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Student Voices

Balancing content with context

Why education students need more experiential learning.


Almost a year ago, 10 Canadian postsecondary students were named 3M National Student Fellows, awarded by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and 3M Canada. The annual award honours up to 10 university and college students who have shown outstanding leadership in their lives and at school. The 2014 cohort chose, as a capstone project, to write a series to start a discussion on “the importance of adapting postsecondary [education] to the needs of learners in the 21st century.”

University Affairs was delighted to be asked by these student leaders to act as the forum to present their views to the broader postsecondary community. The opinion pieces, each by a 3M student fellow, will run in this space between February and April 2015.

In the early years of my undergraduate teaching degree, I didn’t know at what point I would feel that I had truly become a teacher.

Memorial University brands itself as a place “where people and ideas become,” but I was more concerned with the logistical when than the where of my becoming. I thought, maybe, that “A-ha!” moment would come at convocation. After taking a semester off in 2012 and volunteering as a grade three teacher in Fiji, I felt that I had already rapidly developed as an educator, but knew I wouldn’t be an “actual” teacher for three more years.

Now, with an additional volunteer teaching semester abroad and a recognized internship under my belt, I’m nearing the end of my degree. I realize that becoming is not an “A-ha!” moment – it’s a process. This process is enhanced when students are engaged beyond the content of the material, and given the opportunity to use the content in the context of their profession.

I’ve been professionally engaged over the course of my degree, from conferences to volunteer work in my field, and that engagement nurtured tangible, human connections to the profession I will soon be entering. These connections are unique, and instill a sense of confidence. The mentors I have acquired have had an impact on my learning in ways that aren’t possible in a classroom setting.

My program at Memorial is content-heavy, as it mandates students to complete four years of coursework and, in the first semester of our fifth and final year, to do our one, and only, internship. The optimist in me believes that this program design was (is?) well-intentioned, by equipping students with the maximum amount of content before they step into a classroom in a professional capacity, to ensure that they put their best, and most prepared, foot forward.

Yet the program design overlooks one important thing – that experiential learning, even when peppered with mistakes, provides rich opportunities for learning and growth.

I realize not all professional programs are designed in this manner. Some readers may smirk, knowing that their program does a better job of offering experiential opportunities. To this I ask: Can your “better” do better?

To become more than the sum of our parts, students must be nurtured by programs and faculties beyond the transcript. Engaged or not, when we graduate, we all have the same courses (albeit with varying grades) on embossed pieces of paper. If 40 to 50 courses constitute a skilled professional, I hope that institutions are diligent enough to expose students to success, and failure, in changing environments that can be unpredictable and stressful.

My challenge is for administrators and educational designers to enable us — students in professional programs — to develop working relationships, to authentically troubleshoot and to get a true taste of the career we are committing ourselves to. Allow us to merge the content of what we’re learning with authentic contexts as often as possible. Let us foster human connection alongside soft skills in the process.

I ask administrators to consider whether they can be doing more, be doing better, for students who are entering a bleak job market. We need to learn when, how, and why to use the content we’re being taught.

To improve professional programs across disciplines, we can give students more tastes of trial and error through experiential learning, with a rich support network of leaders in their field, and students (higher-level undergraduates and graduate students) who can relate our experience to their experiences and provide insight to common pitfalls. These leaders can personalize their feedback to the students by discussing their own moments of unpreparedness and by sharing with us how they learned, through both success and failure.

Such leaders, whom we could meet through a multitude of platforms from seminars to online communities, would help students contextualize the material and the skills that they’re learning. A reflective process with a mentor would help us synthesize and retain the content, and help us deconstruct and understand the context.

Convocation is fast approaching, and while my time as an undergraduate will soon be coming to a close, my time to become has just commenced.

This is the second instalment of our series Student Voices written by the 10 Canadian postsecondary students who were named 2014 3M National Student Fellows, awarded by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and 3M Canada.

Heather Carroll
Heather Carroll is a fifth year student at Memorial University, studying a bachelor of primary/elementary education.
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  1. Alan Wright / February 12, 2015 at 00:05

    Heather makes some valid points and observations. My reading of the literature and personal experience strongly suggest that future teachers develop best through an experiential learning cycle that moves from theory to practice and back again on a regular basis.

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