What We’re Learning About Learning: Beyond the Screen with Experiential Assignments

Illustration by Clare Reid

In Episode 3 of our podcast “What We’re Learning About Learning,” CNDLS spoke with faculty and students about experiential assignments in class. These assignments encourage students to step away from their computer, or even outside of their homes, to strengthen their connection to course material as well as their relationships with learning more generally.

In our Inclusive Pedagogy Toolkit, we see that “new forms of expression invite new kinds of learning (Pedelty, 2001)” and that students can learn in many different ways. The opportunity to engage with concepts and ideas in different ways can also lead to decreased stress. (Kumar and Wideman, 2014)

The current episode of the podcast covers a few different ways professors have been folding experiential assignments into their curricula to make class time more exciting and improve learning. 

Martha Weiss, a professor in the biology department, taught an urban foraging course and had her students go outside to observe plants regularly across the semester. One student wrote in a review: “I was always nervous when doing our weekly assignments that I wouldn’t be able to find the types of plants I needed, but getting outside to look at plants or draw usually ended up being the best part of my week in what has been a very stressful semester. I feel a lot more in tune with the changing of the seasons and with the local ecology of DC in general.”

Experiential assignments were known to be useful before the pandemic, but they’ve become even more important as higher ed raced to set up online learning environments for the better part of three semesters, plus summer classes. For students and faculty, decreasing engagement and burnout have been severe risks at every university. 

Experiential learning can also help provide students with flexibility in how they approach assignments. Jessica Smith, Research and Policy Manager at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, teaches a course in the School for Foreign Service called the Gender and Security Toolbox course. She asked her students to depict the abstract concepts she was teaching (such as “power”) through photos captured walking around their neighborhoods and cities.

“Students really have the opportunity to decide in which direction they want to take this assignment,” Smith said. “So some students that maybe are less comfortable with a really deep level of personal reflection might have engaged with the assignment in a different way, and I think that that flexibility is really important.”

These assignments can occur over the course of a single class session or they can be more extensive. But no matter what subject you teach, some sort of opportunity is possible. In this podcast we hear from instructors in biology, ecology, languages, history, gender studies, writing, and sociology.  And the benefits to students were clear.

“I was pleasantly surprised with how engaging this project in this class was and how much I talked about at the dinner table and how much I kept wanting to do it, I felt like there was a sense of purpose in doing it and so I appreciated feeling like I was going in and doing something that could actually help people,” one of Smith’s students said.

A freshman student in Ed Barrow’s “G-ecology” (Georgetown Ecology) course said the experiential learning helped her acclimate to her new surroundings.

“I think, especially being new to the Georgetown neighborhood, not having gotten the first semester on campus, it’s been a really exciting sort of like excuse to go just see the community around me,” she said.

Sylvia Onder, a professor in the anthropology department, offered an optimistic view on the impact of experiential learning and its role in higher education.

“I think at least these are activities of value, that I’m not just wasting people’s time,” she said. “That keeps us hopeful that some of what we’re doing is not just about checking boxes, but is actually about learning how to do things and learning how to think about things.”