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Experiential Learning is Not Just a Marketing Strategy

A Texas professor said “You can read about something, you can watch a video; but it’s only when you’re doing it that you truly absorb that knowledge.” 

With desirable careers in such high demand, employers are increasingly favouring individuals with hands-on experience. It is estimated that more than half of employers require new employees to have proficiency in their field. This makes sense, since experiential learning has many benefits. Beyond experience in the field itself, studies show that experiential learning increases retention of information, attitude towards learning, and creativity. 

There are schools that have well-developed experiential learning programs. Brock University, for example, has one of the largest accounting co-ops in Canada. The co-op provides hands-on learning and opportunities to discover specific interests and contacts in the field. The University of Waterloo has over 100 co-op opportunities involving almost every faculty. The Engineering co-op program is particularly successful. 

Trent University Durham is interested in expanding work integrated learning opportunities for its current programs. It is widely known that the Social Work program would greatly benefit from having opportunities to practice and develop skills in the community. Ryerson University’s Social Work program involves opportunities for its students to practice their skills directly in class. Professional actors come into classes to roll-play real-world situations and students are able to develop their skills by counselling the actors’ characters.

Unfortunately, only 12% of university graduates in Ontario have taken part in co-op, even though co-op students are 13% more likely to be hired compared to non-co-op students. Evidently, work integrated learning is valuable to post-grad success.

One problem with the demand for experiential learning is that some universities advertise experiential learning simply as a marketing strategy. Since most students appreciate experiential opportunities and what they might provide, programs that offer experiential learning are appealing. Some universities advertise the opportunities to attract students without having concrete plans for work related learning. Students then feel misled when they enter their first year of university and realize that work integrated learning is not actually part of their program.

It would be preferable for universities to explicitly state whether available opportunities are integrated or optional. Opportunities for experience are different than integrated experience, and students need to know what to expect. Psychology students, for example, may not be aware how difficult it is to acquire a placement while in university. Psychology is an appealing and interesting field, but at some universities the program does not integrate the practical experiences necessary for real world careers. Compared to 80% of students in engineering and technology related disciplines, only 32% of students in the humanities and social sciences indicate work-integrated learning requirements as part of their degree.

David Kolb said that learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. With this in mind, we need to encourage the promotion and execution of learning as a process that must involve integrated practice.