Experiential Learning: Some Reservations

A skeptical perspective on forays into the "real world."
By John Fawell

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has been advancing the cause of what it refers to as “high-impact” educational practices for years and many of these practices are being adopted in new general education programs across the country. The cornerstone of AAC&U’s notion of high-impact practices is its faith in “experiential learning,” which comes in a variety of forms: entrepreneurial problem-solving groups, internships, service-learning opportunities, and field experiences in local communities. AAC&U advocates programs that, according to an overview of high-impact practices, “give students direct experience with issues they are studying in the curriculum” and allow them to “apply what they are learning in real world settings.” Such programs call on faculty to take our classes out into the “real world.”

The Real World

You have to admire the confidence with which AAC&U refers to the “real world.”  Some writers—Plato is the first that comes to mind—have found the “real world” to be a shadowy and illusory place. Others have argued that it is the university, trafficking as it does in timeless ideas, that offers students their greatest opportunity for finding solid ground under their feet. But we know what AAC&U means by "“real-world” learning. Calls for such learning respond to the increasingly vociferous demands of prospective students, disturbed as they are by the escalating cost of higher education, that their education be more practical, that it involve experience in the workaday world outside the confines of the campus, and that it give them a leg up on their career plans.

The “real world” has always sneered at the notorious ivory towers of academia, and when you consider the obfuscation of which academics are capable—evident in the atrocious academese of the worst modern literary theory—you can hardly fault them. Humanists themselves are at least partly to blame for their low standing these days. They are suffering the consequences of using arcane language that may elevate their sense of intellectual self-worth but fails to communicate effectively to students and readers. Given the dire financial situation of many colleges and universities and the need to justify humanities disciplines in today’s environment, such academic posturing strikes one as the higher education equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns. Humanists shouldn’t be surprised if a good number of practical types ask them to move aside while they get some things done.

There is a need, then, in the humanities, to mend the relationship between professor and those outside the academic world. Any general education program is right to think about how it can better communicate to that favorite entity of the high-impact practitioners, the “real world.” But it’s curious that in exhorting  academia to engage with the “real world,” proponents of experiential education rarely demand that academics help that world understand them and the historical mission of the university better. Rather, they suggest that the academy subsume itself to the technology and business practices of the modern world, venturing out to the world rather than making the world come to it, despite the university’s traditional role as curator of lessons from the past and of the wisdom of the world’s history.

Cynicism about the university’s ivory towers from outside is old news. What’s new is this cynicism of the university toward itself, the way it seems to be calling it a day, agreeing with America’s business establishment that it’s time to drop the facade that anything of any practical significance is accomplished in college and that it’s time to get those kids out into the streets. The denizens of the “real world” were willing to humor us when it didn’t cost as much as it does now. But now the stakes are too high. The skyrocketing cost of higher education leads parents and prospective employers to expect measurable results. And our administrators have no financial choice but to agree. Thus, we have this new phenomenon of administrators, under the guise of education reform, doing the bidding of the “real world.” Increasingly, it is administrators who suggest professors are spending too much time in the classroom, administrators who argue that general education is interfering with students’ career paths, administrators suggesting to professors that they are grading too harshly, and administrators who keep reminding professors, in a thousand little ways, of how their classes impose on the complex and demanding lives of their students.

Are More Experiences What Students Need?

AAC&U’s endorsement of increased experiential learning might also strike one as an unlikely treatment for what ails the contemporary student. To the already hectic, fractured life of the contemporary undergraduate, AAC&U would like to add more things to do, more experiences to be had. They endorse an even more hectic, fractured educational program. Contemporary students do not necessarily work harder at their education than their predecessors did (grade inflation has seen to that), but they are probably much busier. And they have been busy for some time. High school asked that they develop a rich portfolio of social activities and service experience in addition to a good GPA, in order to be competitive in the college admissions wars ahead of them. And once they arrive at the university, the piling-on only increases. The administration, bent on touting the first-class cruise students and their parents have purchased for their exorbitant fees, celebrates the wide array of organizations and activities available to them. If you have ever gone to the orientation of a first-year student at a modern upscale university, you know how little time is accorded to academics and how much to lifestyle. It takes several days just to introduce the students to the lively smorgasbord of activity and resources that the university offers them—administrators encourage them to “try everything.” It’s only logical that today’s students think of the classroom less as the defining environment of the university and more as that thing that needs to be endured on the way to the greater privileges and excitements of college life—rather like the way the humdrum day of cathedral and museum visits puts the tourist’s evening entertainments into greater relief.

And to this heap of activity that frantically roils the student, the advocates of high-impact learning would add more: internships, increased travel opportunities (take a look at the budget of foreign study offices in major universities to see a real growth industry), and an assortment of activities designed to save students from the monotony of the classroom—including Silicon Valley–inspired problem-solving groups, experiential learning that gets students out in the real world, and service opportunities.

