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Proposal

Introduction

Instructional techniques that incorporate student's own experiences have been growing in popularity by educators of all levels. One of the most effective of this type of pedagogical strategies is experiential learning (EL). Based in the works of John Dewey, Kurt Hahn and David Kolb, among others, EL involves an immersion into structured experiences, combined with meaningful reflection, as a way to maximize student learning (Rickets and Willis 2001). Some examples of EL activities are classroom "solution-finding" activities, classroom experiments (or simulation games), and Service Learning. During all these activities, students are engaged in what Kolb (1984) identifies as the four steps of the learning process: (1) watching (senses) (2) thinking (mind), (3) feeling (emotion), and (4) doing (muscle). The rationale is that to be effective learners students must perceive information, reflect on how it will impact some aspect of their life, compare how it fits into their own experiences, and finally think about how this information offers new ways for them to act. Passive learning alone (e.g. listening to a lecture) doesn't engage student's higher brain functions or stimulate their senses to the point where they integrate the lessons into their existing schemes.
Unfortunately, most EL types of activities have been designed to work in small groups or classrooms. The conventional wisdom has been that the benefits, as well as the facility of implementation, of EL will diminish as the number of learners increases. Nevertheless, this inability to create EL types of activities for large classes is unfortunate for two reasons. First, most college students take at least some of their first core courses in a classroom with at least 100 students or more. If experiential educational techniques are only used in courses with low enrollment, a potentially large proportion of college students are not being exposed to this enhanced method of teaching and learning. Second, because large classes can be particularly prone to student passivity one could argue students in these classes are in fact the ones with the most need for this type of learning activities, which engage students in more active and innovative methods.

Purpose

The purpose of this project is to develop ways to close this gap between what is available for the "small" versus the "large" classes in terms of experiential learning. Specifically, the goal of the project is to design two experiential learning techniques that could be easily used by an instructor teaching a large enrollment course anywhere. These techniques should be general enough to be able to be used by instructors teaching different disciplines and/or different levels of students.
In order to accomplish this goal the project will be composed of three stages: design, testing and implantation, and assessment. In the design stage we will review the state of art of EL activities in order to determine what is available and established in terms of experiential learning techniques. In the testing and implementation stage we will see how the two techniques perform in two different large enrollment courses. We will use two large courses in the university: the Microeconomics Principles Course (ECON 102), which has about 800 students, and the Introduction to Food Science and Nutrition Course (FSHN 101) which has about 600 students. Finally, in the assessment stage we will use questionnaires and other measures to asses the efficacy of the activities by both the students and instructors of these two classes. The following is a brief description of each of these stages.

Design

Given the large body of literature, both at the theoretical and practical level, of experiential learning techniques the primary goal will be to adapt what is out there to the large classroom. Obviously given the special dynamics present in a large classroom this adaptation process could result in an end product that is considerably (or fundamentally) different from the original source. For instance, consider one of the most famous experiential learning activities in economics: the double-auction experiment (Chamberlin 1948, Holt 1996). In this classroom experiment students are required to conduct buying and selling transactions simulating a hypothetical market in the classroom. The "game" is usually play within several rounds in which students take the role of "buyers" and "sellers" making price bids/offers orally in hopes of striking a deal. As a pedagogical tool, one of the key components of this activity requires each pair of students to come to a "trading pit" or space in the middle of the room to conduct their transactions and then to report these transactions to the instructor as soon as they are completed. This way the "data" from the experiment is presented to all the students in real-time and they are able to use this information in their own transactions. Clearly, it would be nearly impossible to meet this requirement in an auditorium-style classroom where 800 students are seated in immobile seats. Yet any adaptation of this type of activity would have to be changed in some way to accomplish the same goal without the use of this aspect. For instance, a straightforward way of doing this is simply by calling for a show of hands from students. This allows the quick collection and presentation of data for the rest of the students during the trading periods.

Testing and Implementation

We will implement the two activities in two large courses in the university: the Microeconomics Principles Course (ECON 102, ~800 students) and the Introduction to Food Science and Nutrition Course (FSHN 101, ~600 students). Implementing the activities in two courses with very distinct contents will not only assure the nature of each activity is general enough as oppose to specifically design to one particular discipline but it will also allow us to asses the role the actual content of the course plays in the success of a particular technique.
Perhaps the most important challenge in the implementation of the EL activities (and hence also what we expect will be an important contribution of this work) is the reflection component. Given the challenges to conduct efficient class discussion in classroom with large number of students, we will need to devise alternative methods for student's own reflections about the EL activity.

Assessment and Recommendations

An instructor usually has a good feeling about how successful a new pedagogical activity was right after the class is over. Did the students participate more than the usual during class today? Did the students seem to be enjoying the activity (e.g. did they laugh)? Were the students able to discover the teaching objectives on their own? Did we all (instructor and students) discover new and unanticipated dynamics during the activity? Many of these questions can be answered by the instructor after the class without the aid of student's feedback. Nevertheless, student feedback is critical since it will be impossible for the instructor to know what student's were "thinking" before, during and after the activity. This is even more relevant in a large classroom where instructors have very limited access to all students during the lecture.
We will elicit student's feedback in two main ways. First, the results from their own reflection will provide us with evidence about how useful the activity was to them (e.g., did it enhance their learning of the subject matter?). This will probably be composed of answers to reflective questions that students answer in an essay style. And second, we will also use questionnaires and other survey-style measures to elicit more specific feedback from students. This will allow us to asses the efficacy of the activity statistically.

Budget and Justification

We would need funds in order to support one student assistant for both courses. This student will assist us in tasks related to the implementation of the activities, for example the collection and organization of documents from students and/or the preparation of handouts and documents to be distributed to the students,

References

Chamberlin, E.H. 1948. An experimental imperfect market. Journal of Political
Economy, 56, 95-108.

Holt, C.A. 1996. Classroom games: Trading in a pit market. Journal of Economic
Perspectives, 10(1), 193-203.

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and
development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Rickets, M. and Willis, J. (2001). Experience AI: A Practitioner's Guide to Integrating Appreciative Inquiry with Experiential Learning Taos Institute.

Vazquez, J. (Under review). Running Classroom Experiments in a Large Enrollment
Economics Course. Journal of Economic Education.