Incorporating Experiential Learning Practices into Classroom through Assignments

by Mehrnaz Moghaddam

Row of blue chairs with tablet arms against a white wall with blue and purple sticky notes.

What is experiential learning? “In its simplest form, experiential learning (EL) means learning from experience or learning by doing. Experiential education first immerses learners in an experience and then encourages reflection about the experience to develop new skills, new attitudes, or new ways of thinking,” Lewis and Williams (1994). As a Humanities Alliance fellow at Hostos Community College, I was familiarized with various practices and initiatives that CUNY carries out as experiential learning opportunities (ELO). Most of these opportunities are offered through internships or courses that are particularly skill oriented, such as clinical preparation practicum, or introduce technologies, such as graphic design or game design. As a humanities graduate student, the question became how to incorporate EL into humanities and social sciences courses. Besides linguistic, mathematical, technological, and service-based skills, students should have access to programs that foster their creativity, critical thinking, and confidence in expressing their ideas while gaining real-world experience. As there is less investment and funding on these areas from institutions, one way is to bring EL into our classes. In this post, I will explain how I incorporated EL into my class through assignments. 

I teach Introduction to Anthropology, and similar to many other introductory courses, a lot of conceptual materials have to be covered during the semester. Traditionally, anthropology as a discipline values participation and engagement in discussions with the goal of developing students’ critical thinking and public speaking skills. However, in practice mainly students in higher years in their programs are likely to participate in class discussions. Moreover, in the introductory courses where most of the students are from other disciplines, a greater portion of the class time is spent on teaching theory and concepts, and not much time is dedicated to methodology and fieldwork–in other words, how to apply those concepts into everyday life. How do we incorporate the content into the process in a meaningful way? What are the alternative ways of bringing EL into the classroom? My definition of meaningful was equipping students with at least one skill, idea, or perspective that would remain with them beyond the course. Ultimately, instead of traditional exams, I decided to use assignments as a medium for students to gain real-world experiences. I realized that there are a few subject matters that my students talked about more enthusiastically. Movies, podcasts, their own experiences from the times they were in high school, and their experiences and encounters on campus and around the city. Focusing on three exercises, I decided to link their assignments with these topics. 

Midterm assessment: students were asked to write a film or a podcast review of their choice for their midterm. The idea was to choose a concept such as racialization, gender roles, religion, healthcare, etc. Then they were asked to examine issues of politics of representation in the movie/podcast through an anthropological lens. At least for a month or two, while in the process of looking for the movie/podcast, the students watched and listened to these mediums with a critical perspective. The best comment that I heard from a few of them was that they could never go back to watch movies or listen to podcasts as before without analyzing the role of race and gender. I should mention that it was not the best experience for all of them, and I felt guilty of ruining ‘fun’ for some of them; as one said: “I can never laugh at jokes anymore, they all sound problematic somehow!” 

Final assessment: at the end of the semester when all the topics were discussed, the students were asked to think about one or two of the course topics that resonated with them the most as a person. Putting themselves as the subject of the study, students were asked to write an auto-ethnography by analyzing their personal experiences. As a person, as a member of their family, as a member of one of the communities that they belong to, the students used self-reflection to connect their life stories to wider cultural, political, social meanings and understandings. My aim was that the students learn to write about themselves, recognize the importance of themselves as individuals and think deeply about how they are connected to, influence, and are influenced by, their communities and world. I encouraged them to look for and criticize inequalities and power relations that they are surrounded by and think of the ways in which they have challenged or can/want to challenge those issues. Not everyone wrote the perfect academically defined auto-ethnography, however, most if not all beautifully connected their personal stories to wider societal issues. For their final exams, they submitted these papers a few days after the last class, and they knew that they would never see me again. I think that is why the stories were so pure, genuine, and filled with emotions. If you ever decide to ask your students to write an auto-ethnography, be ready to cry, laugh, be surprised and shocked. 

Photovoice project: we read about and discussed social justice in our classes a lot. Based on my experience as a teacher, CUNY students are generally interested in examining social justice at CUNY or New York City. We decided to define social justice and social injustice collectively through our everyday experiences. For this project, students were asked to look for materialized or immaterial forms of social justice and/or social injustice in their communities, neighborhoods, or city. As smart phones have become an inseparable component of the lives of Generation Z, and they are interested in taking pictures and posting them to their social media accounts, photovoice seemed like a great method to employ. Students were asked to take pictures of anything, any matter, any idea that represented social justice or social injustice. Then, they had to write a page contextualizing their photo and explaining why and how their photos represent social in/justice. In the last week of the class, we organized a silent presentation. The pictures and narratives were printed and hung on the wall. Students read each other’s work and commented on them anonymously. At the end, each defined social in/justice in a few sentences of which some are selected below: 

Social justice is no one is homeless 

Social justice is not giving the homeless money but jobs 

Social justice is not taking pictures of Black Lives Matter graffiti, but practicing it  

Social justice is removing all the armrests on benches that prevent the homeless from resting on the benches, social injustice is anti-homeless architecture 

Social justice is people asking me about my pronouns, social justice is pronouns to be abolished altogether 

Social injustice is to displace senior citizens into a facility out of their community, social injustice is the loss of Williams Residence in upper west side 

Social injustice is remodeling the buildings, increasing the rent, and forcing out those who can’t afford the rent anymore, social injustice is gentrification 

Social injustice is the best road paving materials being used in Islamabad, Pakistan, while muddy roads turn into dirt roads because of lack of sewage system in a small village in Punjab

Social injustice is subway stations being filled with police officers in Bronx 

Social injustice is a NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority) complex in Rockaway Beach, Queens, having scaffolding up and pathways being closed for four years, and the neighboring Dayton Beach Condos have their windows replaced in less than a year