BY CHERYL JACOBSEN, PH.D., PROVOST
More than ten years ago Loras College faculty and administrators began talking about an approach to learning that has gained significant currency throughout higher education. Experiential learning, as you will discover throughout the Loras experience, recognizes the power of applying or living one’s education by integrating classroom experiences with experiences in the world beyond the classroom. Or to characterize experiential learning another way: it is the integration of theory and practice. Precursors to this approach to learning are found in laboratory work, studio-based learning and internships. The distinguishing feature in contemporary experiential learning approaches is the reflection that is required of students as they explicitly document the learning that occurs outside of the classroom, often through constructing portfolios.
At Loras, experiential learning parallels the way our students now want to learn in "hands on," collaborative and relevant or purposeful ways. It also builds upon Loras’ history of offering broad-based liberal learning that focuses on critical and ethical thinking alongside preparation for careers and professions. We have been intentional in creating structures, promoting curricular revisions and emphasizing pedagogies that move experiential learning into the mainstream of a Loras education. Presently, experiential learning encompasses study abroad, study away, internships, field work, practica, research, simulations, community-based and service learning, discovery and problem-based instruction, among other classroom practices.
The original groundwork for experiential learning at Loras began with the 1996 strategic plan that promoted developing study abroad opportunities. By 1997-98, John Waldmeir, Ph.D., then associate vice president for academic affairs, began working on study abroad and internship development. The first study abroad program in Dublin was designed by Andy Auge, Ph.D. ('78), professor of English, and John Burney, Ph.D., then vice president for academic affairs, during the next academic year. The Center for Experiential Learning (CEL) was established in fall 1999 with new programs in Chicago, Santiago, Spain, and Pretoria, South Africa. Simultaneously, Burney and Waldmeir, along with many faculty, were instrumental in revising the general education curriculum of the College to emphasize student engagement in learning. Consequently, the Loras "Dispositions" were inaugurated as learning outcomes for the new curriculum and, implicitly, supported the experiential learning philosophy.
The "Dispositions"—active learning, reflective thinking, ethical decision-making, and responsible contributing—now permeate courses within and beyond the general education offerings. Students regularly collaborate on projects, are involved in simulations and debates, work on discoverybased assignments and consider the broader ethical and social implications of their learning. As one example, every student at Loras takes the "Democracy and Global Diversity" course in which they role-play the individuals or positions of an historical event in which ideas about citizenship, civil society and developing political structures were being strongly argued. Similar examples exist in majors courses.
When Loras College returned to strategic planning in 2001 and again in 2006, the community recognized the impact that the "Dispositions" and experiential learning had already had on students. The obvious next step was to create more opportunities for—and place greater emphasis on—integrating classroom and experiential learning approaches. Mary Ellen Carroll, Ph.D., joined the College as associate vice president for academic affairs and dean of experiential learning in 2004, bringing experience in service- and community-based learning, another major form of experiential learning. The CEL study abroad, internship and service-learning programs have grown significantly under her leadership.
Because of my own previous experience with the singlecourse term, I was eager to introduce a structure that could support experiential learning more fully while also challenging students intellectually. The result was the addition of a January Term during which students focus on a single, intensive and accelerated course with a required experiential component. The first January Term courses in 2008 offered the full range of experiential learning approaches, examples of which are highlighted by Jacob Heidenreich, Ph.D., Lisa Grinde Budzisz, Ph.D., and Chris Budzisz, Ph.D. Faculty and students reported they were deeply and meaningfully engaged in the new courses. As a result, we are seeing increased student interest in other experiential learning opportunities and for next year’s January Term courses.
Our intentional emphasis on experiential learning is becoming a distinctive feature of Loras College. We believe it enables us to fulfill our commitment to prepare students for their increasingly diverse and complex world.