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Opinion: Reevaluating Classroom Experiential Learning Models

A photo of a hallway in the Science and Math Building
Photo by Elinor Shelp-Peck

It has been stated in many different forms by many different people that involvement is the best path to learning; that is, that meaningful, tangible engagement with classroom concepts is an invaluable method of promoting better understanding of material and concrete learning through experience. Such modes of experiential learning are prominently encouraged here at Meredith and across many universities, ranging from anything as simple as a laboratory course to as extensive as a summer abroad. As a hands-on component of several environmental science courses at Meredith this semester, including both specialized and introductory levels, students selected field sites around campus and the surrounding Raleigh area, observing the plant and animal species present within each site and submitting documented observations to the Nature’s Notebook program, an offshoot of the USA National Phenology Network. The organization focuses on the effects of climate change on phenological processes (seasonal cycles such as hatching, flowering, etc.), and students and contributors around the world are encouraged to upload observations of specific plants over a period of time to record their progress, which researchers are then able to use in current studies.

The project provided an opportunity to engage first-hand with the course material, beyond the scope of laboratory explorations. Data collected throughout the process is deposited into a national database and accessed by scientists and researchers to support ecological understanding, foundational knowledge and baseline policy decisions. The organization and its mission, in and of themselves, are very creative, allowing students and individuals of the public to get involved with real-time research activities and support ongoing research efforts around the country. However, examining this model brings to light an inherent risk: a large portion of the burden is placed on the individual conducting the observations, requiring a certain standard of perception and exactness that may, as with any such survey, prove to be fallible and inutile for research.

This type of project, modeled on the consistent gathering of observations and careful timelining, is widely implemented into classroom settings as a popular method of course interaction and experiential learning for a variety of subjects. While this is an excellent venture into empirical observation and supplemental coursework, its utilization may not be suited to the type of class at hand — especially one with a wide population of non-major underclassmen as opposed to an upper-level course designed for majors. This is certainly not to say that a class composed of non-major students who may be present only to fulfill a general education requirement are incapable of producing quality observations, but there is undeniably a difference when compared to the caliber of responses provided by those with greater educational background and experience in the subject — for both students within an institution and individuals of the public. Inconsistencies recorded by those who may not be as sure of their observations, having never been exposed to this type of study before, stand as a potential flaw in the system and impediment to the efforts of the organization in question. Particularly when executed in a classroom setting, there is often little to no accountability for the submitted observations, and errors or misunderstandings often go unchecked by those in supervisory positions.

Granted, this is not to make the utilization of these learning models sound like an entirely negative experience. No matter the educational level or expertise of the student when collecting and recording such data, there is always something to be gained from this type of firsthand, active participation, and it should absolutely be encouraged and implemented whenever possible. Experiential projects such as these serve as an admirable supplement to material presented within the classroom; however, student participants, facilitators and educators should be aware of the potential drawbacks and hindrances of such models to both individuals and organizations.

By Lizzy Andrews, Contributor



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