How experiential learning builds students’ confidence and skills

At Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia, the bachelor of psychiatric nursing students learn a holistic approach to mental health care. Fittingly, their own education takes a holistic approach too.

Students learn theory, practical skills, and applied research in clinical settings, but they also work within the community to observe the gaps in our current mental health system.

“Our students are hands-on, working in community centres, peer support-run groups or food banks,” says Nicole Moffat, a nursing instructor at KPU. “They have the support and encouragement to really think outside the box.”

Emphasizing person-centred care and harm reduction, students also travel abroad to the Philippines to apply their clinical knowledge in settings with fewer resources.

Psychiatric nursing students graduate with a deep understanding of theoretical knowledge, as well as connections to the community and industry. “A lot of graduates work in hospitals, but they also work in more advocacy roles through different health authorities,” says Ms. Moffat.

At polytechnic institutes like KPU, real-world experience is built into the curriculum. Theoretical learning is combined with experiential education, which can range from co-ops, internships and apprenticeships to hands-on labs and clinics. Experiential education gives students a more meaningful understanding of core competencies related to their fields, helps them build confidence and find jobs after graduation.

At Fanshawe College in London, Ont., experiential learning is a core tenet in every program. Indeed, every Fanshawe graduate participates in at least one experiential learning experience during their degree. These experiences include applied research, entrepreneurship opportunities, contributing to national and global projects, placements, and student competitions.

For example, bachelor of environmental design and planning students participate in co-operative work placements and bring their skills to local community projects. In the cannabis applied science program, which launched in September, students learn how to conduct analytical testing for cannabis products, make their own cannabis products like topicals, edibles and concentrates, and cultivate cannabis plants from seeds and identify growing issues.

A 2018 survey of Fanshawe students by Colleges Ontario, which represents the province’s 24 colleges, found that 87 per cent of respondents were very satisfied that their program was giving them the “knowledge and skills that will be useful in their future career.”

Sherry Bagley, the executive director of the Association for Experiential Education, an international organization that promotes experiential learning, says that scientific research also shows how students benefit from hands-on learning.

“We know that when kids go to playschool and play with blocks, that’s a really good way for them to learn. Institutionally, as we get older, [learning] becomes sitting in a classroom and listening to someone,” says Ms. Bagley. “But science has taught us that having tactile experiences during the learning process actually changes our neurological pathways in our brains and makes learning stick.”

Dario Guescini, the director of work-integrated learning, experiential education, and global mobility at George Brown College in Toronto, says that with hands-on learning opportunities, students are able to practice their professional skills in the real world, but with the support and mentorship of faculty and industry partners.

“If you ask any employer what they need [in an employee], they’ll tell you it’s critical thinking, communication, and empathy,” says Mr. Guescini. “Experiential education is there to ease the transition from school to the workplace.”

In fact, studying the success of American college graduates, the American higher education scholar Jeffrey J. Selingo found that 79 per cent of graduates who found enriching careers had at least one college internship as well as participated in other out-of-classroom projects.

“[It’s] not just the college degree that separate the successful from the drifters these days,” Mr. Selingo writes in his book There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow.

“While some sort of degree after high school remains the foundation of a successful life and career, other coming-of-age, real-world experiences in the late teens and early 20s – particularly apprenticeships, jobs or internships – actually matter more nowadays in moving from college to a career.”

It’s not only students who are benefiting from experiential learning. It’s advantageous for employers too.

“It’s a way to strengthen your talent pool because now you have someone who has worked with you for four months, [it’s like] a four-month interview,” says Mr. Guescini.

According to a survey from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, more than half of employers who had work placement students ended up hiring at least one of those students. Another 9 per cent of employers hired graduates who completed work placements elsewhere.

In addition to gaining technical skills that will help students succeed in competitive industries, network with professionals in their related fields, and gain work experiences while still in school, experiential learning also boosts student confidence and self-esteem.

“Doing experiential activities, whether it’s a three-week expedition or [working] in a community garden, helps build confidence in people,” says Ms. Bagley. “Creating something helps your confidence. You get some of that if you get an A on a test, but it’s not the same.”

About the Author

Samantha Edwards, Special Correspondent, The Globe and Mail

Samantha Edwards is a Special Correspondent for the Globe and Mail.