Looking back at my experience as an undergraduate, over the din and chaos of the contemporary student’s academic situation, I am grateful for what now appears to be a leisurely grazing in a hallowed retreat, a calm and quiet sampling of all the university had to offer without the constant goading of administrative imps bent on jazzing up my experience. Attending today’s university is a little like attending today’s professional basketball game, where the customer is accosted and exhausted by a nonstop array of entertainment features, designed to make sure that the customer is never unentertained, never allowed to be bored—or to think.

Traditionally, the university has offered students an experience of education as something of a retreat or refuge, an opportunity for the mind to refresh itself, to wake up—not a charge into the world but a leisurely stepping back from it. And leisure strikes me as no small component of the nature of a university education. Academia can offer an alternative environment to the outside world, a secular church of sort, a protective environment that cautions us to quiet ourselves, reflect. The idea in this environment is that the real world is a shifty, difficult-to-track thing that has to be approached with some care and discernment. The university once offered some resistance to the world, not a kamikaze leap into it. It has posited the notion that it is important to learn something about yourself before you give yourself to the world, much less try to save it through endless service opportunities; that the journey of the self is as important as the journey through the world; and that the success of the latter may be contingent on the success of the former.         

What surprises me most about this new approach to education as a kind of experiential whirlwind is how it flies in the face of what students tell us they are looking for in their college education. Students often express fatigue with busywork, both in high school and college. They complain in polls conducted by colleges and universities that higher education is not as intellectually stimulating as they hoped it would be, not even, they say, as challenging as their high schools were. The smarter students, in particular, are frustrated that they can’t find the university that they dreamed of, the one their parents told them about, where they would traffic in great ideas in the classroom by day and carry on discussions of those ideas in the hallways of their dorms at night. What they find instead is a variety of trade schools, unbridled professionalism, and a populace that seems unaware of the intellectual traditions of the university because the university has lost its interest in explaining those traditions to them. What they find is not a ratcheted-up intellectual experience but a lot of things to do, and many of them the same things they did in high school. College students can, for example, be very jaundiced on the subject of service experience. They know that much of the service that they did in high school was done to build their résumés. They know that when service is required it doesn’t really constitute service.

The Field Trip

What AAC&U refers to as “experiential education” can also regress at some institutions into something much more blasé and traditional than the innovations the term is meant to suggest. Often the term represents a new name for that fusty old thing, the field trip. Needless to say, AAC&U doesn’t advocate anything as quaint as field trips. But field trips are perhaps a predictable and natural consequence of a theory of education that promises— to, in the words of one faculty practitioner, “take students into the community,”  “transform inert knowledge into knowledge-in-use,” and enable “a process whereby the learner interacts with the world and integrates new learning into old constructs.” Field trips are, in many ways, the easiest pedagogical response to these goals and, therefore, increasingly common in college curricula.

There are, in my mind, a good many drawbacks to the return of the field trip. The first is the amount of time it asks you to be something other than a teacher. A colleague of mine, with whom I team-teach a course that is set up to take advantage of the famous historical sites and cultural institutions in the Boston area, where we teach, once sent me an email describing a meeting about the course that I was unable to attend. In the email he summarized the meeting in two words: the first was “logistics,” which he wrote in an enormous highlighted font that consumed a quarter of the page; the second was “teaching,” which was written in near-invisible script. When you incorporate experiential learning into your classroom, get ready to talk about a lot of things that have little to do with the content of your course: funding, bus prices, tour guides, schedules and back-up schedules, the challenge of moving huge numbers of bodies about from spot to spot. Noble concepts dreamed up on task forces are often translated into alarmingly reductive practices.

My colleague’s email noted also that the assistant deans and academic staff outnumbered the professors at the meeting. An immense staff is necessary to sort out such details. And so you arrive at the circular realization that the administration advances the cause of experiential learning that, in turn, advances the cause of the administration. Courses like these easily become less about ideas and more about a kind of massive logistics campaign that you’re happy just to pull off without tragic errors. Real education is often a casualty along the way.

Experiential learning initiatives can also devolve into superficial tourism. Visiting the houses of political officials and departed literati is great fun but probably a secondary aspect of studying history and literature—a kind of intellectual hobbyism. Students need a trip to Thomas Hardy’s Dorset far less than they do an ingenious pedagogy that introduces them to Hardy’s wintery poetic landscape, his curious mixture of modernist despair and churchy consolation. This isn’t to be gotten by a glance at “The Ruined Maid” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature or by a visit to his ancestral home but by some substantial reading of Hardy, guided by a devout believer in Hardy’s art, the very thing students are less likely to get with the intrusion of the multitudinous “experiential learning” projects cutting into their academic time. But if a student gets that education, he or she may find that Hardy is, for the rest of his or her life, an unparalleled fireside companion and balm in old age. This would be my notion of an education characterized as having a “high impact.”

One of the ironies of this vogue for experiential learning that sometimes expresses itself in a fondness for field trips is that something that is so passé, so redolent of the antique tedium of public education, is treated as cutting-edge by today’s general education reformers. In one of Maupassant’s best little stories, “The Decoration,” he tells of M. Sacrement, a ne’er-do-well careerist who longs for nothing more than the various ribbons and decorations that marked career distinction in nineteenth-century France. Devoid of any real ideas or vocation, M. Sacrement embarks on a career in educational reform. He writes a pamphlet entitled “Educating Children through the Eyes,” in which he proposes a series of magic lantern shows on academic subjects. “The eyes would educate the mind, and the pictures would remain impressed on the memory, making knowledge visible, as it were,” argues M. Sacrement. He also comes up with the idea of mobile lending libraries. “Since [people] won’t go in search of education, education must come to them.”

