Assessment of experiential learning

This article introduces experiential learning, summarizes several strategies for the assessment of experiential learning, and offers examples of real-life assessment tasks used in McGill courses. 

In this article:

What is experiential learning? 

According to Lewis and Williams:

In its simplest form, experiential learning means learning from experience or learning by doing. Experiential education first immerses learners in an experience and then encourages reflection about the experience to develop new skills, new attitudes, or new ways of thinking (p. 6). [1]

Experiential learning can take many forms, including internships, simulations, and laboratory experiments. All share common characteristics, including: [2]

  • A mixture of content and process: There should be a balance between the activities and the underlying content/theory.  

  • Engagement in purposeful, meaningful endeavors that encourage a “big picture” perspective: The activities must be personally and emotionally relevant to the student, and allow them to make connections between the learning they are doing and the real world.  

  • Opportunities for reflection: Students should critically reflect on their own learning, connecting their experience to theory, and gaining insight into themselves and their interactions with the world. Students can also consider how their new skills, knowledge, and experiences are transferrable to other situations or environments, including those outside of academia. 

Experiential learning has many known benefits to different learner groups, including students from diverse backgrounds and those who have difficulty learning within the formal classroom. [3] Students who participate in experiential activities report increased motivation and improved attitudes towards challenging material. [4] These experiences help students transition into the workforce by developing necessary skills, such as increased subject matter expertise, communication, teamwork, and the ability to apply learned concepts. [6]

 

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Assessment strategies 

In experiential learning, the process is as important as the product. Therefore, instructors should develop assessment tasks that measure success in terms of both the process and the product—each area may require separate learning outcomes and assessment criteria.

Additionally, the same experiential learning activity may result in different outcomes for each student. These activities should be hands-on and create space for experimentation and creativity; so how one student chooses to solve a problem may differ from their peers. Likewise, an emphasis on reflection encourages students to articulate how they were personally affected by the experience. Students prefer experiential learning-based assessment tasks that capture these nuances rather than supervised and time-constrained assessment tasks like proctored exams.

The following strategies can be used to assess experiential learning:

  • A post-learning reflective assessment task:  

    • A reflective journal or other medium (e.g., essay, blog, multimedia or arts-based report, oral presentation) where students reflect on critical experiences and discuss lessons learned.  

    • A self-assessment and/or group assessment of a task performed. 

  • A hands-on project that guides student learning and often develops learned concepts further (with opportunities for reflection and feedback).  

  • A reflective portfolio of work accomplished throughout the term or during a single project. 

  • Defining of assessment criteria: 

    • Students choose what criteria will be used to assess their work (e.g., a learning contract) or help to create a grading rubric

  • Self-awareness tools and exercises (e.g., questionnaires about learning patterns). 

  • Short answers to questions of a “why” or “explain” nature (e.g., “What did you learn during this assignment? What did you not learn that you would like to?”). 

  • One-on-one oral assessment with the instructor. 

Note that, according to Schwartz, these strategies should incorporate elements of reflection or self-assessment:  

In experiential learning, the student manages their own learning, rather than being told what to do and when to do it. The relationship between student and instructor is different, with the instructor passing much of the responsibility on to the student (p. 2).

 

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Putting it into practice 

Here are some real-life examples of experiential learning assessment tasks, as described in the literature. The description of each task is followed by how it has been implemented at McGill, drawing on courses from various disciplines. While experiential learning activities sometimes occur in the field, many of these assessment tasks also translate to in-class applications. 

Hands-on projects 

Hands-on projects are a form of experiential learning wherein students complete hands-on project work with active reflection and conscious engagement. A project can help guide student learning over an entire course or module because hands-on tasks can motivate students and provide a linchpin for concepts learned during the course. Students have a goal in mind and understand that course materials were purposefully selected to provide stepping-stones towards achieving the course learning outcomes.

Assessment in hands-on, project-based learning is aligned with the methods described in this article. The deliverables of a project (e.g., written report, oral presentation, other physical or digital output) are often assessed via rubrics, with built-in opportunities for reflection, including self- and peer assessment.These projects are often divided into multiple stages, or students are asked to iterate an idea or deliverable, emphasizing how the process is as important as the product. 

