Trade in heavy texts for real-life learning

Professor Julie Walker sits in her office holding two books in each hand, Geography for Dummies and The Sixth Extinction.
Professor Julie Walker is armed with Geography for Dummies and The Sixth Extinction, two books she uses to teach GNEDs which use alternative methods to better engage students.

It’s a routine every new post-secondary school student endures, pay tuition, register for courses and, according to the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, pay upwards of $1,000 on textbooks per year. Between the cost, weight and the knowledge that classes will be filled with reading a textbook bound for the bookshelf, this may have many students wishing for another way.

Co-ops and work placements are teaching strategies which allow students the opportunity to get away from the textbooks and apply their knowledge in real world and workplace environments. These are just two examples of experiential learning.

Experiential learning is a teaching strategy that gets students out of the classroom and away from lecture-based teaching.

Teaching methods such as experiential and active learning are becoming more common in post-secondary institutions.

According to their book Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom, writers Meyers and Jones say active learning “provides opportunities for students to meaningfully talk and listen, write, read, and reflect on the content, ideas, issues, and concerns of an academic subject.”

A 2014 Council of Ontario Universities report says that in the near future more than 60 per cent of undergraduates will take part in co-op or experiential learning.  When it comes to teaching content, be it active or experiential, the teacher’s imagination is the limit.

Julie Walker, a professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies, believes her classes are more successful when she brings active learning into her lesson plans. From the time she began her career teaching Operations Management and IT courses, Walker has always strived to get away from the textbook, using videos and discussions to promote a dialogue within the classroom. She plans her lessons so she isn’t giving a lecture at students, but speaking with them and getting them outside to create connections between their community and the content they’re learning.

“I just think sometimes we get so caught up in what we have to teach that we forget what it is [like] to sit there as a student,” Walker said.

Walker’s approach aligns with an article written for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which shows substantial evidence that the incorporation or replacement of lectures with active learning strategies improves learning and knowledge retention. This has post-secondary institutions on the hunt for alternate methods to better engage students and enhance the way students learn.

Graduates of programs with active and experiential learning are at a big advantage. According to Statistics Canada’s 2013 National Graduation Survey, post-secondary students who participate in co-ops, work placements and experiential learning are earning more than their peers, finding work in higher paid positions, with a lower unemployment rate after graduation.

According to Walker, you don’t navigate life with a textbook in hand, so why use a textbook when learning about life in the classroom? Throughout the summer, Walker taught her first-of-four new General Education (GNED) courses, which she handcrafted to function without the use of a conventional textbook. With this, Walker uses alternate materials, such as a scientific novel, a “For Dummies” book and an e-text with embedded links to promote engagement. She also uses resources such as Google Maps and Geoguessr to incorporate interactivity within her geography classroom.

The information age has changed the way students learn. Where previous generations sat in front of chalkboards with notebooks in hand, students now sit in front of computers with phones in hand. We have infinite knowledge literally at our fingertips, which has rendered textbook learning obsolete. What this generation needs, and what active and experiential learning provides, is real-life experiences. This is not something that can be provided by a textbook.

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Alyssa Bugg is a second-year journalism student at Durham College. When it comes to writing and reporting, she enjoys covering events and connecting with her audience by writing about topics she feels matter to them. She likes to spend her spare time on both her personal and The Chronicle's Twitter accounts (for hours - it's a problem), researching and reading about audience engagement and spending some down time with her bunny, Mac. Alyssa hopes to work in a communications role or news organization in a digital capacity following graduation.