Fischer: Taking learning outside the classroom


Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Spring 2015 edition of Reflections, The Teaching Support Centre newsletter. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.

When you think about the most important learning experiences of your life, where did they take place? Were they in a traditional classroom setting? Did they happen when you were sitting in a library, pouring over a journal article?

My guess is your most pivotal learning occurred outside the walls of the classroom, and even outside the academy, while you were interacting with your peers, your professors and the community in which you lived.

I invite you to imagine a classroom without walls. Imagine a curriculum that allows you to respond to the emerging needs and trends of our society. Imagine inviting experts outside the Western Gates to bridge academic theory with practice. Imagine designing a course where students are able to simultaneously obtain knowledge, build transferable skills and develop a keen sense of civic engagement.

This is community engaged learning (CEL), and The Student Success Centre at Western is ready to assist faculty members, as well as faculties, departments and units, in integrating this innovative approach into their current teaching activities.


Through community engaged learning experiences at Western, students in a Psychology course have helped addictions recovery organizations manage a strategy for wait lists. Students in a Health Studies course created a community-based program that allowed those living with Alzheimer’s (and related dementias) to access music as a direct link to memory. Students in a Political Science course created a seed library to allow Londoners free access to seeds to begin their own home gardens. Students in a Biology course worked on a restoration plan for lands that had ecological complications due to human interventions. Students in a French Studies course worked in community centres in Rwanda teaching sexual health to adolescents.

What do these activities have to do with higher education? They may very well be the key to student engagement.

How do students respond to community engaged learning?

One student said it allowed her to “apply and understand course concepts in a practical way that I would have only been able to see in one dimension in a classroom setting.” Another student described the community engaged learning course as “new and refreshing.” Another valued the opportunity to “gain knowledge and experience in the exact area I wish to work in the future.”

These are the experiential learning opportunities our students will remember and build upon as they pursue further studies or future career paths.

The concept of experiential learning hinges on the idea that learning is not an outcome, but rather a process. David Kolb, one of the originating theorists of experiential learning, suggests ideas are not fixed, and are formed and re-formed through a cycle of experience, reflection and integration. When we look at learning through an experiential lens, we recognize that experience has the power to make us call into question, reconsider or even dispose of ideas or sets of knowledge that we learned in more traditional ways. Concepts are derived from, and continuously modified by, experience.

In this sense, experiential learning involves seeing the world as a “testing ground” for academic theories that will allow students to assess first-hand whether a particular idea holds up in society.

Contained in Western’s Strategic Plan is a strong emphasis on experiential learning and reaching beyond the campus. Community engaged learning is one way we are able to help move this strategic mission forward, while enhancing the student and faculty experience. Faculty members from all disciplines, who value community engagement and experiential learning, are able to strengthen ties between the community and the university, while mobilizing the vast amount of knowledge that exists in each.

Faculty members who teach with community engaged learning report a high degree of engagement with their students, and say they often learn as much from the students’ experiences as the students do from the course content they deliver. Once they have had an opportunity to use community engaged learning, they often look for more ways to use this pedagogy in other courses. They recognize community engaged learning is not an easy endeavour, but with administrative support, delivery of these kinds of learning experiences is possible and quite effective.

Since 2009, The Student Success Centre has partnered with more than 30 faculty members from a variety of disciplines to design effective community engaged learning courses. We have worked with almost 200 community organizations who share our passion for helping to educate our future leaders and value the meaningful contributions students make towards the mission of their organization. More than 2,500 students have benefitted from this innovative form of teaching and learning.

Our support includes helping faculty to design course syllabi with CEL in mind, identifying community partnerships and projects, facilitating in-class reflections and assisting in the assessment of student learning and community outcomes. Regardless of discipline, we are able to provide customized support for the development of a new course, or the enhancement of existing courses.

You are invited to meet with the Experiential Learning Team in The Student Success Centre to explore community engaged learning in your own teaching practice. Together, we can transform learning, contribute to our community, and provide students with meaningful opportunities to ground their learning in real-world experience.

Anne-Marie E. Fischer is the community engaged learning coordinator for The Student Success Centre.

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MAKE A CONNECTION: Contact the Experiential Learning Team in The Student Success Centre at for more information on incorporating community engaged learning into your work.