Advertising and Media (MRKT 453) 

Students act as a team from a marketing agency for a Montreal-based client. 

Learning outcome: Students will design an advertising strategy to effectively distribute branded content through a variety of media and platform options. 

Assessment task: Students investigate the target market of the client and evaluate their current communication efforts for appropriateness and efficacy. Following instructor feedback, students create a comprehensive advertising plan and pitch their plan to the client in an oral presentation. Their work is assessed on professionalism, realism, logic of the analysis, their recommendations, and the ability to answer client questions.  

Barbados Field Study Semester Research Project (FSCI 444) 

Students participate in a field study semester to learn about sustainability in the context of Barbados and the Caribbean.  

Learning outcome: Students will engage in a research project to propose solutions to local environmental issues. 

Assessment task: Students complete a sustainability-oriented research project and are assessed on individual stages of the research process. The goal is to see a research question to completion: from the identification of a knowledge gap to the development of a hypothesis and methodology to the collection and analysis of data. Students prepare a research proposal following a review of scientific literature, government reports, and other sources. They subsequently develop a research plan detailing their goals, methods, timeline, and anticipated details. Finally, students deliver preliminary results during a research symposium (via short oral presentation) and the project culminates in a written report. Students receive instructor feedback at each stage of the project, and at the research symposium, students hear from their faculty supervisors and other members of the scientific community. 

In your course 

Projects involved in hands-on, project-based learning are often representative of real-life scenarios and work that students may pursue after graduation. As such, projects may vary depending on the course context and discipline involved. In general, students work in teams to complete a series of tasks, such as data collection (e.g., site visits, interviews); they subsequently present their findings and offer feedback to other groups and/or their own team members. Students may complete several assessment tasks related to these activities, many of which prompt students to think about post-grad life (p. 16): 

  • an analysis of strengths and weaknesses and related action planning 

  • an essay or report on what has been learned  

  • a recommendation for improvement of some practice 

  • a request that students take a given theory and observe its application in the workplace 

  • an interview of the student as a potential worker in the workplace 

  • an account of how discipline issues apply to the workplace 

  • an identification and rationale for projects that could be done in the workplace 

Post-learning reflections 

Students may be asked to reflect on a discrete activity (e.g., simulation, group or individual project) or on a sequence of events that occurs over a period of time (e.g., weekly tutorials or readings, regular lectures). In both cases, exercises in reflection, such as reflection papers or reflective journal entries, allow students to critically consider their experiences, connect theory and practice, and examine how lessons learned are applicable to other contexts. These assessment tasks can include summaries of new information, but more importantly, they should focus on the processes involved in learning (e.g., self-reflection, learning strategies, successes, failures, new skills and knowledge, new approaches tried, observations, making connections, asking questions, etc.).

Reflection papers and journals can be free form, however, they may be more effective if they follow a framework, such as questions or discussion prompts provided by the instructor. The following courses include reflective assessment tasks in their assessment schemes, leading students to think critically about their experiences. 

Chronic Illness and Palliative Health Challenges (NUR1 318) 

Students participate in simulations with actors/standardized patients to gain experience with chronic illness and palliative care. 

Learning outcome: Students will apply clinical reasoning and clinical judgement when providing care to individuals, families, communities, and populations. 

Assessment task: After each simulation, students reflect on their experiences and reactions to the standardized patient. They are provided with discussion prompts that encourage a deeper reflection on the clinical conversation, such as: “What was your emotional response to the interaction?,” “What could have been done differently?,” “Were there any ‘ah-ha’ moments during the simulation?,” and “What could have better prepared you for this simulation?” Students are then asked to link their observations from the simulation to the theories espoused in course readings or other scientific literature. 

Indigenous Field Studies (IDFC 500) 

Students from multiple disciplines (e.g., social work, law, medicine) participate in a field course to learn about Indigenous cultures and worldviews, with a particular emphasis on Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) teachings. 

Learning outcome: Students will connect Haudenosaunee cultures, traditions, values, and beliefs to their respective areas of practice. 

