Active Learning and Service Learning: Learn by Doing

SurfingThink about how you learn something new. Although numerous theories of learning exist, fundamentally (and at the risk of oversimplification) there are three basic ways that we learn something new: personal experience, assimilating someone else’s personal experience/expertise, and observation. Two of the three methods are passive and one is active (learn by doing).

It is my contention that real learning takes place when you have to apply your knowledge to the task at hand. Two events in my life drive this belief: 1) Many years ago, I didn’t become a great skier until I began to teach skiing, and 2) Despite possessing three college degrees (an undergraduate and two masters prior to earning my doctorate), I didn’t learn marketing until it became my job. It was the latter experience that was the awakening – how could one have three marketing-related degrees and not understand what is involved in developing successful marketing programs, campaigns or efforts?

Student Preparedness in Marketing

A common complaint regarding new marketing graduates is that they don’t come to the marketplace with the expected or requisite skills. While they understand, for the most part, marketing basics and theories, they’ve never had to apply them in a “real-world” situation. That is, they’re missing the skill assimilation that comes from active learning (learn by doing). The responsibility for students obtaining proficiency in marketing fundamentals is shared by both professors and the students. Professors can assist by incorporating active learning and service learning into their classes. Students can assist by seeking out internships and cooperative education opportunities in their field of study.

Today’s focus is on encouraging professors/instructors to use active learning and/or service learning in their college classrooms.

Active Learning/Experiential Learning: Learn by Doing

Although marketing academicians agree that students benefit from experiential learning, this teaching methodology is not widely used. The model is simple: learn by doing. Or as many marketing professors willingly admit – to learn by teaching. Active-based experiential learning provides more concrete experience for students than does relying solely on traditional passive learning pedagogies.

The main benefit of experiential learning, especially when used in combination with service learning, is that it injects reality into the classroom. Not only does experiential learning inject reality into the curriculum, it offers students an opportunity to synthesize and apply what they’ve learned in the classroom and to make it their own. This “making it their own” is what provides students with the knowledge and applied skills that are critical to initial job success.

Benefits of active learning include helping students to acquire and enhance critical thinking skills, meta-cognitive learning skills, synthesis skills and integration skills. And more importantly, evidence exists to support the positive impact that active learning has on business students and their educational experience. By forcing the students into a situation where they have to use their marketing knowledge in an applied manner, one hopes to see demonstrable evidence of the development of the skills needed to succeed in the marketing environment.

Service Learning

At UMass-Dartmouth, we have a Center for Civic Engagement charged with the task of assuring that beginning in 2012, every student participate in at least one service learning course prior to their graduation.

Service-learning involves student participation in course-related community outreach programs designed to enhance the integration of course material with real-world experience. It is a special instance of active learning and typically involves students working either individually or in groups on class-based projects in the community. The benefits of service learning are synergistic: there is a benefit to the students, the businesses involved, the professors/instructors, the university and the community in which the service learning takes place. Service learning supports the mission of most universities who aspire to have a positive economic impact on their immediate surrounding communities and beyond.

Although service learning projects are encouraged for all levels of marketing courses, projects in upper-level marketing courses tend to have the largest positive impact on both the students and the community. This is attributed to the fact that upper-level students have more tools available in their marketing skill set and are likely to possess a broader marketing foundation on which to build a positive solution for their client/partner.

While difficult to implement and manage, the benefits of service-learning are clear. Service learning provides a chance for students to apply theoretical knowledge to real-world business problems. And service learning provides both students and professors with a platform with which to use their talents for the benefit of the local business community. The key differentiator between service learning and active or experiential learning is that at the end of the semester service learning requires students to submit a reflective essay describing the impact that the experience has had on their overall education.

Bringing it Home

So think about how you learn best. Is it by reading, by attending lectures or by doing something? Personally, in spite of reading as much as I can find about surfing, listening to podcasts about surfing and watching others surf on television or in person, I remain a novice. Why? I don’t surf enough – basically never. At the end of the day it’s that simple. To do is to learn. And to do more is to gain proficiency and expertise.

Provide your students with the opportunity to engage in active learning and service learning. The positive contribution to their education and careers greatly outweighs any perceived inconvenience associated with managing these pedagogical approaches. In the words of Nike, just do it.


One thought on “Active Learning and Service Learning: Learn by Doing”

  1. I was sort of forced to do this since I’m a novice with lecturing. When I planned my web marketing course, I made an excel spreadsheet with the following columns:
    1. Learning objective
    2. Learning activities (several per objective, only some of which are lectures)
    3. Learning measure (one or more per objective)

    Perhaps this is only applicable to some courses: the students handled real SME’s and they learned by doing web marketing. I spent less time lecturing than meeting each group to guide them with their projects, or preparing instructions with the right resources and metrics. It felt more like project management work whose objectives are not only to deliver the project scope but for the project team to learn.

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