Part 1 of an ongoing series

How is experiential education framed in Forward with Integrity?

It’s been just over a year since McMaster’s president Patrick Deane issued his visioning letter, “Forward With Integrity,” to the McMaster community.

The letter introduced new strategic priorities for the University. It planted notions of “a student-centred research intensive institution,” “internationalization” and “experiential learning experiences” in the forefront of the campus’ consciousness. FWI stated that McMaster had an obligation to engage with the community and enhance student experience by increasing self-directed and interdisciplinary opportunities.

Following the release of the letter last September, four task forces were formed to examine McMaster’s current environment. The task forces were responsible for making recommendations to improve the institution’s standing in the fields of Community Engagement, Student Experience, Internationalization and Research.

The task forces concluded their work in May 2012 and compiled their findings and recommendations into four separate reports.

Broadening Experiential Opportunities

The Student Experience Task Force report explored how to increase experiential opportunities. The term “experiential education” often implies a co-op or internship type experience that involves “learning outside the classroom.” The report sought to broaden this definition and re-envision how experiential opportunities could be offered to all students, regardless of faculty.

Several faculties already provide experiential opportunities. The Faculty of Engineering, the Faculty of Social Sciences and the Life Sciences program provide academic or co-op placements, while opportunities for co-curricular activities exist in Arts and Science, Integrated Science and Health Science.

Smaller programs and faculties such as Arts and Science and Integrated Science have had experiential components embedded in their curriculum since their inception. Both of these programs have also been at the forefront of submitting proposals for new interdisciplinary courses that feature field work and co-curricular experiences.

Carolyn Eyles, director of the iSci Program, spoke about the new ARTSCI/ISCI 3EI1 course, which was developed as a result of the renewed focus on interdisciplinary and unique experiential courses. Students taking the course participate in a field trip to the world’s largest known cave system in Kentucky.

For Eyles, courses like these are about being flexible in providing learning and research opportunities to students not normally available in lecture-based format.

“[It’s about] how to recognize and validate the student experience … and creating linkages between different groups,” she said.

But the Student Experience task force also aimed to fundamentally alter how McMaster understands experiential opportunities. In their findings, they proposed not only new systems to organize these experiences, but also looked to introduce a more reflexive approach to offering experiential education.

Dr. Susan Denburg, Associate Vice-President Academic Health Sciences and Strategic Advisor to the President noted that there are many forms that an experiential program can take on, whether it is inside or outside the classroom.

“We can create an experiential learning environment … by having [students] reflect on their learning goals … if we [make] it a habit of identifying learning goals, if students think about why they’re here and what they hope to achieve in their various courses or extracurricular activities or volunteer work they undertake,” she said.

Creating a “Made-in McMaster” Solution

Denburg stressed the need for a “McMaster-made solution” that incorporates experiential components into the entirety of one’s time at McMaster. She asserted that these opportunities could be delivered within the classroom.

Problem-based learning (PBL), another McMaster-made solution, is one specific method of incorporating experiential opportunities into the classroom. The teaching method, while impossible to define and open to various interpretations, advocates plunging students into issues with limited frameworks and allowing them to present their conclusions.

“In discipline-centered learning, the teacher has filtered the information, presenting a body of information they feel the student should know. In PBL … students wrestle with information themselves,” said Dr. Patangi Rangchari, Professor Emeritus of Medicine.

The PBL model is not discipline-centered, but has typically been associated with smaller programs and class sizes. However, Rangachari reiterated that PBL-type methods can easily be applied to larger environments.

Similarly, Dr. Denburg discussed the importance of engaging students in large classes and how opportunities in the learning portfolio can do this.

“You can change a large group experience into something very personal and very group-oriented with not that much difficulty,” said Denberg. “We’re seriously committing to a lot of faculty professional development … people are going to need help in new ways of teaching. It’s a question of how…we scale up.”

Developing a learning portfolio

A major recommendation to come out of the task force was the creation of “learning portfolios.” Learning portfolios are meant to encompass both the co-curricular and academic experiences that students complete throughout their degree. The portfolios would function as a holistic marker of a student’s “learning journey” through university.

What differentiates the learning portfolio from simply being a tracking mechanism is that learning portfolios would be self-directed and would include self-tracked learning goals.

Although in its infancy, the learning portfolio concept has spurred numerous potential initiatives. One example suggested by the task force was a learning goal journal, where students would track and reflect on their experiences. Other examples included a multi-year course that stretched across the duration of a student’s time at McMaster and implementing a mentorship network to aid in supporting students’ learning goals.

The learning portfolio and the push towards incorporating more experiential opportunities is compatible with what has already been going on for years in the institution, but could also kick-start some new ideas.

The University has put out a call for proposals related to programs that will provide self-directed or experiential learning opportunities. These projects are meant to be academically oriented and focused on advancing the learning portfolio.

Proposals from faculty, staff and students can be submitted to be reviewed by the FWI Advisory Group. The first deadline is Nov. 15 for pilot projects to tentatively be launched in the spring, and there is also a second-round deadline in January.

The prioritization of experiential learning was most recently re-iterated in the Sept. 28 submission of McMaster’s Strategic Mandate Agreement to the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. The letter specifically proposed a partnership with the province to establish an Experiential Learning Centre.


Next Week: Exploring more flexibility in the student experience and community engagement


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