The Impact of an Experiential Learning Environment on Secondary Students
Janice Hendry and Beth Warkentin
Hendry accepted her first teaching position, she found that traditional
teaching methods were common practice in most high schools. These
methods contrasted with her own belief in a student-centred curriculum
and the value of experiential learning. Traditional lecture methods
seemed to lead to the kind of school climate described by Hopkins
(1994), one that would
empowerment and the coping skills necessary to realize themselves
as autonomous agents in a democratic society, suppressing curiosity,
autonomy, social criticism, and intellectual enterprise. (p.7)
learning, on the other hand, offered "meaningfulness, connection,
interest, and purpose in the place of memorization, abstraction,
remoteness and isolation." (Hopkins, 1994)
years of teaching in a high school were a time of great anxiety
for her, as she was torn between common teaching practice and her
own beliefs. After her second year, she felt that it was necessary
to study the impact of the experiential learning environment she
was trying to provide in order to show that it really did meet the
needs of her students.
She began a
collaborative research project with Beth Warkentin, an experienced
primary teacher and now a member of the Faculty of Education at
the University of Regina. A strong advocate for experiential teaching
and learning in all grades, Warkentin saw the project as an opportunity
to assess the impact of an experiential learning environment in
a high school setting.
related their ideas about teaching and learning in high schools
to the instructional directions advocated by the province's new
core curriculum. The "Vision for Saskatchewan Secondary Schools"
(High School Advisory Committee, 1994, p. 4) recognizes that students
learn best when they play an active part in their own learning and
are connected through experience to what it is they will learn.
Hendry and Warkentin decided to employ experiential learning, student-centred
curriculum and active learning in a high school setting and then
assess whether or not these strategies were effective, using the
statements about experiential teaching and learning in the "Vision
for Saskatchewan Secondary Schools" as criteria.
the year of the study, Hendry was teaching 61 students who lived
on farms or in a small town. Her assignment included Science 10,
Biology 20, Physical Education 20&30, Chemistry 30 and English
10A&B, 20A&B, 30&31A, and 30&31B. Student-centred,
experiential and active learning strategies were implemented in
all subject areas. Learning activities included multimedia and computer-assisted
projects, research projects, group presentations, field trips, class
meetings and discussions, assignments, simulations, writers' and
readers' workshops, dramatizations, role plays, cooperative learning
groups, contracts, peer coaching (Phys. Ed.), and integrated studies.
Student assessment was carried out through anecdotal notes, tests
and quizzes, with students in cooperative groups given a group mark
as well as individual marks. Process was as much a consideration
as product, and students were always involved in the planning and
implementation of learning and aspects of assessment and evaluation.
Every effort was made to individualize programs to meet diverse
student needs. The teacher took the role of facilitator, constantly
circulating throughout the classroom, clarifying questions, challenging
students and extending learning.
the classes as often as possible, and also held planning and discussion
sessions with Hendry over the telephone. Her role in the project
was to take a more theoretical perspective and support Hendry's
experiential teaching with literature, material, and resources.
Together the researchers discussed what worked and what didn't,
With the consent
of students, parents and administrators, they also collected data
on the impact of the experiential learning strategies in Hendry's
classes. Data collection took the form of classroom videotapes,
field notes, students' reflective journals, work samples, test results,
interviews, and questionnaires for students and parents.
Students take their learning outside the classroom.
From the data
collected, the researchers conclude that "there was overwhelming
evidence indicating the positive impact of an experiential/active
learning curriculum for secondary students." Whether gathered
around the classroom computer centre during the noon break to talk
and work on assignments, or planning and carrying out impressive
Grade 12 graduation ceremonies, the students involved in the project
appeared responsible, confident, self-reliant and caring. They "became
independent, responsible, self-motivated problem solvers and critical
thinkers who were, above all else, excited about learning. The greatest
impact was the building of self-confidence; the students were not
afraid to voice their thoughts and opinions, to share ideas and
help each other." The average marks achieved by the students
in Hendry's classes were high, and students' preference for an experiential
learning approach was clearly and enthusiastically expressed in
their questionnaires. In comparing the written feedback from students'
and parents' questionnaires to the criteria for experiential teaching
and learning provided in the "Vision for Saskatchewan Secondary
Schools," the researchers found statements that addressed almost
however, that few parents responded to the questionnaire. Conversations
with a number of parents indicated that they did not feel they knew
enough about the teaching approaches to make meaningful comments.
Hendry and Warkentin believe this lack of knowledge needs to be
addressed and recommend further efforts to make parents aware of
the types of teaching methods and strategies being used in their
report a tremendous positive impact on their lives and careers from
their involvement in a collaborative research project. According
to Hendry, "the opportunity to reflect in greater depth on
my teaching methods" and "to interact with individuals
on a professional basis at conferences allowed me to grow intellectually
and gain knowledge of different research methods that have enhanced
the final outcome of our research." For Warkentin, the "project
was one of the most rewarding and exciting educational endeavours
of my 35 year career in teaching. To see experiential teaching and
learning in action at the secondary level and to see it 'really
work' was quite an overwhelming experience."
Hendry and Warkentin
hope that their colleagues will undertake similar action research
projects in order to improve upon teaching practice in Saskatchewan
high schools. To encourage educators' interest in experiential learning,
they have produced a video and handbook entitled "Creating
Student-Centred Curriculum in Secondary Classrooms."
High School Advisory Committee (1994). Policy directions for
secondary education in Saskatchewan. Regina, SK: Saskatchewan
Education, Training and Employment.
(1994). Narrative schooling: Experiential learning and the transformation
of American education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Students work together in the classroom.