Discover more from Cyborgs Writing
Using Applied Learning to Bridge Theory & Practice in the Classroom
Learning to learn in the workplace
Learning to learn in the workplace
Most likely, the phrase applied learning conjures in your mind practical education for the workplace, especially with our 21st century obsession with professionalizing students (Schroeder, 2019). As universities become more expensive, students (and parents) want to see a tangible return on their investment. This mostly means a well-paying job after graduation.
But most employers don’t care about your actual degree or GPA. Time and time again, surveyed employers list problem-solving, collaboration, customer service, and communication as the most-valued skills (Chamuorro-Premuzic and Fankiewicz, 2019). We don’t learn this with books and exams. That’s where applied learning comes in.
Let’s be clear. Applied learning is not about employment or matching student degrees with career and jobs. According to the National Society of Experiential Education, applied learning is a partnership that helps students combine experience with learning.
At my university, University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), applied learning is an umbrella term for many experiential learning activities, including service learning, study abroad, research, and internships. We take this a step further. Applied learning is about transferring knowledge to new contexts.
At UNCW, we define applied learning as a pedagogical model that places students in experiences requiring them to integrate theories, ideas, and skills they have learned into new contexts, extending their learning.
This is especially important in the 21st century when it is impossible to know everything about any one topic. As a professional writing instructor, I cannot teach students everything there is to know about writing in professional settings. I can’t even prepare them for every writing situation out there. Writing situations are infinitely variable. As I tell my students, there are writing genres and technologies that haven’t even been invented yet. So my goal is not to teach them how to write, but how to think like professional writers.
So my goal is not to teach them how to write, but how to think like professional writers.
As John Dewey noted, learning is a lifelong process if we learn to apply knowledge as a way of understanding:
What [a person] has learned in the way of knowledge and skill in one situation becomes an instrument of understanding and dealing effectively with the situations that follow. The process goes on as long as life and learning continue. (John Dewey, 1938, p.44)
Knowledge is not something we get and store away in our minds. True knowledge helps us shed light on new situations. Our goal is to give students the tools and experience to use and adapt their knowledge to new situations.
Understanding applied learning as a cycle
Learning is a necessary part of life, and reflecting on those moments can help us better understand how we grow in all areas of our life. Regardless of what activity matters to you, reflecting is key to growing. Here are just a few examples.
Productivity. We don’t just read about productivity techniques like Getting Things Done. We try them out, reflect on how they worked for our particular situation, and make adaptations or explore other techniques.
Athletics. We don’t just read about the perfect form for swimming or running. We have to jump in the pool or on the track and try out the different techniques and reflect on how well we are doing so we can make improvements.
Design. Good writers and designers take time to reflect on how well their text or design worked, so that they know better what to do again or change in later projects.
Anyone who is good at what they do in the workplace goes through these steps repeatedly. David Kolb (1984), an early theorist in education, sees experiential learning as a cycle:
To learn we can’t be passive participants. We must reflect and theorize about that experience and actively start the experience anew. This cycle perpetuates itself. When we teach students to learn through experience, we teach them to be lifetime learners.
Best practices for applied learning
Looking at the Eight Principles of Good Practice for All Experiential Learning Activities, applied learning projects are built to intertwine experience with learning into this kind of cycle.
At the beginning of every project, students reflect on their intention by thinking about how the theories and ideas they’ve learned might apply to a new context, problem, or project. This includes orientation and training, where instructors introduce students to clients, social contexts, and specific knowledge from their field of study. If my students are writing a report analyzing the social media presence of a local brewery, then we start by thinking about how rhetorical theory helps us understand the online ethos of craft breweries.
Using the knowledge they’ve developed about the new context, problem, or project, students then must prepare and plan the project by identifying their own goals and mapping out their project. For example, my students need to identify what aspect of social media presence will be most useful to craft breweries, plan out further research, gather data, and organize the collaborative writing process.
As students develop their project, students must constantly reflect on how they are applying their knowledge, the challenges that arise, and how they need to adapt as new contexts or issues emerge. This includes monitoring and continuous improvement by the instructor and their peers. Students run ideas by each other. They check with the instructor, client, and each other to make sure they are on the right track.
Finally, students critically reflect on their completed project by assessing and evaluating how the project worked, how the experience showed them something new about their learning, and how that might transfer into new contexts. This often includes a culminating event, like presentations or feedback from stakeholders. For example, my brewery clients might choose the best report or use an idea laid out by a student.
As a professional writing instructor, it behooves me to say that most of this work must be done in writing. Deep learning rarely happens without writing. Students need to do more than just sit and think … they need to work out their thoughts and communicate their learning to non-expert audiences.
My students always write final reflections for a public audience. In fact, I’ve started having them write medium blogs that communicate what they’ve learned.
If an employer asks them what they learned in this project and how they might apply it at their new job, students need to be prepared. That is how applied learning ultimately creates a return on investment for students, if that is your goal. Applied learning helps students transfer their (expensive) education into new contexts and shows value to various stakeholders after graduation.
Chamorro-Premuzic, Tomas and Becky Frankiewicz. (2019) Does higher education still prepare people for jobs? Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2019/01/does-higher-education-still-prepare-people-for-jobs
Kolb, David. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development, Prentice Hall, 1984.
Schroeder, Ray. (2019). What matters more: Skills or degrees? Inside higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/online-trending-now/what-matters-more-skills-or-degrees