Theoretical Approaches



In their book, Teaching for Experiential Learning, Wurdinger and Carlson discuss five approaches to experiential learning that work best. They are active learning, problem-based learning, project-based learning, service learning and place-based learning. Each of these types of learning is used to promote critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills. Below is a short description of each approach. You might use these descriptions to stimulate ideas about how best to design your course.

Active learning is "anything course-related that all students in a class session are called upon to do other than simply watching, listening and taking notes" (Felder & Brent, 2009: 2). In contrast to the traditional lecture approach, active learning requires students to engage in the learning process in class through group discussions, problem-solving, case studies, role playing, journal writing, etc. Activities can be done individually, in pairs, or in small groups. Active learning does not have to completely replace the traditional, lecture approach, but instead can enhance the process. Combining lecture with active learning can create a class culture that is interactive and student-focused.

Place-based learning focuses on a learning environment local to the student. Originally rooted in rural or ecological contexts, place-based learning has shifted throughout the years to include any place  urban, suburban, or rural that the student has a connection to. The idea is that learners have a deeper connection to places that are familiar to them. This connection will increase their motivation to learn and investment in the local community. When they have appropriate skills and opportunities, they will become more active in their communities.

The Problem-Based Learning Network defines problem-based learning as "an educational approach that organizes curriculum and instruction around carefully crafted 'ill-structured' problems (2008, n.p)." Students apply disciplinary knowledge to the problem in order to form a solution. Problem-based learning was developed in the 1960s when medical educators at McMaster University Medical School decided to change their curriculum from the traditional lecture-based approach because they felt that students were not being adequately prepared for medical practice.

Problem-based learning is most effective when it includes guidance and facilitation by instructors, when facilitators use intentional scaffolding techniques, and when the problem is presented before an instructor introduces relevant and new material to the class. When problem-based learning is engaged prior to new information, it allows students to use information they already have in their toolkit to process the problem. Once the new information is provided to the student, the combination of old information, challenges in addressing the problem set forth, and newly presented information helps to consolidate new information for long-term retention.

Project-based learning is a student-centered approach in which the student designs and finishes a project. Usually the project will include multiple problems that students must solve to complete the project. Project-based learning relies heavily on Dewey's theory of learning described in the theory section. The project-based learning method has been used extensively throughout the U.S. especially in high schools and charter schools and was used as early as the late 1800s.

Project-based learning can have different degrees of structure depending on the comfort of the teacher. Projects can be highly structured with the curriculum created exclusively by the teacher, students and teacher can collaborate on the design of the project, or students can have free range to create their own projects. Projects can be done in individually, in groups or as a whole class. Professors, who have not used the approach before, may want to start with more structure. They are more comfortable with what this approach entails and how to direct students individual choices may allow more student direction.

Service learning is a type of experiential learning that integrates community involvement with academic course content, either with relevant volunteer experience at a local community-based organization or with a community-based project completed on behalf of a non-profit or community group. Students participate in an organized service activity and reflect on that activity to gain further understanding of course content, identify community needs, analyze and address larger social problems, and enhance the student’s understanding of civic responsibility.