Assessment task: Students maintain a daily journal throughout the field component of this course, documenting their thoughts, questions, feelings, and other notes. Students are given a list of questions and other prompts to address, such as: “What were today’s key teachings?,” “What was the most challenging part of today?,” “What have you learned about Indigenous culture from today’s activities?,” and “Identify and discuss the strengths and limitations of utilizing a cultural component in the context of your own area of practice.”  

In your course 

Post-learning reflections can follow a wide variety of activities and can therefore be adapted to any course context. Questions or discussion prompts provided by the instructor can be tailored to a specific activity or can be more general, for example: “What insights did I gain today?,” “In what way does today’s reading/activity tie into theory discussed in class?,” “What strategies have I used to help me in my learning?,” and “What prior knowledge did I apply to help me understand this problem?”  

Alternatively, students may reflect directly on their learning by developing a response to the DEAL (Describe, Examine, Articulate Learning)-Based Reflection Session Framework. This framework for critical thinking may include the prompts: “I have learned that …,” “I learned this when …,” “This learning matters because …,” and “In light of this learning I will ….”

Presentations 

Student presentations to peers or to a larger public can take place in many venues, such as the classroom, conferences, fairs, or symposiums. Presentations typically involve a topic which the students research, discuss, and present orally, sometimes with a visual component (e.g., poster, whiteboard, slides). Presentations may be one part of the overall assessment for a project; for example, students may present content that is detailed in a written report. 

Student presentations are often followed by a Q&A period. The presence of different collaborators, such as industry or community partners, allows for varied feedback if the topic generates subjective opinions or disparate views.

Approaches to Community Practice (SWRK 327) 

Students design a campaign, toolkit, or training session related to a social issue or an area for change. 

Learning outcome: Students will develop necessary skills (engage, assess, communicate, mobilize, organize, advocate) to contribute to social change in communities.  

Assessment task: Students present their campaign, toolkit, or training session at a “Social Change Fair.” Students receive feedback during the fair and incorporate it into a final paper, including sample materials from their campaign, toolkit, or training session. 

Introduction to Archaeology (ANTH 201) 

Students are asked to present mock findings of an archaeological research project at a poster session.  

Learning outcome: Students will apply archaeological methods to a given data set, case study, or artifact collection. 

Assessment task: Students are given a hypothetical scenario and each team member acts as a specialist attempting to support a central hypothesis with the presentation of archaeological data. The posters include textual information and relevant figures, such as maps, stratigraphic profiles, and artifact drawings. Students receive feedback and give feedback to their peers at a poster session planned during class time. The revised posters are assessed on their clearly articulated argument, cogent development with well-chosen evidence and thoughtful analysis, clear organization, and polished style. 

In your course 

Instructors can “level up” presentations by allowing students to showcase their work on a larger scale. For example, one or more class periods can be combined to form a mini-conference day, or a course team may plan a more formal event outside of class time. Members of the community at large, the professional community, or the academic community (e.g., other members of the department, students from other classes) can be invited to observe the presentations and/or to participate by delivering their own presentations. In addition to receiving instructor feedback, students can perform self-assessments of their work and assess their peers’ performance. 

Assessment tools 

Instructors can develop various assessment tools to provide feedback on hands-on projects, post-learning reflections, presentations, or any other method of assessing students’ experiential learning. Such tools have several benefits. They: 

  • Articulate clear, specific criteria on which students’ work will be assessed so that students and instructors have a common understanding of expectations for the task. Criteria should be related to the desired learning outcomes – what you want students to know, value, or be able to do as a result of the experience/assignment.  

  • Permit students to self- or peer-assess their work prior to submitting it, potentially resulting in higher quality submissions. 

  • Offer a systematic approach to providing feedback. 

  • Allow students to see their strengths and possible areas for improvement. 

Teaching and Learning Services has compiled a repository of assessment tools used at McGill and offers a Knowledge Base article about creating rubrics

Additionally, this collection of assessment strategies from McGill instructors includes descriptions and rubrics for experiential learning assessment tasks, such as conference-style presentations and hands-on group projects

 

References

 

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