In experiential learning, students learn by doing, and build knowledge based on their practical experiences in a workplace, organization, or program. Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) is a form of experiential learning, and is an activity or program that combines academic learning with educational experiences outside of the classroom.
There are many types of experiential learning, including work placements such as apprenticeships, co-ops, and internships. These placements could be for a few months or a few years. There are also capstone or applied research projects that students do in their final year of middle school, high school, or college/university. These projects are often focused on solving a community problem, and culminate in a final presentation or performance. Students are enabled to demonstrate their skills in the areas of research, interviewing, critical thinking, problem solving, and public speaking.
More modern forms of experiential learning include incubator and accelerator programs to promote entrepreneurship, related to business ventures and/or social initiatives. There are government programs, such as the Canada Accelerator and Incubator Program (CAIP), that provide grants to individuals and universities to launch or invest in an entrepreneurial endeavor.
Bootcamps, hackathons, and other tech learning programs are also popular experiential learning opportunities that give students and other individuals the opportunity to learn by doing. In these programs, participants are getting hands-on experience and creating something new, such as an app. Participants can learn a new tech skill, hone an existing skill, or tackle a computer programming challenge. Sometimes the output of these programs is a new business venture or a new non-profit organization.
There are many benefits to all parties involved in work-integrated and experiential learning programs. Students see first-hand how classroom learning can be applied in a workplace, or how their experiences in the business world contrast with what they have learned in the classroom, and both of these aspects deepen their overall learning experience. Students gain a greater sense of self-awareness from exploring different roles at a company, and this gives them a stronger sense of what career path they want to pursue post-graduation.
Many experiential learning programs offer students a salary for their work placements, which is a great source of income to help pay for school and living expenses. Upon graduation, students who have participated in experiential learning programs are more desirable to hiring companies due to their industry experience. Therefore, they usually get a job more quickly and earn a higher salary than students who have not participated in experiential learning programs. For example, a study done by the University of Waterloo found that graduates of WIL programs had a yearly income 15% higher than students who had not participated in a WIL program.
Post-secondary institutions like colleges and universities also benefit from experiential learning programs. Successful programs lead to higher student enrolment at the institution, and an overall improved reputation. The programs also give them the opportunity to form and foster relationships with partner companies, and to get industry input on their curriculum to ensure it is accurate and relevant.
Companies and partner organizations in experiential learning programs benefit from having high-quality short-term employees, as a way to complete projects that otherwise wouldn’t have been staffed. Another benefit is that often students from work placement programs turn into permanent employees. The work placement can be thought of as a deeper and longer interview process. The experiential learning programs also give companies the opportunity to establish a more diverse workforce by hiring students who inject fresh ideas and energy into a company.
Design programs with outcomes in mind: Students need to be able to demonstrate and express what they have learned in the program — knowledge, understanding, problem-solving skills, and the ability to think critically and make judgements. WIL programs should integrate theory and practice, and include learning plans and assessments.
Clear communication and collaboration between education and industry partners: Be aware of the goals and needs on both sides, discuss and agree on learning outcomes, invest in and foster the relationship, and look for cross-pollination opportunities, such as having a person from the industry partner into the classroom as a guest speaker.
Provide a supportive and constructive learning environment: Ensure the physical location for the program, and the team dynamics, are supportive and constructive for students. People learn best when they are in an environment that is physically comfortable, and that encourages transparency, honesty, a growth mindset, and respect for everyone.
Empower students: Provide challenges related to their learning, encourage personal growth initiatives, and promote an environment that values self-awareness, self-reflection, and self-assessment. When creating the program, build in a certain amount of self-directed activities for students.
Mentorship to enable student success: Effective mentorship is a key part of student success in a WIL program. Students need support during their work placements to build business and technical expertise, and they also need emotional support, so they can express and process the experiences they are having, and get the guidance they need.
Facilitate reflection and re-assessment: Build into the program opportunities for students to reflect before, during, and after their work placements, so they can absorb and analyze what they have learned from these experiences. Also include regular intervals for assessing the overall program, measuring the program against its objectives, and giving students the opportunity to give feedback. Maintain a willingness, for all involved, to continually evolve and improve the program.