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College delves into hands-on learning’s role in the liberal arts

College delves into hands-on learning’s role in the liberal arts

Experience in a lab, above, is one form of experiential learning.

By Phoebe Carter

When President Sean Decatur visited Student Council Sunday, he discussed some ways the College could better integrate the curriculum and co-curricular activities. One of those ways has been called “experiential learning.”

At a pre-spring-break forum, faculty sounded off on what experiential learning means in how students are prepared to enter the job market. These discussions reflect a national trend toward more hands-on learning, which students feel makes them more competitive job applicants. Many faculty, however, are wary of losing the theoretical rigor that defines the liberal arts institution as education across the country shifts its focus to a more pragmatic approach.

The headline of the faculty forum, “experiential learning,” is a phrase that gets a lot of press in higher education these days, but it can be hard to pin down exactly what it means. At the faculty forum, two definitions were discussed.

The first definition is “hands-on learning,” which the Curricular Policy Committee (CPC) tentatively defined as “a pedagogic strategy that can be used in and beyond the classroom.” The second definition is “learning beyond the classroom,” in the form of service learning, internships and study abroad that give students experiences “beyond the hill.”
This discussion is a continuation of a conversation that started last semester about Kenyon becoming an outlier among liberal arts colleges, as more and more of the school’s peer institutions are offering pre-professional programs. Kaylyn Talkington ’14, vice president of the Academic Review Committee, saw a need to emphasize experiential learning in the curriculum.

“We are competing with … a large pool of graduates who have experience, so I think experiential learning is key to Kenyon’s reputation, to its relevance, and to its appeal.”
In the forum, faculty discussed the question of providing pre-professional training, as the liberal arts curriculum generally avoids narrow vocationalism.

“Knowledge from a liberal arts education should be generalizable,” said Professor of English Kim McMullen, who serves on the CPC. “The skills should be transferrable.”
With what Andrea White, visiting associate professor of psychology, referred to as “a national trend toward education only mattering if it is directly applicable to a job,” faculty are aware of the importance of striking a balance in their curricula. “We were talking at a faculty meeting and we asked ‘well, what is the opposite of experiential learning?’” said Wendy MacLeod, professor of drama. “And if that’s traditional classroom learning, it is important that we don’t undervalue that in this push for experiential learning.”

“The thing is, you have 14 weeks in a semester, so if you’re going to devote more time to hands-on learning, the question is, what are you going to take out?” said H. Abbie Erler, associate professor of political science. “I am trying to find that balance between new theoretical concepts and hands-on experience.”

A lack of pre-professional programs does not, according to McMullen, preclude adequate preparation to enter the workforce after graduation. “Courses can give students practical experience,” she said. This experience can come in many forms across the curriculum, from hands-on lab research to exploring poverty policy in Knox County.  “Maybe we need to get better at helping students to understand what we’re giving them, and help them to talk about the skills they’ve gained,” McMullen said.

In the short-term, McMullen thought the most important thing to do for students was to help them understand what experiential opportunities already exist here.  “I think [experiential learning] is a new word for something that’s already been happening here,” MacLeod said.

President Sean Decatur’s 2020 plan, which lays the groundwork for future developments in the College, emphasizes experiential learning and student internships. Interim Provost Joe Klesner said the curriculum is bound to evolve to reflect ongoing discussions about experiential learning. “I think you will see in the next couple of years more extensive attention to service learning and community-based research,” Klesner said. “I’m certainly committed to trying to extend the collaborative research model from the natural sciences to the social sciences and humanities and beyond.”

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