Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Why Experiential Education Works

Last week, there was a lot of discussion about a blog by Professor William Henderson concerning the substantial success of the third-year experiential program at Washington & Lee School of Law. While the blog created a great deal of excitement, there was some scepticism about its conclusions. Certainly, more study is necessary to fully understand what effect experiential programs have on law students. However, studies have been done of experiential programs in other educational areas, and these studies show promising results.

Two authors have written an article on teaching that deals in part with experiential learning: Transformational Teaching: Theoretical Underpinnings, Basic Principles, and Core Methods by George M. Slavich & Philip G. Zimbardo, 24 Educational Psychology Review 569-608 (2012) (online here).

Reasons experiential learning works include:

1) "experiential lessons provide students with an opportunity to experience concepts first-hand and, as such, give students a richer, more meaningful understanding of course concepts and of how they operate in the real world."

2) "they enhance the affective quality of the course content."

3) "the affective quality that lessons take on is important because it makes the lesson more interesting, but also because it can significantly improve students’ memory for concepts insofar as the information gets stored in autobiographical memory."

4) "experiential lessons have the ability to shape students’ beliefs about learning and about self." (Id. at 594)

Furthermore, "several well-controlled studies have now shown that students demonstrate more learning, better conceptual understanding, superior class attendance, greater persistence, and increased engagement when collaborative or interactive teaching methods are used compared to when traditional lecturing is employed." (Id. at 570)

In addition, How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching by Susan Ambose et. al. (2010) (p. 5) states: "Students must develop not only the component skills and knowledge necessary to perform complex tasks, they must also practice combining them and integrating them to develop greater fluency and automaticity. Finally, students must learn when and how to apply the skills and knowledge they learn." In other words, not only do students need doctrinal knowledge, they need to be able to apply that knowledge to concrete situations. This is what experiential approaches do.

(Scott Fruehwald)


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