Academic Exchange Quarterly Summer 2012 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 16, Issue 2

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Children in Action: A Hands-On Psychology Lesson


Lawrence M. Preiser,  York College of The City University of New York


Lawrence Preiser, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Psychology.  His main areas of scholarship focus on Autistic Spectrum Disorder and learning through experience



This paper describes the implementation and evaluation of an experiential approach in a gateway child development course.  Students observed the instructor demonstrate theories using real children.  Student satisfaction in the course was evaluated and student performance was compared with a matched control group.  Findings indicate that an experiential approach improves satisfaction and performance.



The notion of experiential education, or learning by doing, has a long history.   Experiential education is a philosophy of education that focuses on the transactive process between teacher and student involved in direct experience with the learning environment and content (Itin, 1999).  According to Luckmann (1996), “experiential education is a process through which a learner constructs knowledge, skill, and value from direct experiences” (p. 6).  When education is said to be experiential, this means that it is structured in a way that allows the learner to explore the phenomenon under study, that is, to form a direct relationship with the subject matter, rather than merely reading about the phenomenon or encountering it indirectly (Kraft & Sakofs, 1988).  Emphasis is placed on the nature of participants’ subjective experiences.  An experiential educator’s role is to organize and facilitate direct experiences of phenomenon under the assumption that this will lead to genuine, meaningful and long-lasting, learning.  Experiential educators operate under the assumption that educational goals can be effectively met by allowing the character of the learner’s educational experience to influence the educational process (Ricketts & Willis, 2002).  Thus, experiential educators try to arrange particular sets of experiences which are conductive towards particular educational goals.


The Association for Experiential Education (AEE) began in 1974 and today has membership world-wide, hosts numerous conferences, and supports an active publications program (Garvey, 1990). The AEE regards experiential education “as a philosophy and methodology in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, and clarify issues” (AEE, 2002, p. 5). Itin (1999) adds experiential education requires "the learner to take initiative, make decisions, and be accountable for the results" (p. 93). These definitions suggest that experiential education is a "process" or "method” occurring in programs that have as goals the construction of knowledge, skills, and dispositions from direct experience. Tools used include simulations and role-playing. The experiential education mindset changes the way teachers and students view knowledge (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). Knowledge becomes active, transacted within life or life-like situations. Students become knowledge creators not merely knowledge gatherers while teachers become active learners, experimenting with their students, reflecting upon learning activities, and responding to students’ reactions.


Experiential education has a long history accentuated by the work of John Dewey, perhaps the most prominent American educator/philosopher of the twentieth century, whose push for experiential or progressive education in formal educational settings challenging educators to develop programs connected to real life experiences (1938). There was a boom in the 60’s and 70’s with the work Jean Piaget, Benjamin Bloom, Howard Gardner, Kurt Lewin, and Carl Rogers who believed in the value of experience as a complement to theory and lecture (Neil, 2005). Dewey argued that experiences are educative if they lead to intellectual and moral growth; if there is benefit to the community; and if the experience results in affective qualities such as curiosity and sense of purpose.


Kurt Hahn, considered one of the foremost educators of the twentieth century, contributed as a practitioner. Hahn’s principles and the institutions he helped found changed schools, programs, and educators. Hahn believed people construct knowledge based on experience (Gass, 2003). More recently, David Kolb has taken the gauntlet in supporting experiential learning stating that learning is a multi-dimensional process moving from concrete experience to observation and reflection to the formation of abstractions and generalizations to testing implications of new concepts in new situations (1984). James Atherton (2002) argues that Kolb provides an important descriptive model of the adult learning process.


Figure 1

Assessing experiential learning starts with learning outcomes defined at the beginning of the unit – the experience. For Norman Evans student assessment involves making independent judgments about the level and quality of learning reached at a particular time (Evans, 1992). Research providing evidence for the effectiveness of experiential education is separated by type of program. Proponents define learning in a way that is reflective of the complexity of both cognitive and affective development.