It’s a little comical how closely Maupassant’s satire of facile education theory and grasping careerism in the late nineteenth century applies to the idea of experiential education. In both M. Sacrement’s plans and notions of experiential education we see a literal approach to education and a naive faith in the tactile; in both, a faith in an education through empirical experience and new technology; in both, the same risible pseudo-scientific verbiage; in both, a pedagogy that presupposes and caters to an indifferent, passive student, that aims to trick the student into learning; in both, the familiar masking as innovation; and in both, reform motivated perhaps by something more than educational ideals. In this sense, there’s a musty quality to much of what is described as experiential learning. The term bears the mark of educational reform that has been around for a long time, the kind of literalistic approach to education that has always occurred to people who actually have little respect for, or knowledge of, how education really occurs.

There’s another person to whom these practices seem anything but new and innovative: the student. Students have been led on field trips since grade school; in fact, field trips remind them of grade school. They don’t have the theoretical context to recognize field trips as cutting-edge. This experience of being toted to some place by a group of well-meaning, enthusiastic adults, where they endure an often poorly conceived program, is all too familiar to them. And they’re not alone. One feels much less like an educator on these trips than a chaperone, forced to play the role, with all its dreary small talk, of the enthusiastic but stern moral guide—a teacher out of an Andy Hardy movie. Whenever I’m on these trips I’m reminded of my time as a parent-teacher organization member, accompanying grade school classes down to the Boston Public Garden on one of their forays into the real world. The students generally feel as I do about these trips, that they are more regressive and infantilizing than innovative.

A Suspect Ideology

The aspect of “experiential learning” that I find most suspicious is how nicely it fits into the monetary scheme of today’s universities. For example, courses that incorporate experiential learning often seem to involve digital assignments in which students turn in films rather than written essays. Professors can often hardly contain their enthusiasm for the fruits of these assignments—films in which students record their responses to museums, cultural landmarks, and urban communities—and often email them to their colleagues with great fanfare. And I can see why. These assignments are the means for bright, enthusiastic students to express themselves cleverly and buoyantly in a medium with which they are quite savvy, surprisingly so to those professors, like me, who still marvel at uses of technology that are new to us.

But there is a downside to these assignments as well. For one, they contribute to grade inflation. They represent such a cheery and good-natured exercise that professors tend to appreciate them universally. It’s hard to grade down such playful fun. One of the reasons grade inflation is so rampant in the modern university is that grading standards have no monetary value and therefore no one to defend them. University administrations are as uninterested in the threat of grade inflation as students are. Grading standards interfere with the priorities of both: snagging prospective students, on the administration’s part; career success, on the students’. Even the professor, quaking before the threat of student evaluations, has a vested interest in keeping grades high. Assignments such as video responses to experiential learning tend to cater to the skills with which students are already comfortable (for example, using their phones and arranging images) while forgoing the areas in which they are, even at the best universities, still deficient (reading and analytic skills, writing, marshalling an argument, developing and substantiating points, organizing their thoughts in written language, and orthography). They represent a clever work-around to compensate for the skills students lack, a breezy foray into the language of television magazine shows—a feel-good opportunity for everyone to avoid the challenge of tough standards and the nasty fallout of bad grades. The professors’ assumption that all to whom they email these films will experience the same exhilaration they do says something about the triumph of enthusiasm over content in today’s assessment of students.

Modern Hollywood films increasingly find their genesis in marketing departments rather than the creative inspiration of writers and directors.  Similarly, assignments like this—digital responses to “experiential learning”—are tailor-made to be used by universities seeking to appeal to prospective students. They promise to free students from the oppressiveness of the classroom and get them out into the real world, thus satisfying the modern, cost-conscious student’s demand for a more practical and career-friendly education. They cater to the students’ strengths while steering clear of their deficits, promising affirmation rather than failure and high grades for less demanding work. Experiential learning displays nicely in a university’s promotional catalog. But when what advances itself as cutting-edge educational praxis hews so closely to the promotional needs of the university, might we have some reason to be suspicious of its merit?

John Fawell is a professor of humanities at the College of General Studies, Boston University. He writes widely on art, literature, and film. His latest book is The Essence of Chaplin.


I love this article because it reflects much of what I believe and agree upon after teaching in higher ed for over twenty years. Whenever I alluded ever so slightly to the mishaps of using too much technology in the classroom or having ‘too much fun’ in the classroom at the cost of effective teaching, I immediately felt blocked and the subject became closed for discussion. In part, because the new faculty dumbing down the classroom in favor of phone-games teaching and learning has a degree from Yale which, in my middle-of-nowhere, small town university, meant that one was obligated to regard these new teaching methods highly without questioning their worth.

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