Learning by Doing

Two New Orleans universities share what they’re doing to get students hands-on experience in a variety of fields.

In order to master an instrument, you can’t just study music theory and memorize the notes and chords. It’s not enough to know where you place your fingers on a flute or read a book about how to engage with and respond to an audience. You have to learn it by doing it.

And in a city known across the world for its music, it’s only fitting that educational institutions in New Orleans are incorporating more experiential learning — a dynamic pedagogical practice that fosters and prioritizes hands-on, real-world experiences — into their approaches.

At the heart of experiential learning is the principle that students attain the most profound understanding when actively applying their classroom knowledge to real-world scenarios. This approach fosters a deeper understanding of subject matter and equips students with the practical skills needed for success in their careers and in life. It transcends the confines of the classroom and encourages students to connect theory to practice, creating confident, adaptable and resourceful individuals.

“Experiential learning gives students the opportunity to directly apply the skills they are learning in the classroom,” said Xavier Cole, president of Loyola University. “Students engage in active, hands-on learning and reflect on these activities to help them understand the transformative nature of learning through experience. Experiential learning encourages a deeper understanding of subject matter than is possible through classroom study alone and builds students’ capacity for critical thinking and knowledge application.”

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Loyola University has been a trailblazer in the integration of experiential learning into its academic programs. The institution understands the profound impact that experiential learning can have on students’ development and their contribution to the community.

“Experiential learning programs are carefully crafted by instructors and vetted by committees and the university,” Cole said. “For example, all service-learning courses must be approved by a committee that includes our service-learning director and experienced faculty who have actively been engaged in service learning for a period of time. These courses take careful planning to ensure their learning objectives match the service and that students are placed with agencies that can provide relevant experiences.”

Loyola University New Orleans

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Service learning is one of the flagship programs at Loyola University. Students are paired with local community agencies in need of volunteers. This connection between classroom knowledge and community needs ensures that students are actively engaged in addressing real-world challenges. Students in the Psychology and the Law course volunteered with the Orleans Public Defenders Office, gaining insights into the court system and legal processes while providing valuable assistance to the local community.

“As part of their service, students learned to follow the court hearing and record data about what charges were filed and what bonds were set, as well as when alternatives to incarceration were offered and accepted by the court,” Cole said.

Additionally, students in a molecular genetics course volunteered with STEM NOLA, an organization that brings STEM opportunities to underserved populations, to develop and present a hands-on science demonstrations to STEM NOLA participants.

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The university also provides experiential opportunities in psychology. Students in the Department of Psychological Sciences participate in clinical practicums, working with various mental health agencies in the New Orleans area. This exposure allows them to shadow clinical psychologists, gaining hands-on experience in psychological assessment and therapy. Loyola’s commitment to bridging the gap between theory and practice is evident in these initiatives.

“Because experiential learning is a high-impact practice for student learning, we consider it vitally important to our mission,” Cole said.

Tulane University

Next door to Loyola, Tulane University is also making green waves in the field of experiential learning. The university recognizes that students need more than just classroom knowledge; they need practical skills and experiences that prepare them for the ever-evolving job market.

As David Thompson, professor of practice and finance at Tulane, says, sometimes it’s all about making the material stick to students.

“In my popular, senior-level Venture Capital and Private Equity class, I often liken the course to that of plumbing school. Mild scatological humor always seems to get their attention,” Thompson said. “By this point in their education, students have cultivated knowledge in business theory and have developed a ‘chest full of tools;’ however, they lack any real notion on how best to apply those tools. They may know all the theory and science that surrounds the construction and the function of a toilet, but they have never built one or fixed one — although I’m quite sure they have used one!”

Thompson is a 30-year veteran of the investment and capital markets world, and uses his knowledge and experience (and sense of humor) to show students which tools to use and the context in which to use them. He provides these experiential lessons by relaying his own experiences, bringing in expert speakers, and staging a “simulated investment conference.” He’s also partnering with the Tulane Innovation Institute (TUII) for student-centered investment projects in a “real world” setting that will allow them the opportunity to exercise those skills.

Another prominent program at Tulane is the capstone course, in which students collaborate with local and national companies to work on well-defined projects that deliver actionable results. These experiences often culminate in presentations to company executives, providing students with valuable real-world feedback.

“Each participating professor is either a current or past business leader, bringing a wealth of knowledge and insight showcasing how analysis translates into practical, actionable, and measurable activities that can improve any type of organization,” Thompson said.

The Burkenroad Reports program at Tulane’s A.B. Freeman School of Business — run by professor Peter Ricchiuti — is another impressive initiative, enabling students to research, write and publish on publicly traded companies, equipping them with the skills and knowledge sought after by employers. In fact, Thompson said his previous employer almost exclusively hired Burkenroad students as junior analysts, “because we knew they were trained and ready to go.”

Tulane’s School of Liberal Arts also offers experiential learning opportunities. Students in the art department interact with working artists and participate in critical reviews, receiving constructive feedback on their work. Anthropology students have the opportunity to conduct research in Costa Rica, contributing to the field’s body of knowledge. These programs exemplify the university’s commitment to nurturing critical thinking and problem-solving through hands-on experience.

The success of experiential learning programs hinges on meticulous planning, coordination and integration with the academic curriculum. At Loyola, a committee approves service-learning courses, ensuring alignment with student learning objectives and community needs. Students’ assessments are designed to encourage reflection on their experiences and the synthesis of these experiences with classroom learning.

Tulane adopts a similar approach, with faculty collaborating with external organizations to design experiential learning events. These collaborations help create meaningful experiences that equip students with practical skills and the ability to adapt to the complexities of the business world.

Experiential learning is not just an educational concept; it’s a transformative approach that empowers students to become proactive, confident learners. Loyola and Tulane are two universities leading the way in providing students with opportunities to apply classroom knowledge in real-world settings, enhancing their understanding, skills and readiness for the workforce.

As the world continues to change and evolve, experiential learning will play a pivotal role in shaping the next generation of leaders, thinkers and problem solvers in New Orleans and beyond. It’s a commitment to learning by doing, bridging the gap between theory and practice, and fostering a deeper, more impactful form of education. In doing so, these institutions are setting the stage for a brighter future for students and the wider community. The impact of experiential learning extends far beyond the classroom, shaping the future of education and the workforce in the Big Easy.


Did you know? Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) was proposed by American psychologist David Kolb in 1984. Statistics have shown that it boasts a retention rate of 90%.

 

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