The purpose of the present study is to introduce an experiential education model in a gateway course, specifically Human Development I: Birth through Late Childhood.  Gateway courses are foundations for the major discipline that should introduce students early to research, analytical thinking and problem solving, developing inquisitiveness that leads to life-long inquiry and to collaboration.   This is a challenge when teaching a gateway course, since they tend to be prerequisites to multiple majors and programs, thus resulting in large numbers of students enrolled in the course. [1] The present study aims to answer the following questions:  (1) When students participate in this approach, do they find this to be a positive experience thus motivating them to be more active participants and learners?; (2) Does the experiential approach enhance student grades?; and (3) Do students participating in this approach have overall grades that are higher than students who were not exposed to this approach?




The subjects were fifty-three students enrolled in Human Development I during the spring 2008 semester at York College of The City University of New York.  Forty-six (87%) of the students were female and seven (13%) were male.  The majority of students enrolled in the course were sophomores and juniors.  This study was a time sensitive project that needed to be completed in one semester as per Title III grant specifications; therefore, a cross-sectional design was utilized.  Two control groups were utilized in order to assess the effect of experiential education.  These subjects took Human Development I during the fall 2007 semester and were carefully matched to the students in the experimental group.  One of the control groups was a class taught by the investigator and the other was taught by a different professor who utilized the same textbook, same syllabus and who offered the course at the same time of the day.  An independent evaluator (the discipline coordinator for the department) looked at variables among the classes, including composition of syllabus, order of topic presentation, exams, in order to match samples as well as gender breakdown, class standing and grade point average for the students taking the classes.  Students in the treatment group and the control group taught by the investigator were administered the same three examinations.  Students in the control group taught by the other professor also had their grade based on three examinations covering the same material as the other two groups as per a review of the syllabus utilized by that professor.



Children that acted as live models were recruited on a voluntary basis.  Four different children were invited into the classroom throughout the semester.  The children ranged in age from 11 months through 12 years.  Three examinations were utilized in order to assess learning throughout the semester.  The first examination did not include any live models and was based solely on lecture material.  The second and third examinations incorporated both lecture material supplemented by live model demonstration in order to highlight the theories being discussed during the lecture component.  At the end of the semester each student was asked to complete a Likert scale rating their satisfaction of the experiential approach and their overall satisfaction with the course as well as the instructor.


It was explained in class that at four different times throughout the semester, beginning after the first exam, children would be invited into the classroom and the instructor would demonstrate certain theories that had been presented during the lecture.  Students were informed that the purpose of these in-class demonstrations were to highlight children in action and to afford them the opportunity to view the theories discussed in real-life instances.  It was further explained that at the end of the semester students would be asked to complete a survey that would offer feedback about this new approach of teaching.


When children were brought into the classroom the instructor worked with them for a 30 minute period highlighting a specific topic that had been presented during a previous lecture.  For the younger children parents were invited to participate during the demonstration portion.  As the children worked with the instructor students in the classroom observed the demonstration and were asked to write down their observations and relate these to the lecture topic.  After the demonstration period the instructor reviewed what had been demonstrated, tying it back to theories presented during the lecture.



A correlation matrix was performed to test the hypothesis that students exposed to an experiential approach find it to be a positive experience motivating them to be more active participants and resultant learners.  The analysis revealed that multiple questions from the Likert Scale were strongly related to one another.  A factor analysis revealed that the questions from the Likert Scale fit best into four different factors:  course satisfaction; experiential education enhancing lecture material; effects of experiential education and exam success; and experiential education generalized outside of the classroom.


Statistics were utilized to test the hypothesis that students exposed to an experiential approach have overall course grades higher than those that are not.  The overall mean course grade for the treatment group was 2.85 while the control group from the investigator’s fall 2007 course had an overall mean grade of 2.5 while the second control group’s overall mean grade was 2.36.


Results showed a significant difference between the treatment group’s overall grade versus the investigator’s control group [t (105) = 2.07, p < .05] as well as a significant difference between the treatment group and other control group’s overall grade [t (100) = -2.64, p = .01].  There was no significant difference between the two control groups overall course grades [t (101) = -.73, p = .47].


In order to test the hypothesis that exposure to experiential learning enhances individual exam grades statistics to compare means were utilized.  The following are the means for the three exams administered to the treatment group: exam 1 had a mean of 2.44; exam 2 had a mean of 2.83; and exam 3 had a mean of 3.06.




