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