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Experiential Learning in English literature courses

By Nicky Didicher

July 18, 2016

Experiential learning is a hot topic even outside the Ed Biz nowadays, and it’s a concept long overdue for more widespread attention. A lot of us human beings learn better by doing than by watching, learn more from expressing ourselves and asking questions than from listening to a lecture. A lot of us who teach at universities and colleges have thoughtfully over the years reduced the amount of lecturing in our lectures and come up with more hands-on ways of learning that we can get our students involved in. What about this could change or evolve if we thought more about experiential learning?

And what does “experiential learning” currently denote as a term? The best-known promoter and analyser of experiential learning is David A. Kolb, whose work in the 1970s and ‘80s produced (among other monographs) 1984’s Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. There’s the Kolb Model of experiential learning, and the ECHO model based on it (for short accessible summaries see Simply Psychology and The Echo Model). Kolb also identified different learning styles, ways people interact with their learning environments: e.g. “diverging” learners are those who like to feel and watch and do well in brainstorming groups. In Kolb’s model, experiential learning means strengthening everyone’s secondary learning styles by means of undergoing a process that is not just the hands-on “doing” of activities, but also includes reflection and abstract conceptualization before applying learning to a new activity. I think it’s important for us to remember that it’s not just the experience that creates the learning, but also having the opportunity to think about why you’re doing something hands-on and to think about and speak/write about it during the process and/or afterwards.

For some, “experiential learning” means field trips or field schools, internships, or being able to count workplace experience toward an academic degree, but experiences can also happen inside a classroom. And so can reflection and communicating the results of experience.

I teach English literature, a discipline some people might think of as being a difficult one to make experiential: what would you do? take a field trip to a library? In fact, yes you can, but there are so many more possibilities. Allow me to list a few learning activities (in no particular order) and see what you think. Keep in mind that each of these benefits from a learner’s understanding of the purpose of the exercise, reflection on it, and the communication of the results of that reflection in some way.

1. creative writing: imitation, parody

  • Writing a sonnet can be an excellent way to learn the form of the sonnet, its challenges, its rewards, its possibilities.
  • Writing a parody of Dickens’s style can be an excellent way to formalize in your own mind how he creates an individual voice for his narrators.

2. editing and creating an edition

  • Peer editing of writing assignments can benefit not only the recipient of the feedback but also help the peer reviewer conceptualize effective writing strategies and implement them in her or his own writing.
  • Giving students a manuscript facsimile of a work of literature and having them go through the process of editing it and producing a scholarly edition can give them insight into how their own textbooks work and what work went into creating them.

3. research methods and databases

  • Instead of only watching a demonstration of how to use the MLA International Bibliography or the Oxford English Dictionary, students can undertake specific research assignments to put the demonstration into immediate practice.
  • An annotated bibliography can provide not just practice in using research databases but also the opportunity to judge and compare the academic and pseudo-academic materials that students collect.

4. hearing authors read and talk about their own work    

  • Living authors are often willing to make classroom visits either in person or via skype (this one may need financial resources, but often in the hundreds not thousands of dollars).
  • Living and dead authors reading and talking about their own work are sometimes available in audio recording, on film, or in printed interviews.

5. reviewing literary work for academic and/or popular audiences

  • Students can better understand the academic book review as a genre by writing a review of one of the works on their syllabus.
  • Students can produce a blog-style popular review of one of the works on their syllabus, submit a review to Amazon, or write a Wikipedia article.

6. having a prize competition

  • Students can nominate literary works for a hypothetical prize, giving their support based on either pre-determined or student-generated criteria, and the class can vote to determine the winner.
  • Students can engage in debate in class about qualities and values of literary works. My colleague Sophie McCall is teaching a course in the Fall of 2016 which uses the Canada Reads competition as a model.

7. recreating a particular historical context to illuminate a literary text

  • A medieval literature class can have a pot luck banquet, with everyone choosing a recipe from Medieval Cookery.
  • A class reading a Jane Austen novel can receive a lesson on English country dancing and then perform the dance while trying to have a conversation with their partner.

[I’ve personally used both these activities, with resultant learning, merriment, and even one marriage!]

There are, as you can see, lots of possibilities for experiential learning in English literature courses, some of which happen inside the classroom and some outside it. The key to incorporating experiential learning thoughtfully into our courses is 1) thinking about why to use a particular activity, so it’s not just digging through a tool box of teaching strategies for something different to liven up a class, and 2) incorporating reflection and communication into the process. This latter can range from a formal and summative assessment (i.e. a written assignment for marks) to a simple oral follow-up of “why do you think I had you do that?” “what did it tell you about x?” and “how has your thinking or understanding changed as a result?”

For accounts of different kinds of experiential learning in other disciplines at SFU,  you can explore the Experiential Learning Casebook edited by Vivian Neal from the Teaching and Learning Centre.

Nicky Didicher teaches a wide range and large number of courses per year; her areas of expertise and interest include eighteenth-century British literature, children’s literature, Chaucer, poetics, and science fiction. Nicky uses blended learning (in-class and on-line) in most of her courses and learning-centered techniques in teaching, assessment, and syllabus choices. Her commitment to pedagogy has also had outlets in being a member of the Senate Committee for University Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines , helping to plan the Teaching & Learning Symposium, and co-leading the Re-Thinking Teaching Coarse Design Workshop.  In 2010 she received the Lesley B. Cormack Award for excellence in teaching in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.