Designing for Experience

Oct 22, 2019 | Learning Design

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of visiting with administrators, teachers, and students at Lawton Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Lawton Academy is a K-12 school that integrates both arts and sciences in deep, experiential ways across the curriculum and its different grade levels. As is typical of such visits, I left feeling inspired by the work I saw students doing and by the intentional approach to designing learning experiences that encourage student agency and the development of creative and critical thinking abilities.

While at the school, I had a chance to meet with three students who are currently enrolled in our Experiential Learning courses. These meetings tend to be both fun and incredibly honest. Students aren’t generally aware of our visit ahead of time and they are often taking their first online courses for college credit, which means they tend to be unsure about expectations.

On this day, Principal Michelle Smith brought the three students in and introduced us to them. After each of the three young women introduced themselves, I asked how they were enjoying their coursework. The first to speak said, “I think I’m behind on my badges but I’m planning on catching up.” This prompted another to chime in with, “I really like collecting the badges.” The third student added, “It helps me think about what I’m actually learning.”

We talked about other things, such as the importance of staying on schedule and not waiting to ask for help, but the comments about badges were an affirmation of the learning design model we use for our experiential learning courses. In particular, this model focuses on four key learning goals.

1. Agency: students should be in charge of their experience and assume ownership of their learning outcomes. In these courses, we scaffold a series of project-based assignments to guide students toward an end goal of a final project. The assignments and the project are aligned to lesson learning outcomes as well as specific 21st-century skills and competencies. Students are asked to select, design, and create projects that reflect their personal interests and goals for learning.

2. Relevance: students should apply the information they are learning in their courses in a personally relevant way. In our courses, this means focusing on local challenges, issues, and organizations. It also means asking students to reflect on their own place in the world and the forces that shape their location.

3. Motivation: there should be course elements that provide forward momentum and encourage/inspire students to work beyond the traditional boundaries of a course. Badges are a critical component for promoting motivation in our learning model. Students are expected to earn skill/competency badges as they progress, but they are allowed agency in terms of which badges they collect. In addition, students have an opportunity to earn extra badges beyond the actual course requirement.

4. Reward: students should have the opportunity to feel evaluated and rewarded for their learning beyond the course grade. We encourage students to work with members of their community to collect information or gain insights for their projects. We also allow community members to participate in evaluating and providing feedback regarding projects. This deepens the sense of relevance for student work, provides real-world perspective and feedback, and gives students reward that transcends the course grade.

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