By: Emily Foreman
For the past six years John Rayfield, Ph.D., has been teaching a graduate-level course on experiential learning. This class combines the theory of experiential learning with real-world experiences and allows students to engage in hands-on learning.
The course is a balance of in depth theory and the actual real-world practice of that theory. Rayfield said the students learn experiential learning theories dating back to the 1920s and 30s.
“The students study how project-based learning in rural living was a large portion of educational society and how that was one of the cornerstones of all things education,” Rayfield said. “Then, we go over how the theories have progressed through the years and how legislation has impacted and influenced that.”
After studying a particular theory the students then participate in a hands-on application of that theory. Throughout the eight-to nine-day course they examine a variety of theories, including brain-based or project based learning.
“So we did our day of theory on service learning, the very next day we spent all day working in a habitat for humanity home in Bryan,” he said. “We actually were engaged in a full-fledged service learning project.”
Other hands-on activities included a field trip to the George Bush Library and the Texas A&M challenge course. They examined the theory behind field trips and how to make them meaningful in classroom instruction. Then, they had a learning activity during the field trip to show students the differences between how field trips can be useless and how they can be impactful learning experiences.
“We talked about outdoor and adventure learning and how you challenge yourself to learn,” Rayfield said. “Sometimes even being frightened, scared and afraid of doing things inhibits learning but the challenge of that also increases learning. The day after that we go to the challenge course at Texas A&M and we challenge ourselves.
“There is a balance to the class, it is theory practice theory practice,” he said. “We try to completely balance the class; if we do a day of theory we go do a day of practice to reinforce it.”
This past maymester the class had its highest enrollment of about 20 graduate students. When the class first began only around nine students participated but for the past three years it has filled up on the first day of registration.
“For a graduate class of that size that is hands-on it is pretty large,” Rayfield said. “We have had to start a waiting list because we have to cap the enrollment or it will get just too big to be manageable.”
This course is unique in that it is open to any graduate student at Texas A&M and the theories they practice can be applied across multiple disciplines. Along with the students in the ALEC department, those taking the course have ranged from graduate students studying human resource development or educational administration all the way to animal science and sports management.
“I would recommend it to graduate students because I believe it is a foundational course in teaching them how people learn. It is kind of the root and basis of everything we do in this department, learning through your experiences and how to use them in order to enhance the educational experience,” Rayfield said.