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 http://www.ryerson.ca/lt 
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