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Learning From Experience (Part 2)

Notice: Originally published April 20, 2016 at Teaching Out Loud.

In my previous post I talked about bringing Amos Kennedy to campus. What an exciting experience! But we wanted to turn that experience into learning. It’s a common challenge. Many educators want to get involved in experiential learning, but it’s sometimes hard to turn that desire into concrete steps.

So how did we do it?

First, we created an assignment before the visit to help students think of Amos Kennedy’s visit as a learning experience. Each student streamed the documentary Proceed and Be Bold! at their own pace. They then responded to three questions in our course’s Canvas discussion board, where all students in the class could see their answers. (I’ll put the questions in italics, followed by our rationale for each question.)

  1. Which course learning objectives do you think that printmaking will help us achieve (and why)? This question helps students connect the unusual experience of the print shop to learning in the rest of the course.
  2. In the documentary, how does Amos Kennedy relate his work to democracy? This question helps students connect the content of Kennedy’s work to the themes of our course.
  3. Based on what you’ve seen in Proceed and Be Bold!, what do you think that you’ll learn from the experience of working with Amos Kennedy in the Book Arts Workshop? This question, sometimes called a “preflection” question, helps students anticipate learning from the experience, rather than just having the experience.

Second, we checked in with students within a few hours of the first session. We created another Canvas assignment, this time with two prompts. Students “replied” to their own prior post in the same Canvas discussion.

  1. You prepared for today’s workshop session by watching a documentary about Amos Kennedy, then writing about your expectations for the workshop. Given those expectations, what did you learn today that surprised you? This question encourages focused reflection not only about the results from the experience, but also about the value of prior expectations.
  2. It’s not over! We have one more workshop session with Amos Kennedy in Book Arts on Wednesday. What are your learning goals for the Wednesday workshop session? What would you still like to learn? This question acknowledges that students have thought about their experience so far, and explicitly puts each student in charge of their learning goals for the next session.

Third, we checked in with students again after their final workshop session. We created a third Canvas assignment. Again, students “replied” to their earlier Canvas discussion posts, creating a reply chain showing how they learned throughout the experience.

  1. After Monday’s session you identified your learning goals for today’s session. Did you achieve those goals? Why or why not? This question holds students accountable for their own learning goals, and encourages reflection on goal-setting.
  2. If Amos Kennedy was coming back to campus for a visit next year, and your friend asked you whether they should go, what would you tell them? What’s the most important thing, in your opinion, that they should know about the experience? This question helps students reflect on the experience from a different perspective, and encourages them to think about what others might find beneficial, whatever their own experience might have been.
  3. One of your main projects for this course requires you to design, create, and print a letterpress propaganda broadside. How has this experience with Amos Kennedy affected your thinking about that project? This question connects this particular experience to a future course project, and encourages them to think about this experience as being part of a larger learning trajectory rather than a single, unusual event.

Sounds simple, right?

Of course it wasn’t that simple. It took a lot of planning and collaboration. Instructional designer Mike Goudzwaard, instructor Michael Evans (me!), Ashley Kehoe, DCAL’s Associate Director of Experiential Learning, and Sarah Smith in Book Arts all bounced ideas back and forth to arrive at the final assignment structure and assessment design.

Even with all that planning, we still faced some challenges. To take a small example, Canvas “replies” are just confusing. Similar “reply” links can do different things. It’s not obvious what they will do. So students sometimes posted new entries in the same thread rather than replying to a previous message. This seems minor, but it made tracking the learning paths more difficult for students and for me.

A bigger challenge involved assessing student reflection beyond our course. Several other classes visited the Book Arts Workshop for as little as 15 minutes or as much as an hour. And for two full days Amos Kennedy held open printing hours where anyone in the community could come in and print. How could we capture some of their thoughts about the experience?

After some discussion, we settled on index cards that asked the “What would you tell your friend?” question. Sarah printed these up and distributed them to any visiting students, faculty, and community members, who then turned in the cards as they left the workshop. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t as thorough as the Canvas assignments. And frankly, we’re still not sure what some of the feedback means. At least we got people thinking about what they learned, if only briefly.

Okay, fine, you might be saying, but tell me the answers!

I won’t share my students’ information. But Sarah and I did many of the same reflection exercises that the students did. In my next post I’ll talk about my answers to these questions, and share what I learned, good and bad, from the experiential learning experience.

Michael S. Evans

© Michael S. Evans 2008-2017