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Viewpoint: BISC's cycle of experiential learning

During International Education Week – Nov. 14-18 – the Gazette is featuring several stories that highlight activities and initiatives helping to advance Queen’s international priorities. For this piece, the Gazette asked Christian Lloyd, Academic Director at the Bader International Study Centre (BISC), to write a feature story on one facet of teaching and learning at the BISC. This article highlights the BISC's "signature pedagogy": experiential learning.

Queen's in the World

Anyone fortunate enough to have visited the British Museum – or any of Europe’s other great cultural institutions – knows that they will have to fight their way through laggard groups of students who are bored and uncomprehending, or frozen to the spot in wonder by what they are seeing, but unable to process it. At its worst, undergraduate experiential learning may be nothing more than a remnant of the 19th-century Grand Tour: a box-ticking exercise in confirming one's status as a "cultured" person with no deep critical engagement implied. “Exit via the gift shop,” as Banksy put it.

But these hazards of learning beyond the classroom are not inevitable. In fact, they may simply be the product of miscalibrated teaching created by a deficit in specific support for instructors. Unless instructors are trained in the theory and practice of teaching experientially, they are unlikely to maximize their classes' learning on these occasions. Unless students are made self-conscious about the process and outcomes of learning experientially, then instructors cannot blame them for their difficulties. 

During the first weekend of the term, students at the BISC take a walking tour of London and learn about the city's social and architectural highlights. (Chantal Valkenborg photo)

Experiential learning is the Bader International Study Centre's signature pedagogy, and our active learning approach in the field aims both to get our students thinking critically about core course content and to create transferable skills that will serve them in the long term. Ruth Cereceda, who heads our Experiential Learning program, has offered professional development sessions for our instructors to help them understand how to teach in the different modes required for such activities and to set appropriate learning objectives. She has also talked with students to help them take on board the cycle of experience > reflection > abstract conceptualization > active use of learning in assignments and skills development. Surveying of students and faculty, and analysis of the resulting data, is used to assess and refine future activities.

All of this careful preparation has produced striking results. For instance, the students on our core first-year course, BISC 100, have undertaken primary research at the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex looking at what Britons understood to be their core values during the Second World War. Students had to engage critically with original documents in projects that compelled them to go beyond the thrill of having history in their hands.

Other experiential opportunities teach things that will be useful for life, such as the ability to use skills beyond their usual application. A great example of this was the math trip to “The Amazing World of M.C. Escher” exhibition, which guided students to deploy mathematical techniques to analyze the production of this artist’s unusual images. Indeed, much BISC field work centres on developing students’ ability to interpret images: a key skill for the digital age. 

All of these experiential opportunities for students are, in students’ own estimation, highly motivational and memorable academic moments. One participant in our 2016 Law and Politics field school noted that after the careful preparation he had in class for their visit to Auschwitz concentration camp, “physically standing in the space meant that any distance between the topic of study and the present day instantly disappeared.” This visit produced memorable written work that went beyond standard views of this subject and spoke decisively to why the BISC experiential learning program will be at the heart of our future programming.