Experiential Learning: Connecting the Classroom to Future Careers

In today’s changing economy, graduates increasingly need the right mix of knowledge, skills and experience to find fulfilling work, adapt to disruption in the workforce and build rewarding careers.

On November 17, university leaders and experts came together at a Council of Ontario Universities forum, the Experiential Learning Best Practices Exchange, to discuss the importance of experiential learning in bringing together these ingredients. “Experiential learning helps students take knowledge and make it real,” said Robert Shea, Associate Vice-President of Academic and Student Affairs at Memorial University, in his keynote speech.

Experiential learning has been top of mind recently for students, parents, employers and policy makers. Ontarians spoke about its importance repeatedly in a listening initiative held by Ontario’s universities outlined in their new report, Partnering for a Better Future for Ontario. And it was a central focus of recommendations put forward by the Premier’s Expert Panel on the Highly Skilled Workforce.

Ontario’s universities are committed to ensuring that every student has at least one experiential learning opportunity by graduation. The forum was “a way to get good ideas for how to meet that challenge and that obligation,” said Charlotte Yates, Provost and Vice-President Academic at the University of Guelph and chair of the committee that organized the event.

The province’s universities have been offering experiential learning opportunities to students for decades. Across Ontario, students participate in co-op programs and entrepreneurship incubators, do community-based projects, take part in hackathons, complete practicums and work-study programs, and engage in a variety of other experiential learning opportunities.

The forum highlighted the innovative opportunities that universities offer. Presenters discussed many forward-thinking courses and programs, including one that brings together students from the humanities, sciences, engineering and other disciplines to help community partners solve major social challenges.

It was also clear that there is room to grow. The event featured panels that looked at experiential learning in its many contexts – STEM, humanities and social sciences, graduate programs – as well as issues surrounding access, skills translation, and the university-to-work transition. It sparked conversations about the challenge of assessment and the importance of building reflection into experiential learning opportunities. And it included a panel the examined how institutions have succeeded in expanding experiential learning across programs – and what lessons and practices can be taken from their experiences.

Experiential learning, panelists emphasized, is fundamental to how universities support both their students and communities. It helps students reflect on, better understand, and build confidence about their skills while allowing employers and community organizations to connect with talent that can help them address challenges, innovate and grow.

Employers and students are highlighting the same benefits. A recent report from the Ontario Chamber of Commerce stressed the importance of experiential learning in the modern workforce, noting that there is still work to be done by educators, employers and government, especially to ensure greater participation of small businesses. And in a national survey, 86 per cent of current students and recent grads said experiential learning would lead to an easier transition from university to a successful career.

Speakers at the forum underlined that universities need to acknowledge and address the stress that today’s students feel regarding the university-to-work transition. And a central message that emerged from the event is how, when it comes to experiential learning, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Different students and different programs require different types of opportunities, which makes it all the more important that educators gather to share expertise, help each other innovate, and develop strategies for expanding experiential learning opportunities.

Shea ended his keynote address by noting that students today are increasingly asking a basic question about postsecondary education: “Can I connect what I do in class to what I want to do in the future?”

It’s clear that the task ahead for universities, colleges, employers, and government is to make sure the answer to that question is a resounding yes.