18 January 2023

Creating leaders through experiential learning

By Prof Moritz Mueller, Ting Lik Fong and Changi Wong

Universities (and schools, of course) have a responsibility to create the next generation of leaders. But how do we do this? How do we ensure that every student reaches their full potential? 

Too often, students feel discouraged and unmotivated in the classroom, unable to access the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. One of the significant issues for a lecturer /teacher is that there are many ways to learn, and we must try and cater to all (most) of them simultaneously.

Some students prefer listening to the teacher, others prefer reading a book, while others prefer a more ‘hands-on’ approach. For example, imagine simultaneously explaining a highly complex and technical topic to your father, mother, grandmother, young brother and best friend. Some will want to know all the juicy bits; others will just want to look at a picture; others will want to try fixing it themselves straight away.

So how do we try to unlock every student’s true potential in higher education? 

We have found that something called ‘experiential learning’ is one of the best ways to do this. It incorporates principles such as ‘experience is the best teacher’ and ‘learning by doing’, phrases most people will have been told by their parents before.

However, the ‘experiential learning’ framework goes a bit further and includes four stages if implemented fully. It starts with (1) an active experience (i.e. an experiment, a field trip or similar), then the students have to (2) reflect on their experience and identify connections to prior knowledge, which will lead to them (3) generating an improved understanding, new ideas /concepts to draw conclusions and make hypotheses. The final step then asks the students to (4)  plan and test their conclusions/hypotheses by applying their knowledge to new experiences.

Lewis & Williams (1994) summarised that “experiential education first immerses learners in an experience and then encourages reflection about the experience to develop new skills, attitudes, or ways of thinking.” 

Barring severe shyness or anxiety, experiential learning is uniquely positioned to support or elevate any type of learner. Through active learning, students can gain valuable insights, develop new skills and apply their knowledge to real-world problems. In addition, by engaging in hands-on learning activities, they gain a deeper understanding of their course material and an edge in their academic pursuits.

For example, we take our students out for field trips to the local mangroves and coral reefs. The feedback from the students has been outstanding (“The field trips provide a new and more hands-on experience than any unit ever offered”). We were fortunate to see dolphins, crocodiles and monkeys, and the ever-famous Nemo. Besides the apparent excitement to spot these beautiful animals in their natural habitat, field trips also offer us the opportunity to ‘bring the classroom to the field’.

We can discuss with the students how the animals are uniquely adapted to their habitats, look at their threats and challenges, relate them to other units and topics etc. While for some disciplines (e.g., geology, ecology), it is relatively easy to imagine what a field-based learning experience can look like, for other fields (e.g., philosophy, English), it may not be immediately apparent.

Getting students to interview people and collect their own data is another way of getting field practice. We also arrange for ‘behind-the-scenes’ visits to research laboratories and immerse them in topic-specific activities (i.e. first teaching them how to count and identify birds, then spending a whole day in the field, actually counting and identifying birds). Instead of pre-written laboratory exercises, we provide the students with an open-ended ‘topic’ (i.e. cleaning dirty water using biotechnological approaches).

The students then have to develop a project proposal, pitch their ‘big idea’, and then develop a detailed experiment based on feedback from their peers and lecturers. Once carried out, they present their results in a public forum, again learning vital soft skills besides being trained in project management and critical analyses of their data and approach.

We do not stop within the boundaries of our university and involve our students in community engagement as part of their experiential learning journey. Together we design activities for outreach – hands-on activities, obviously 😉 – and then carry them out with local high-school kids, for example.

After the event, students are tasked to submit their reflections on their preparation, experience during the event, improvements for future deliveries, relevance to their professional careers, personal development etc.

One thing that often struck us is that not always the same ‘good’ students shine during these hands-on activities. Many usually quiet students suddenly come to the fore and work beautifully with the community. Talents appear that are hidden during ‘typical ‘ class lectures. 

Project work, fieldwork, and other hands-on activities help them become more effective problem-solvers and decision-makers. Experiential learning also allows students to develop skills such as collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity and resilience – all essential qualities for successful leadership in today’s world.

By providing these types of experiences at the university level, we can ensure our future generations are equipped with the tools necessary to lead us into a brighter tomorrow.

Prof Moritz Mueller, Ting Lik Fong and Changi Wong are with the School of Engineering and Science. Prof Mueller can be contacted at mmueller@swinburne.edu.my