Table 1


Table 2


Results showed a significant difference between the three exam scores [F (2, 156) = 4.19, p = .02).  Further analyses revealed that there was no significant difference between the grades on exam 1 and exam 2 [t (104) = -1.60, p > .05] nor any significant difference between exams 2 and 3 [t (104) = -1.19, p > .05]; however, a significant difference was found between exams 1 and 3 [t (104) = -3.0, p < .01].



The overall results suggest that the experiential education component implemented in Human Development I improved both student satisfaction and success.  Offering students an opportunity to witness “children in action” allowed them to gain a deeper understanding of the material being presented during the class lectures and apply these experiences both inside and outside of the classroom setting.  As the results above indicate, four different factors were able to be extracted from the Likert Scale administered with one of them being course satisfaction.  Questions that were loaded on this factor asked students their feelings about the professor’s grasp of the material, whether this method of teaching was useful, and whether they would recommend this style of teaching in other gateway courses.  Students responded favorably to each of these questions and most importantly felt that this particular course should always employ this method of teaching and highly recommended it across other gateway courses.  From a pedagogical standpoint, educational goals can be effectively met by allowing the nature of the learner’s educational experience to influence the educational process.  Student satisfaction is a salient component of the learner’s experience and this study clearly shows that students were highly satisfied with this teaching methodology believing it to be an important component in the educational process.  The true essence of learning is being able to apply and generalize what has been presented in the classroom into other experiences we have.  Another factor extracted from the Likert Scale asked whether students were able to utilize the experiential education component outside of the classroom.   Once again students’ responses that loaded on this factor were favorable in that they rated highly the usefulness of this method of teaching with experiences that they have in the world outside of the classroom setting.  As an example, for those students who have children of their own they reported that seeing the children in action afforded them with a deeper understanding of their own children’s behaviors causing them to at times adjust their own approach with their children.


The finding that there was a significant difference between the three exams administered to the treatment group appears to be due to the experiential education component.  Exam 1 had the lowest mean score and this was the only exam that did not introduce students to the experiential teaching method.  Upon further analysis a significant difference was found only between exams 1 and 3 students still performed better when exams allowed students to reference experiential education in their studies.  This was further confirmed by the extracted factor of the effects of experiential education and exam success.  Students reported that they referenced the children in action method as a study tool when preparing for exams and had an easier time with exam questions that allowed them to mentally envision the material they had learned through lecture when demonstrated with the children.  It is believed that the viewing of the children allowed students to form a direct relationship with the subject matter thus affording them with greater opportunities for recall when presented with questions.  Experiential education affords students with a “visual tool” for test preparation rather than relying just on lecture notes and textbooks.   Students reported that they often try to envision what the professor stated during their lecture when taking exams and they found it easier to visualize actual experiences rather than lecture or text.


The significant difference between the treatment group and two control groups appears to be related, again, to the experiential approach.  The final factor extracted, experiential education enhancing lecture material, ties in nicely to Kolb’s experiential learning cycle.  Students were able to take a concrete experience, the theory/concept discussed during the lecture or what they read in the text, and upon observation of the children reflect upon the experience causing them to have a deeper understanding of the concepts/theories being presented.  For the treatment group experiential education became a subjective experience rather than merely an experience based on reading about the phenomenon or encountering it indirectly.  This subjective experience thus reinforced the material causing them to form a deeper understanding and this appears to relate with course success.  From the Likert Scale students reported that they found the children enhanced their understanding of the lectured topic and believed that experiential education is a necessary supplement to lecture discussion.  To quote one of the students from the treatment group, “Thank you for allowing me to view children in our classroom.  I feel that children displaying some of the theories we spoke about in class made it more realistic and also very helpful for me and I believe the class as well.”


In summary, students who were exposed to an experiential education model in a gateway course were satisfied with the approach and had a higher overall course grade than students not exposed to the approach.  Furthermore, students exposed to this approach were more successful on exams which allowed them to reference live model demonstrations than just with lecture and text alone.  Students found the experiential approach to be an important part of their college experience and felt that other gateway courses should offer this methodology when applicable.


End Notes

[1] At York College, the average gateway course enrolls 55 students per section.



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