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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Experiential learning expanding, more common than expected

Published: November 4, 2011
Section: Front Page

At the recent Experiential Learning Expo on Oct. 25, students back from abroad, fresh off an internship or relying on other forms of non-traditional education presented their experiences to mostly like-minded fellow learners. But the university is heavily pushing this “experiential learning,” and it extends beyond the obvious out-of-classroom potential of studying in a foreign country.

“Experiential learning is a model of learning that engages you in the real world,” Audra Grady, the program’s administrator, said, “and does it with activities that directly connect you to academic theory, while at the same time using reflection that learning concrete.”

Brandeis’ experience-based learning incorporates, in addition to studying abroad or taking an internship, classes in more than 22 programs that have an experiential-learning component or more. Some classes have an additional “opt-in,” two additional-credit practicums, where students will do research, test the material they learned in class or apply social theoretical models to real-world subjects.

There are more than 30 different practicums and add-ons in this manner, with such diverse majors and minors as Sociology, Biology, Comparative Literature and Music.

“Experiential learning can be applied in multiple different settings,” across learning styles, Grady said.

“What sets experiential learning apart is being able to reflect on the outside-the-classroom experience and make a link between it and your discipline of study,” she added.

One of the experiential learning opportunities that has received the most publicity in recent years are the new Justice Brandeis Semester (JBS) programs. Initially conceived with multiple priorities, including a goal toward replacing their students’ fall or spring semester with a summer session, which has since been abandoned, the program has grown past initial reorientation and has had several successful runs.

According to Alyssa Grinberg, the program’s manager who also works on other experiential learning projects, there are three spring programs and one fall program for each of the years 2010 and 2011, with the programs’ enrollment holding steady or even increasing as JBS has evolved. There will be at least three JBS programs next year.

Also in Grinberg’s portfolio, if not a JBS, is the Brandeis in The Hague program. It has now run two successful pilot summer programs, and will take almost 30 students between two sessions during a semester-long session next spring and another summer program immediately afterward.

“Increased participation in experiential learning means students are experiencing more of what Brandeis has to offer,” in terms of a variety of learning opportunities, Grinberg said. She also added she feels that more students are participating in EL internships than ever before.

Both Grinberg and Grady stressed that reflection was what made the difference between EL and traditional pedagogies, and between learning at other schools and Brandeis’ unique offering.

“Reflection can be included in either a final assessment or take place periodically throughout the program or project being experienced,” Grinberg said.

Grady said that Brandeis encourages students to use their experience “on an ongoing basis,” and to reflect so that skills can be used long after the experience to further career aspirations. She estimated that nearly every Brandeis student did something experiential, almost every one, and that many did more than one internship, EL class or other activity.

But she also stressed that experiential learning was not just for professional or career motives but can be combined with academic theory.

“It serves the purposes of faculty who want to learn just to learn, while also serving to highlight skills that students can use for life,” Grady said. Such lives can incorporate academic work or work in the real world, outside the academy.

And one of the many experiential learning divisions is a large research component, Grady said, and more than 60 faculty have individual or small-group research offerings registered with experiential learning.

More than 200 classes in the registrar’s 1,200 have the ordinary experiential learning component designation as well, meaning the class uses significant out-of-classroom time.