Blog 76

Debunking the Myth of Learning through Experience with the Subway Emergency Exercise

By Geneviève Maheux-Pelletier & Lisa Endersby

Geneviève & Lisa during the emergency exercise

On October 25, York University participated in a massive mock emergency exercise in preparation for the opening of the new subway station. Around 200 York university students, faculty and staff participated in the event. As educational developers with the Teaching Commons, we volunteered as observers as a way to gain insights into how an experience like that one can be leveraged for deeper learning. Yet from where we stood, we were struck by how slow and orderly the exercise had been, initially leading us to wonder what we had actually learned from it.

To formulate a better response to that experience, we decided to debrief using a framework (Ryan, 2013) that orients the learner by first asking her to provide an account of what happened as a stepping stone for deeper learning. In other words, the model recognizes that recalling the experience, while necessary, is insufficient for meaningful learning. Moving along a continuum of cognitive complexity, Ryan’s framework considers reflection as a series of stages, from Reporting and Responding, through to Relating, Reasoning, and Reconstructing. For us, it was a way to scaffold meaning making from a more surface ‘look back’ to probing deeper connections to give shape and scope to what Ryan (2013) aptly notes is far from an intuitive skill. We may have remembered what we had done, but learning from that experience demanded some additional mental gymnastics.

Reporting and Responding: This first level is about noticing aspects of the experience, forming opinions, and identifying an initial emotional response.

Much of our initial, surface-level reflection involved reporting on our experiences to our colleagues and with each other. We spoke about what we felt, what we saw, and began considering our emotional and intellectual reactions to the experience as a way to name some of the more salient responses that arose from our participation.

Relating: At this stage, the learner is prompted to make connections between the experience and her skills, knowledge, and/or own prior experiences.

Our move along the continuum to Relating felt rather natural, as we considered this experience against other experiential learning opportunities that we had participated in as commuters, as students, and more saliently as instructors and educational developers. This exercise did inspire us to begin considering how this experience was similar (or not) to other learning moments from our pasts. Did we feel the same way? What was different this time? Did we react similarly or differently when we encountered something new?

Reasoning: The personal account set the stage for an academic response to emerge by referring to and connecting with relevant concepts and theories.

It took some time to move from our emotional or more personal reactions to a more academic response. In writing this article, we have begun to consider how this experience connects with relevant theories that we often use to inform our work. For example, Kolb’s theory of experiential learning (1984) offers some insights into how this experience might inform our thinking, and offers another example of a model that could label somewhat abstract cognitive processes. At the level of the experience itself, it may be that we began considering concepts of social learning theory in academically understanding such a large and complex exercise.

Reconstructing: The new insights are integrated into the learner’s schema or used to make a plan for action

This level of reflection is sometimes seen as the pinnacle of experiential learning – not only making meaningful, novel connections but also considering the practical implications of these new insights. We have begun considering how to infuse this model into activities that already exist – how can we better take advantage of the experiences that students may already have access to in order to create space and motivation for the complex cognitive exercise of reflection? This could be, for example, offering multiple opportunities for reflection over time rather than relying on a single exercise. This could also be multiple forms of reflection, including written, spoken, and performance.

We are always interested in discussions with colleagues who have engaged their students in similar exercises. What might it look like in your course to move students from simply having and relating experiences to engaging in meaningful experiential learning?  Whichever form it may take, using Ryan’s model helps scaffold the reflective process into incremental chunks such that the learner is not left wondering what there is to learn from a discrete event, and in that sense her framework deconstructs the notion that learning occurs from experience alone.

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Falls, N.J: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Ryan, M. (2013). The pedagogical balancing act: teaching reflection in higher education.  Teaching in Higher Education, 18(2), 144-155.

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