3 great tips for experiential learning

Here's how to get students to apply what you’re teaching to what they find meaningful

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

Benjamin Franklin is often credited with this quote that resonates with teachers as a reminder to make learning experiential. When students have a personal stake in the subject matter, they better connect to what you’re teaching, and are more likely to engage with challenging subjects.

Here are three tips for inviting experiential learning into your classroom:

1. Let students choose
An abundance of research is available about the benefits of giving students choices in their education, especially when it comes to producing high-quality outcomes. A student who isn’t overly interested in science but loves history may have little interest in looking for dominant and recessive genes, until she examines more closely the links between her grandmother’s brown eyes and her own blue eyes. By inviting students to apply what you’re teaching to what they find meaningful, you increase the odds of robust student engagement.

For example, at Wisconsin Virtual Academy (WIVA), our middle school students recently participated in a Virtual Science Fair. Students chose an experiment to take on and were asked to present on their findings and use of the scientific method. They researched various ways to grow flowers, whether or not animals have a dominant foot, and how fingerprints are unique, among other topics. Students were given the freedom to choose what they studied. At the end of the assignment, many indicated they planned to dig deeper into their research.

2. Let students teach
In addition to letting them select the subject matter, research consistently shows the benefits of teaching as a means of learning. A study published by Memory & Cognition shows that people are better able to recall material correctly if they think they will have to teach others what they’ve learned, rather than solely preparing for a traditional test or quiz. According to the report, “Instilling an expectation to teach seems to be a simple, inexpensive intervention with the potential to increase learning efficiency at home and in the classroom.”

This method of content ownership can also lead to classroom leadership. In my first-grade literacy class, a student bravely volunteered to lead the entire class in a review of recently learned decoding strategies. This student was truly in his element, drawing out positive and supportive peer engagement, and even calling on peers to assist him in correctly demonstrating the application of skills learned in class. As their teacher, it was wonderful to witness, but my favorite discovery came later: The young decoder’s parent shared that her child was so inspired by the opportunity to educate his peers that he now wants to be a teacher when he grows up!

3. Let students engage
Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” The goal of most schools is to graduate students who are not only career and college ready, but who are also positive contributors to their communities. Introducing opportunities to bring classwork to life through real-world community problem solving can be a powerful way to learn, as students hone their critical-thinking skills, which helps them to make informed decisions in their day-to-day lives.

In a middle-school English class at WIVA, sixth graders were recently asked to identify a civic issue they thought needed to be addressed. They prepared essays that proposed solutions to the problems and presented their ideas to the class. After learning about the abuse and cruelty behind puppy mills, one group of students decided to take their essay beyond the virtual classroom, in hopes of making a difference in the lives of helpless dogs in their communities. They drafted a letter to several state lawmakers asking for attention to the issue. The students were pleased to receive a response from a U.S. Congressman, and the civic process was brought to life about a critical topic.

In each of these experiential learning examples, students remained engaged through content selection, teaching opportunities, and real-world learning. When students are engaged with what they’re learning, they tend to perform better academically. And when that happens, their teachers tend to stay engaged!

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