By VITAL Guest blogger: Amanda Zelechoski, Assistant Professor, Psychology

Guest blogger Amanda Zelechoski participated in a VU faculty panel discussion at VITAL’s recent Symposium on the Science of Learning.  Here she shares some of the ways that she creates a learner-centered classroom.

Each semester, I try to ask myself, instead of telling the students about a certain concept, how can I design an activity that allows them to actually experience it? For example, in my Child Development class, instead of lecturing about the stages of infant development, I routinely bring in local families with infants of varying ages and stages to allow the students to analyze how babies varying in age by only a few months can look and act very differently from one another. When teaching adolescent diagnostic interview techniques to graduate counseling students, I partner with Valparaiso High School and have my students actually conduct an intake interview with a high school psychology student who takes on the role of a particular mental health disorder.

Sometimes, pushing the class outside of traditional boundaries means changing up the classroom itself, as is the case with the Inside-Out Prison Exchange course I co-teach with Professor Dawn Jeglum Bartusch (Sociology). We bring 15 undergraduate students to Westville Correctional Facility, where the students study criminology and psychology topics with 15 incarcerated men, making up a classroom of “inside students” and “outside students.” What better way to really immerse yourself in studying populations and phenomena than to learn with and alongside the individuals you seek to understand?

It has also been important to me to assess the effectiveness of these types of experiential learning activities. Although I (and the students) tend to find these activities enjoyable, they require a substantial amount of preparation and coordination, so evaluating their impact on learning is worthwhile and not as difficult to do as one might imagine. For example, I recently completed a multi-site evaluation of traditional lecture versus experiential course formats in undergraduate Psychology and Law courses. This was a collaboration with colleagues at three other universities in which we co-developed and standardized all materials for a Psychology and Law course.  Some course sections were delivered using a traditional lecture format, while other course sections incorporated several experiential learning activities such as a jury selection exercise, a juvenile competence evaluation, and an expert witness testimony simulation.

The results of this study demonstrated the empirical effectiveness of spending the time and energy required to incorporate experiential learning into your classroom. Not only did the experiential learning students perform better on the relevant portions of exams, but they rated the course and the instructor higher than did the traditional lecture students, despite the fact that the experiential course format actually required more work overall (e.g., additional papers/reports assigned).

In sum, I highly recommend finding ways to incorporate experiential learning methods into your classroom – the students tend to better master and retain the material and it is fun and engaging for everyone. There are few more rewarding moments for a teacher then when a student returns several years later and says, “I remember when we did that activity in class…”

Recommended resources:

Beard, C. & Wilson, J. P. (2013). Experiential learning: A handbook for education, training, and coaching (3rd ed.). London, England: Kogan Page

Kolb, D. A. (2015). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Roberts, J. W. (2012). Beyond learning by doing: Theoretical currents in experiential education. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis