Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
Relevance is hugely important for students, not only to engage in learning but for them to care about the content. But why does it matter if they care?
Focusing on concepts that are part of the real-world, part of your students' worlds, helps them find purpose in the experience, which is an important piece of experiential learning.
How many times has a student asked you "Why are we doing this?" or "What is the point of this?" Your answer might be "because we have to", or "because it's on the test". Or maybe your answer is more along the lines of "because it's interesting." It might be interesting to you, but not to your students, possibly because they can't find a real-world connection. They don't see why it matters or how it is relevant to them, and if they can't see purpose, they're going to check out, or worse, feel that learning is a chore rather than joy.
So how do you make learning relevant, real-world, and purposeful (while focusing on specific content if need be)?
How to Make Learning Real-World and Relevant
1. Community Issues
Pay attention to what is going on in your school, neighborhood, city, national, and global communities. Students can connect with what they're experiencing in everyday life or issues that are impacting them directly. For example, if you're a science teacher that needs to teach about viruses, try using Covid-19 vaccines, an issue that literally impacts everyone, to drive the unit or inquiry experience.
One way to bring awareness to issues that are important to students is to have them study current events that interest them. You can even attach specific content or benchmarks to the experience, focusing on current events related to viruses or vaccines, for example. Check out my Current Events Project-Based Learning resource with all of the guiding materials needed to walk students through the experience from start to finish, .
2. Personalize Learning
It is hard to know what is relevant to students without learning about who they are, what matters to them, what they're experiencing at home, life challenges, interests, and more. I give my students personal learning plans on the first day of school. They fill in information about themselves, share their interests, write their goals, and more. I use that information throughout the year to drive learning experiences, focusing on concepts that are important to students. This grabs their attention, engages, and intrinsically motivates because students can directly apply the concepts to their lives.
This is my Personal Learning Plan, which students can print and add to a binder or fill in right on the Google Slides version of the resource.
3. Authentic Experiences
Students might not see right away how a concept impacts them or why specific content is relevant. If students, for example, are not paying attention to the news, they have stayed healthy, their parents or caretakers have managed to keep their jobs, etc., they may not see how Covid-19 vaccines impact them, and therefore, they simply don't think about it. They don't find it relevant.
One way around that is to organize authentic learning activities. Get them involved in and immersed in real experiences, such as speaking with a virologist and touring their lab (virtually, given the nature of the circumstances), restaurant owners that are struggling to stay afloat, medical workers, vaccine distribution employees, and more.
Student-led learning organically makes learning relevant to students. Students see purpose when they are calling the shots - when they are designing the experience, determining the direction, gathering information in ways that make sense to them, and organizing authentic learning activities that match their interests and life experiences. Students don't direct learning experiences for themselves that do not have a place or relevance in their lives.
To get students rolling on self-directed learning without spending a significant amount of energy or time yourself, use these self-directed tool kits created by Experiential Learning Depot.
If you're looking for precise methods of making learning relevant, here are a few ways, each of which encompass community, personalization, authenticity, and self-direction.
Teaching Methods that Make Learning Experiences Real-World and Relevant
1) Project-Based Learning:
Project-based learning is sustained-inquiry that is authentic in nature. Every step of PBL involves the real-world. Students gather information from community experts, they collaborate with community partners, they share their new knowledge with an authentic audience.
Grab my project-based learning tool kit and either have students design their own PBL experiences around a relevant topic, such as Covid-19 vaccines, or fill in the templates yourself to design the experience for them.
2) Problem-Based Learning:
Problem-based learning, also sustained-inquiry, focuses on real-world problems without necessarily having to fully immerse in the community.
For example, my parents live in Florida, where 65+ are now able to get the Covid-19 vaccine. Getting the vaccine right now, however, would require that my parents stand in a 1/2 mile long line. Speed of distribution is a real problem in their community, and indirectly effects everyone that lives there, 65+ or not. If I were a teacher in this community I might assign my students the task of designing a comprehensive plan to solve the problem. What is the source, and what can be done about it?
Problem-based learning is an easy go-to activity for any relevant real-world problem where students see purpose, make an impact, develop essential 21st-century skills and so much more. Grab my problem-based learning tool kit, templates for designing problem-based learning experiences easily and quickly.
Note: Spaces recently published a guest blog post that I wrote about the difference between Project-Based Learning and problem-based learning. Check that out here!
3) Community Action Projects:
This is my favorite way, and my students', to motivate and engage students through relevance and real-world connections. My students choose a community issue that is important to them. They then learn about that issue, explore solutions, plan a course of action, and take action. Community action projects blend project-based learning, service-learning, and problem-based learning. The experience is personalized, authentic, involves the community, and is self-directed.
Grab my community action projects tool kit, which includes templates that offer a seamless implementation process.
Making learning relevant and connecting concepts to the real-world isn't always easy, but try out some of these steps to simplify the process. Sell-directed learning experiences really take a lot of the pressure and work load off of you, while benefiting the students in enormous ways.
If you're interested in leading your team in implementing hands-on, self-directed, personalized, reflective learning experiences in your school, check out my experiential learning bundle. This bundle is your ultimate guide.
Thanks for reading! As always, reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org anytime with questions or comments about experiential learning, my blog posts, or any of my resources.
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Observe. Question. Explore. Share.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.