Conducting a Teaching and Learning Session using Experiential Methods

PGCert blog books 2I decided that James Clawson’s other chapter on experiential learning merited a blogpost of its own.  The first was primarily about the theory.  This one reminds us of the theory but is more about putting it into practice.  The book is accessible online for staff and students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, by visiting our library and IT e-books page.  (I blogged about this on our Whittaker Live blog earlier today.)

With Chapter 13 of Clawson and Haskins’ book, Teaching Management, Clawson turns our focus to Experiential Methods.  In other words, the learning takes place by experience (on the students’ part) – in distinct contrast to the average lecture when the material has all been prepared in advance. This enables the students to “generate their own information and then to analyze and use it.” (p.212)  It’s a teaching method that can be used alongside others, of course.  We are introduced to the concept of “logically unspecifiable” as opposed to “specifiable” skills – some skills simply can’t be taught other than by doing (swimming, riding a bike), whilst others need explanation and significant data as well as practice (highly skilled, technical tasks such as surgery – or, maybe, playing an instrument at professional level?

Clawson reminds us that experiential learning touches students emotionally and physically, not just intellectually, at all three levels, but also says that the lecturer needs to highlight the fact that learning has occurred – in other words, it needs to be identified and labelled so that the students are reminded what is important about what they have learned.

I certainly did take care to summarise the learning at the end of each of my two Scottish music sessions last December, so I was correctly using experiential learning principles in this regard. Additionally, when I asked for feedback, the students themselves identified what they had learned and would take from the sessions.  It’s hard to say if the learning touched the students emotionally, although it possibly did in the instances where students said they were keen to explore the historic Scottish tune repertoire more.  As for physically?  Hands-on exploration of historic publications can be thrilling – indeed, eighteenth century materials can even smell different! – but I suspect this doesn’t apply to everyone.  It’s more likely to happen if one is examining something that might potentially containing new performance repertoire for one’s own instrument or voice, of course.

Experiential learning is more immersive, and the more so when all the students share what they’ve gained from the experience, and when the instructor takes the debriefing seriously.  Clawson speaks of a “sort of positive cheerfulness [that] goes along with these experiences”. (p.214) 

It makes sense that this kind of active learning will be more engaging.  I found that it was exciting when a student responded positively with a score because they had found something they could relate to.  However, I have already noted elsewhere in my e-portfolio that I could have found out each student’s principal study (voice, or an instrument), and ensured there would be something that would be of potential interest to each one.  That’s an improvement I would make for another time.

Experiential learning also engages the instructor, Clawson notes.  It’s flexible, forges “strong links between theory and action”, and if carefully set up, will motivate the students to learn. (p.215)  This article appears in a book of chapters about management theory, so we should not be surprised that the author goes on to claim success in improving leadership, management skills, communication skills and self-awareness. In two hour-long sessions, I can’t say I noticed these results!  However, my Scottish book sessions certainly did encourage the more enthusiastic students to communicate what they found.

The author now turns to disadvantages of experiential teaching methods.  Does this kind of hands-on learning require careful, time-consuming planning as Clawson reports?  Yes, I think it does.  I had to source and gather together the materials I needed for those Scottish music sessions, and make sure I personally knew enough about each one to be able to encourage and guide discovery.

Preparation isn’t just assembling teaching materials, either.  In another, different session that I led later on for Masters students, I learned the hard way that it was not enough to ask someone else to ensure that students read the reflective reports that I had been briefed to talk about.  Even if no-one can actually ensure that they do it, I should have asked if I could make direct contact with them myself.  Additionally, I did exactly what I had been asked to do, but was unaware that my brief had possibly been more accurate than the brief given to the students at the start of the year.  I couldn’t have known this, but it has taught me to ask more questions before undertaking a teaching session.

Clawson also anticipates what happened with my internet access! ‘What happens if a computer crashes …? … What if the expected interactions don’t occur? What if the students don’t find the exercise relevant or engaging?’ (p.216)  He goes on to comment that sessions can get out of hand.  The tutor needs to know when to intervene, he comments. 

I suspect that this kind of situation is more likely in an active game, or something where emotions and opinions run high, than the kind of sessions I tend to run!   Clawson has no suggested answers for crashing computers, I note.

Clawson underlines the importance of the debriefing, and of the need to draw generalisations from the experiential learning that has taken place, so that the students are left with general principles that can be applied in other situations.  He comments that some educationalists think that experiential learning should be applied in all situations, whereas his view is that it should be used at the right time and in the right place, as ‘an excellent way of augmenting or introducing conceptual material’.  (p.218) 

I skipped the next section about sources of experiential learning games for teaching management techniques.  But after this, Clawson moves on to practicalities, which is certainly worth reading – more detail about preparation, conducting and debriefing learning sessions.

Preparation.  Prepare the materials, be familiar with the exercise and what you hope the outcomes will be.  Clawson suggests staging a run-through.  (In my situation, this was not an option.)  Check the facilities. (Ah, here’s where I should have got the websites up in advance – at least for the first of the two sessions!)  Ask for help.  (Applicable if we’re doing a presentation/demo, or even a practical session, and even in a Scottish music session, if it means getting students to perform from the books.)  ‘Experience the exercise’. (p.223) The author urges the facilitator to be present in the moment, and try to be conscious of how the session is going.

Conducting experiential sessions.  These fall into three parts – introduction, exercise and debriefing.  I’m conscious that in one of my Scottish music sessions, a student asked for coverage of a related topic that was actually going to be taught by the course-tutor in the subsequent lesson.  Did I spell that out?  I thought I did, but one individual missed the point somewhere, so either I wasn’t clear enough, or they weren’t listening. 

The author reminds us that different people have different learning styles, so having a range of activities is a way of keeping as many people engaged as possible.  Walking around between groups makes the instructor ‘available’ and helps you see what’s going on.  I did do this in my Scottish music session, and in one I did on referencing and citation for doctoral students, the year before.


My three-question survey to the Scottish music students was actually quite similar to the questions Clawson suggests we should be asking.  I asked what they enjoyed, didn’t enjoy, and what they’d have liked more of.  Clawson suggests the following:- (p.225)

  • What did you learn?
  • What were the main themes?
  • What would you do differently?
  • Describe how your team worked together. (A management question, not for an hour of Scottish music!)
  • What connections does does this exercise have to business situations? (This looks odd, from our point of view, but could easily be reworded: How could this material be used in your performance practice? How could this approach inform the way you look at unfamiliar repertoire?)
  • How were you able to use concepts we’ve used in the course previously?
  • What was frustrating to you?
  • What lessons or principles should we takeaway?

Ethics.  Although the points raised are very interesting, they’re more applicable to role-play or management training than to the kind of teaching that I do.


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