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Growing Experiential Learning Opportunities for Students

posted on February 1, 2017
By Cathy Keates (Director, Queen’s University Career Services) and Felicity Morgan (Director, University of Toronto Mississauga Career Centre)

There is a growing conversation about how to increase the number of experiential learning (EL) opportunities for students, including some calls for each student being ensured at least one EL opportunity during their degree (for example in Ontario this report from The Premier’s Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel, see page 27). Career centres have long been involved in experiential learning programming and recently a number of directors of career centres in universities across Ontario discussed concepts and strategies to help inform the expansion of experiential learning. Here is a short summary of some of the key points in our discussion:

Experiential learning is very valuable for students' career development. In addition to the actual experience and all the learnings from that experience, EL gives students networking contacts, opportunities to “try on” a potential career path, a development of professional skills and a broader understanding of the labour market and industries of interest. Students can use this experience to reflect and plan their next career and academic steps in an informed and intentional manner.

Experiential learning can take many forms. While experiential learning is often equated with co-op, traditional co-operative education programs are only one possible form of experiential learning. As we expand programming, our definition of experiential learning should include a variety of EL options, as students have diverse needs (e.g. part time students, mature students with families, etc) and different EL options will work for different types of programs (based on variables such as length of program, focus of program, relationship to industry or community activities, etc). In addition, not all experiential learning programs need to be for credit – there are many activities that are not within a for-credit course that have potential as meaningful experiential learning opportunities; student jobs on-campus and co-curricular programs in particular provide a rich opportunity for experiential learning activities.

At the heart of experiential learning programming is the learning cycle that is intentionally designed and facilitated by the instructor and/or coordinator. To ensure successful experiences for students and their hosts, quality experiential learning programs are heavy administratively, to ensure the learning cycle is well-designed, that host sites are well equipped to facilitate learning outcomes and that attention is given to other important tasks, such as risk management.

Campus career centres can contribute to supporting EL growth as we have expertise with student career development, employer and community relations, and in many cases already have experience coordinating the administrative requirements of EL activities. This work does require sufficient resourcing to be effective.  In addition to the capacity required at the institution, we will need to work with our employer and community partners to support them in expanding the learning opportunities they provide to students, and develop relationships with far more organizations, as experiential learning cannot grow without a commitment from host organizations.

It is an exciting time for career centres and those of us involved in growing experiential learning. We look forward to continuing and expanding our discussions, including the 2017 Joint National Conference from May 28-31 in Vancouver, BC.


With thanks to the Ontario Universities Career Centre Directors Group for their contributions which formed the basis of this post.