When I think back on courses taken during undergrad and graduate school, the ones that taught me the most were those that involved hands-on learning experiences. During my senior year of college, I took a class called “wildlife monitoring and management” (fall 2012). I could not tell you one tidbit of information that I have retained from the lecture part of that course; funny, when you take into account that I wrote down every word that my professor uttered during class time. Alternatively, I could definitely tell you about what we did in mostly every weekly lab portion of the course. Labs for this class typically involved visiting rural, wooded areas where we learned how to survey and monitor for different types of animals including mussels, salamanders, and birds. Often, this involved hiking through the woods to secluded, undisturbed locations where we could observe these animals in an undisturbed habitat. If you are even remotely interested in observing animals in the wild or just being outdoors in general, this would 100% be the class for you!
When I have since reflected on this class or told colleagues and friends about it, I’ve never really viewed or presented it in a positive way. My negative opinion was mostly because the professor kept us in the field for longer than we were supposed to be out (lab was supposed to be 1:30 to 4:30, but because no students had other time constraints, we would often stay out until 5:30 or 6) and the majority of the labs were spent surveying for birds (I got really tired of setting up mist nets to catch birds). It has truly taken me until right this minute, while writing this blog post, to realize that this class was clearly one of my favorites because I learned so much from it. It has been 5 and a half years since I took the class, but I can still tell you how to set up a mist net to catch birds, how to set up a transect to monitor for salamanders, and how to monitor for invasive mussels in a river. Since it was such a hands-on course, I learned so much more about the subject than I ever would have had the class been purely lecture-based.
While my anecdote about hands-on learning in a field-based course doesn’t really address how to engage the imaginations of digital learners, I think it can be an analogy for student learning and engagement in any type of course. In any case, when a student goes through the actual steps of doing a task as opposed to just learning how to go through the steps of doing a task, he or she gains more knowledge and is more likely to retain that knowledge. For example, you can tell or show a student how to construct a website all day long, but until the student goes through the steps of constructing a website on his or her own, he or she will most likely not fully grasp the concept.
When hands-on learning occurs, everyone benefits. A professor’s words become so much more meaningful when a student can see a concept in action. If hands-on learning isn’t necessarily an option, perhaps student group discussion (or any type of engagement with other students) is effective. Encouraging students to discuss and share thoughts and opinions on course material allows connections to be made and perhaps facilitates greater learning among students.