Experiential learners need time and support, says study

by L&D29 Mar 2016

Experiential learning needs to be long enough to “embrace the roller coaster”, according to David Walsh, clinical assistant professor in the University of Houston department of health and human performance (HHP).

Indeed, there seems to be a gap between the expectation and the reality of experiential learning opportunities, such as internships, Walsh added.

"We have to ask if we are failing to prepare and support them when the newness of the experience wears off,” he said.

Walsh said interns are typically very excited and keen to begin their internships. The challenge then becomes how to negotiate the eventual routine of a professional workplace, a necessary skill to be an effective employee.

Consequently, they may be dissapointed when they reflect on what they have remembered at the end of their semester experiences.

Walsh’s conclusion?

He said lengthening an experiential learning program beyond the semester and including structured support throughout the internship, may create more meaningful experiences for students.

"In learning and human development, the lows are as important as the highs," he said.

"Experiential learning has to be long enough to embrace the roller coaster, help students get over the hump. This is the role of education."

Walsh added that educators need to ensure their students have active opportunities in their internships and more support to ensure they have the tools to negotiate the highs and the lows of the experience.

Internships and experiential learning programs typically span the length of a semester, but preliminary findings of this new University of Houston study indicate that's not long enough for interns to get the full benefits.

Walsh, who studies human development and lifelong development, is investigating experiential learning in a longitudinal study of students participating in a four-semester, field-training experience.

As one of the faculty supervisors, Walsh interviewed more than half of the Super Four participants.

All were enjoying the experience and recognising its value as a preparation for professional life, but a common response was that they had "unmet assumptions," as the day-to-day routine did not sustain their initial excitement.

Walsh added that a graph of their experience might resemble a rollercoaster.

"The Super Four Experience requires four semesters to complete, but traditional internships require about 300 hours in only one semester. If an internship ends on a low, the learning opportunity is lost," he said.

"One semester may not allow the full experience of the internship to play out, denying students valuable time to work through the challenges.

"We hope we can set a new trend for teachers, practitioners and students in experiential learning pedagogy."