Experiential Education in the Liberal Arts

How are teaching and learning in higher education and coaching competitive girls’ fast-pitch softball related? As a student and a practitioner of both, I can assure you that there is a remarkable similarity.p02-Dennis-Papini.8330

As a coach, I found there are several predictable steps in teaching young athletes to master the physical and mental challenges of the game. The first involves teaching the players the physical skills needed to compete—throwing, catching, hitting, running, etc. Repetitive drills and practice help these young players learn these fundamentals.

Interestingly, although athletes may learn the proper skill and use it perfectly in a drill during practice, when they are in an actual game, they often revert to bad habits. Eventually, the athlete learns to perform the mechanical skill while under the considerable distress and pressure of a championship game.

This process, the transfer of learning, is at the center of a revolution in how we think about teaching and learning within higher education in general and the liberal arts and sciences in particular. Knowing and understanding things are simply not enough; students must be able to apply the skill when needed.

Under the old educational model, knowledge itself was power. Teaching in higher education was based on the belief that learning was achieved by filling the students, as if they were empty vessels, with enough knowledge to prepare them for an ever-changing world. Throughout their lives these students were to add knowledge as needed—to continue to fill the cup as it were—for personal and professional success.

The computer revolution, the digital age and the demands of the modern workforce have challenged these beliefs and assumptions. Now, too much information for students to hold at one time is available with the simple click of a mouse. That enormous body of knowledge produced over the millennia is accessible in digital formats from a variety of sources.

Today, employers demand a workforce with individuals who possess, but can also apply, knowledge, skills and competencies. The ability to search out information and use it in solving problems has become the new model of teaching and learning driving higher education.

The faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences has embraced this new model of teaching and learning. We are creating a distinctive model for higher education to provide our students with the best possible academic experience in and out of the classroom.
As you will see in the pages that follow, teaching and learning is no longer just conducted within the narrow boundaries of the traditional classroom. Teaching and learning in the liberal arts can no longer simply deliver knowledge and skills that have not been tempered through experiences.

In addition to applying what they have learned in the classroom to real-world problems, the workforce of today must have the requisite “soft skills” to both lead and follow as members of a team, to work with people from a variety of diverse backgrounds and cultures, and to continue to discover and apply new ideas throughout their lives.

The remainder of this issue is devoted to the introduction of experiential learning as a critical component of a liberal arts education for today’s economy. Experience-based learning requires students to acquire knowledge of a major or discipline, critically examine what they have learned and demonstrate how to apply those theories and concepts to practical problems.

I invite you to join the excitement that this innovative approach to a liberal arts education has for placing our students at the front of the pack of new graduates seeking employment.

We will be reaching out and building partnerships with all sorts of agencies, businesses and communities as we look to engage our faculty and students in experiential learning. I hope that each of you will seriously consider how you might be able to assist us in this mighty endeavor. Please contact me if you have thoughts or ideas that you would like to share.

Dennis Papini

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