Learning Through Cases of Experiential Learning

Vivian Neal, PEng

SFU Student Cody Gold during a Field Course about Human-Ecosystem Resilience in Resource and Environmental Management
SFU student Cody Gold during a field course in Human-Ecosystem Resilience

Experiential learning is a central component of the mission of Simon Fraser University, with specified goals in the Academic Plan (SFU, 2013). It is championed by university leaders including SFU President Andrew Petter in a recent opinion piece in the Globe and Mail (Petter, 2012) which attempts to set SFU apart from other Canadian universities, and is strongly stated in our institutional mission:

Students will have access to an unparalleled selection of experiential learning opportunities that allow them to apply knowledge, to grow as individuals, to engage with diverse communities, to develop entrepreneurial skills and to refine their sense of civic literacy.

There is indeed a good deal of experiential learning happening at SFU, as attested by this casebook. However, those who teach at SFU are asking what it’s all about, wondering if they already do it, and what pedagogical options exists for instructors to use and students to learn, through experiential approaches.

The pedagogical and learning benefits of experiential learning are numerous, such as enhancing student learning, encouraging transformative experiences, and interdisciplinary learning, and fostering a more democratic classroom whereby students and teachers work as partners in the learning process and where the activities are relevant to the real world or the local community.

About the cases and this casebook

This collection of teaching stories is intended to help address faculty development needs around experiential learning, but also offer general teaching advice, tips and inspiration. They offer a series of examples of methods and approaches that SFU instructors have used and refined by SFU peers to solve specific teaching challenges and to create more engaging learning experiences. The cases are artifacts that are actually part of a community of practice at SFU, and they strengthen interdisciplinary learning and relationships. These cases offer honest, detailed accounts of what actually works and doesn’t work to support student learning and engage students in meaningful learning experiences. Each story includes practical guidance and ideas for experimenting with innovative teaching, with enough detail to elicit active analysis and foster the development of multiple perspectives and interpretations by readers from various disciplines.

The contributors of this casebook are experienced university teachers who have taken the time to recount their teaching experiences and share their reflections for the benefit of their teaching colleagues and other readers. Also, all contributors have generously agreed to be available to readers to discuss their experiences and answer any questions – their contact information is included at the end of each chapter, and the comment function of the online book is available anytime.

Each contributor used a set of guidelines for organizing and writing their case, however, because each teaching experience is unique, I emphasized the importance of honoring the individual experience of the instructor/author, and that the text should reflect this, even if it diverges from the guidelines. The different structure of each case reflects how many of the details of the teaching (and learning) experience is unique, and even though there are many similar experiences, they are certainly worth sharing. Each case starts with a brief summary of what is covered and ends with a discussion of the implications and possible ways of transferring the teaching and learning methods to other disciplines and other contexts.

The four initial contributors represent four different SFU faculties, and each describes very different ways of designing and delivering experiential learning activities. Yet, each educational approach is executed to provide students with deeply engaging learning activities, often unique with their academic careers. I applaud the generosity and courage of the casebook contributors; these are not simply pieces of academic writing, but rather personal accounts of the sometimes private activities inside a class. The authors graciously allowed others to have a good look inside their classrooms, foremost for their peers to reflect on, but also for their peers to critique their accounts and consider and possibly to suggest better ways to achieve the same instructional goals.

How university teachers learn to teach

Many university instructors in Canada are expected to teach without ever having studied, read about, or discussed how to teach or how students learn. This is in stark contrast to the United Kingdom, for example, where almost all university instructors are required to take a masters level program consisting of at least three courses on teaching and learning in higher education. Though a few Canadian universities are moving in this direction, most of our instructors learn to teach by cobbling together a few readings, having informal discussion with peers, and attending short workshops or seminars. New instructors often plan their teaching approaches by reflecting upon their own experiences as students or by emulating a favorite teacher. Teaching is not simply a collection of skills with a set of instructions to follow; rather it is a complex practice supported by a scholarship community (e.g., Cohen & Ball, 1999; Yin, 1984).Typically, instructors reflect on their own teaching and course plans, and over time make changes that result in better teaching, and thus better learning for their students. However, other ways of learning such as participating in ongoing workshops or courses, and peer discussions about teaching can bring this reflective process up to a more sophisticated level. As an educational developer, I’ve found that university instructors often do not read educational literature unless it is discipline-specific, perhaps because educational researchers typically use the language of their own discipline, that is, of their educational background.

