they are doing something: If the student cannot see the reason behind their project, or do not see why they are involved, they may not learn anything at all.
  4. The importance of matching students with appropriate activities: In experiential learning, the means are as important as the ends, therefore it is of utmost importance that students stay engaged throughout the whole process. “Not enough challenge may result in boredom, and too much challenge may result in frustration”—in both cases, engagement will drop and learning will cease (2005, p. 19).
  5. The importance of students reflecting on their experience: This step is tied to the previous one— reflection, along with driving questions from the instructor, will help students maintain interest, learn successfully, and complete their tasks.
  6. The importance of the instructor delegating authority to the students: In experiential learning, the instructor serves as a guide and a resource to students, rather than as a leader. “This does not mean teachers withdraw from power by denouncing their authority… Instead, the teacher needs to use the respect and position they enjoy at the onset of class to promote student empowerment” (Warren, 1995, p. 250).
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Prepared by Michelle Schwartz, Research Associate, for the Vice Provost, Academic, Ryerson University, 2012 

Designing Experiential Activities

As mentioned above, it isn’t the particular activity that is experiential; it is the way that it is framed that makes it experiential. So how are instructional activities made experiential? A general framework could be:

  1. Decide which parts of your course can be instructed more effectively with experiential learning.
  2. Think about how any potential activities match the course learning objectives.
  3. Think about how the potential activity complements the overall course of study.
  4. Think about the grading criteria and evaluation method that would match the proposed activity (Cantor, 1995, p. 82).

Once a potential activity has been identified, it has to be framed properly to be fully experiential. First, begin by thinking of problems to be solved rather than information to be remembered (Wurdinger, 2005, p. 51). “A problem or question must be intertwined with activities, projects, and field-based experiences. This will help ensure that a combination of thinking and doing occurs in the learning process” (Wurdinger, 2005, p. 13).

Think about the mixture of primary and secondary experiences. Primary experiences are the experiential activities themselves, while secondary experiences result from the primary experience, as in reflection. It is necessary to “combine primary and secondary experiences within the same academic course. Learning may be lost if students are not given the chance to reflect on primary experiences and, likewise, when students are not given opportunities to apply information from secondary experiences.” Depending on your learner population, the blend of primary and secondary experiences may change. For instance, undergraduates may need to begin with primary experiences, as they haven’t had a chance to accrue any themselves. Graduate students may have already been working in a professional capacity, therefore they may have a host of primary experiences that they can reflect on at the start (Wurdinger, 2005, p. 19).

Build in the necessary structure to underpin the activities. The creation of an effective experiential learning environment for students is “initiated by the teacher through clearly defined educational parameters—group working agreements, activity learning goals, a big-picture design plan, etc.” (Chapman, McPhee & Proudman, 1995, p. 243).

Wurdinger has provided a short guide to integrating experiential learning into a course that may help instructors start thinking about the process holistically:

  1. Use a major project or field experience to guide learning over the entire course. Having one major task to work on all semester motivates students to keep moving forward, gives them a clear goal to focus on, and becomes the “driving force behind everything the student does in the class… When students know what they are aiming toward, they understand that each class has purpose because it provides a stepping-stone toward that overall aim.”
  2. Use a combination of projects, classroom activities, and external experiences to keep the course interesting and engaging while adding value to the overall process.
  3. Tie everything together. The class readings and lectures should be directly related to any experiential activities. The readings and class activities should all be thought of as resources that will help the students complete their major project.
  4. Ensure activities are challenging, yet manageable. When students are given the responsibility of devising their own projects, the instructor must then make sure that they are able to complete them.
  5. Provide clear expectations for students. This could include assessment criteria, or examples of completed projects and activities from previous courses.
  6. Allow students the necessary time to “identify, clarify, and keep focused on their problem.”
  7. Allow students to change direction midstream. The most important thing is that the students be working on projects that are meaningful and relevant to them. If they lack interest, the learning will also be lacking (Wurdinger, 2005, p. 63).
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Prepared by Michelle Schwartz, Research Associate, for the Vice Provost, Academic, Ryerson University, 2012 

Getting Started: Planning to Incorporate Experiential Activities

When beginning to think about incorporating an experiential component into your course, there are several steps to take:

  1. Analyzing your learner population and determining their needs. Are your students primarily at the graduate or undergraduate level? Are they mature learners with comprehensive past work experience, or have they never held a job in their field? What are their present levels of content mastery? Are there any cultural needs or variations? (Cantor, 1995, p.80). “Each person is a product of his or her cultural environment. Each person is conditioned over time to react in certain ways to given situations” (Chapman, McPhee & Proudman, 1995, p. 244). Instructors must understand that their students have been raised in a different cultural environment, and how this will impact their interactions.
  2. Identify appropriate activities for your learner population and course content. What activities are “appropriate for your course content and meet the cognitive development needs of your particular student population” (Cantor, 1995, p. 81)? Which aspects of your course content could experiential learning embellish? How does the activity you are considering meet course objectives or instructional goals? How does it allow students to experience key concepts in the course? How does the activity complement the program curriculum (Cantor, 1995, p. 82)?
  3. Identify potential issues when integrating experiential learning. What tradeoffs are necessary to include experiential activities in your course? When designing and modifying a course, will content have to be sacrificed to make time for activities? How will the activity fit within the program curriculum as a whole? Is there institutional support for replacing traditional course content with experiential activities? For external activities, what are the liability issues? How will partner institutions be selected and how will problems with partners be dealt with? How will students be placed to ensure equal opportunities for all (Cantor, 1995, p. 84)?
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Prepared by Michelle Schwartz, Research Associate, for the Vice Provost, Academic, Ryerson University, 2012 

Types of Experiential Learning

Experiential learning can be divided into two major categories: field-based experiences and classroom-based learning.

Field-based learning is the oldest and most established form of experiential learning, having been integrated into higher education in the 1930s. Field-based learning includes internships, practicums, cooperative education, and service learning (Lewis & Williams, 1994, p.7).

Classroom-based experiential learning can take a multitude of forms, including role-playing, games, case studies, simulations, presentations, and various types of group work. Experiential learning in the classroom has been growing in breadth and depth since “Chickering and Gamson recommended ‘active learning’ as one of the seven ‘principles of good practice’ for excellence in undergraduate education” in 1987 (Lewis & Williams, 1994, p.7).

Extract from :
Prepared by Michelle Schwartz, Research Associate, for the Vice Provost, Academic, Ryerson University, 2012