I have frequently had the experience whereby, after a workshop or facilitated discussion about teaching, an instructor states with gratitude that it was the first time they’d ever discussed what they actually do as a teacher in their classroom. The conversation that university teachers have about teaching is typically about what their students do (often with incredulity), but rarely about what they do when they teach. Yet, when asked how they prefer to learn about teaching, most instructors indicate they’d like to have conversations with their teaching peers.

The key, I believe, is asking the right questions to spur the desired conversations; and thus the casebook. I believe the case authors would be honored if other instructors found the cases to stimulate reflection and inform their teaching practice. Ultimately, the purpose of improving university teaching is to improve the quality of the student learning experience. Teaching can be considered a “load” or it can be considered a scholarly endeavour. The current popularity of the approach began after Shulman’s 1985 call for a pedagogy of cases (Floyd & Bodur, 2005), and a couple of recent publications that showcase and celebrate real teaching cases authored by experienced university teachers (Badger, 2008; Salter, 2013).

Most universities offer workshops on a wide variety of teaching and learning topics, such as educational technology, asking good questions, better lecturing, etc. But recent evidence indicates that these one-off sessions do not go deep enough or offer the sustained support needed for instructors to realize an impact on their actual teaching practice. In fact, Teresa Dawson, Director of the Learning and Teaching Centre at the University of Victoria, has found that these short workshops have “scant” impact on actual teaching practice (Dawson, 2012). Their Centre is moving their efforts toward longer sessions where participants engage more deeply with the ideas and experiences of teaching, thus resulting in enduring reflective teaching practice.

Experiential learning

The educational literature about university learning experiences consistently points to the importance of active learning where students have the opportunity to engage more deeply with the subject matter (Dewey, 1938; Kolb, 1984; Biggs, 2011; Driscoll, 2004; Boyer, 1990). Experiential learning is about the process of making meaning through the reflection on direct experiences. It is a collection of pedagogical methods in which learners directly engage with experience and create knowledge; students actively engage with the learning material, activities and resources, including interacting with fellow students, their teachers and others. The many types of experiential learning include some excellent ways for students to delve into a learning experience to a depth that is difficult to achieve in a lecture setting.

The following non-exhaustive list gives a flavor for some experiential learning approaches, all of which take place at SFU:

  • Conducting primary research
  • Real world projects and problem solving
  • Collaborating with a company or industry group
  • Collaborating with a community, whether local, national or international
  • Field schools – residential or non-residential
  • Using the campus as a living lab
  • Problem-based learning
  • Case studies or case competitions
  • Lab work intended for discovery, rather than for learning rote procedures
  • Community or political activism, influencing policy
  • Coop work terms

These approaches are used at SFU in a wide variety of ways. For example, several of these approaches are especially relevant to SFU’s goal “to be Canada’s most community-engaged research university” (SFU, 2013), especially those where students work with people and organizations within or outside of the university to make an impact on the campus and in the community. A model I find particularly interesting is using the campus as a living lab, which entails students engaging with real world projects such as research, design projects or problem solving to create change on campus or to use learning, teaching and research to create change in the community. For example, the Sustainability Office at SFU has launched an initiative to support the development of campus-based projects that include campus engagement, with educational goal of foster responsibility, independence and critical thinking for students who participate.

An approach that is creating some traction is research informed teaching which puts the learner in the position of knowledge creator, not just knowledge consumer. Educational developers consistently teach and advocate for active and interactive learning approaches in students have a more central role in the learning process, as opposed to a more tradition passive role whereby the lecture delivers knowledge and relies on listening is an effective way to learn (Debby Cotton, personal communication, 2008-2009).

Some educational thinkers advocate developing a mindset where teachers don’t always control the knowledge or the outcomes of a learning activity. For example, Stradling et al. advocate’s that we embrace the goal of “greater confusion” (1984, p. 116) while others conjecture that our students would benefit from the experiencing some chaos within the university or classroom experience (Schoenborn, 2010). Through my years of practice as an educational developer, I’ve found that some instructors are reluctant to give up control over some of the subject matter that students are learning. “Seeing” their peers use experiential learning successful can be quite confirming and inspire teachers to experiment themselves with some of these methods that are unfamiliar and might initially be uncomfortable to try.

How to use the cases

The cases in this casebook are offered up a treasure trove of ideas for you to use in whatever way you fancy. They can be read in any order, used as a just-in-time reference source, or you can curl up on the couch, browse through the collection and surprise yourself with new discoveries. You could select cases to read according to the type of pedagogy or teaching approach or according to the subject area of your interest.

Online Discussion

Participate online by adding comments about, for example, the aspects of a case you find most intriguing or inspiring, by relating your own similar experience of teaching or learning. Or you could ask your students to read a case and then contribute an online comment about how the teaching/learning methods could be used in your course.

Discussion with Colleagues

Invite some of your colleagues to have a conversation over lunch. You could read and discuss one or more cases, perhaps focusing on how the teaching methods could be applied or adapted to your course, program or department. Unlike book clubs where the reading takes many hours, these cases are short and readable.

Discussion with a Case Author

You could have an online or in person conversation with one of the authors! or by asking a question of the author or other readers. Comments that are posted online will be forwarded to the corresponding case author, so you can have an online conversation among the author, yourself and other readers. Alternatively, consider inviting one of the authors to share their experiences in person, but make sure you provide the coffee!

These are just a few methods that might help spark some ideas for your particular teaching and departmental context. There are a multitude of different ways to use the cases in this casebook, depending on your needs, the amount of time you can devote to learning, and your particular departmental or institutional circumstances.

Dialogue Event
Rosie Dhaliwal, Jennifer McRea and Deanna Rogers at an event discussing experiential learning, Feb 7th 2013

A note for educational developers

This casebook is primarily intended for instructors as a peer to peer sharing of experiences, and secondarily for educational developers who are involved in faculty development. Educational developers contribute to the quality of teaching and learning at universities by working with academics to improve courses, curriculum and teaching practices. Like any instructor, an educational developer could convene a “reading club” where one or more cases is read by the members who then get together at regular intervals for discussion, or encourage online discussion among peers about a particular case, or particular aspect of a case. The reading selections could be done by each member in turn, or by the convener, and/or selected based on the subject area, the pedagogical approaches or whatever makes most sense to the instructors involved. For example, the recent and upcoming experiential learning dialogues at SFU support the themes of community engagement, large classes, food and field trips.

Read, participate, contribute

The casebook is a living document with interactive discussion that exists because of the generous sharing of knowledge and experiences of instructors. Each case offers space for comments, questions and more sharing of experiences and these will be read by the case author and other interested readers. Please share your ideas and get involved in the online discussion!

Also, if you’ve had a teaching experience that you’d like to share, please make use of the many possible ways to share – maybe through the approaches listed above for sharing the written cases, or by writing it up and sharing it as a case on this site, or by working with the Teaching and Learning Centre as a story teller at a dialogue. Contact me and we can help you with pulling together your case. Finally, I hope you enjoy the cases in this collection. I’d love to hear back from you about what you think of the cases and how you might find inspiration and ideas for your own teaching practice.


Badger, R.L. ed. (2008) Ideas that Work in College Teaching. Albany, NY, USA: State University of New York Press.

Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for Quality Learning at University, Buckingham: Open University Press/McGraw Hill.

Boyer, E. (1990). Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professorate. New York: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching / Jossey-Bass.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Driscoll, M. (2004). Psychology of Learning for Instruction (3rd ed.), New York: Pearson.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development.(Vol.1) Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Schoenborn, P. and V. Neal. (2010) Chaotic Learning: A new learning theory? Presentation at The London Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) 8th International
, Thames Valley University, London, UK.

Salter, D., ed. (2013). Cases on quality teaching practices in higher education. Richmond, BC, Canada: Kwantlen University.

Stradling, R. (1984) Controversial Issues in the Classroom. in Teaching Controversial Issues, Hill, S. & Reid, C., Eds. London: Edward Arnold.



Experiential Learning Casebook Copyright © 2014 by Vivian Neal, PEng. All Rights Reserved.


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