Essential Learning Inputs: Rethinking Experiential Learning for the New College Majority

Archetypal notions of student learning outcomes overlook a central aspect of the learning process: students’ life experiences. This cognitive error, rooted in dominant assumptions about who students (and faculty) are as people, elides a distinctive class of contributions made by “nontraditional” students. This essay turns the mirror on faculty members, interrogating the ways that we conceptualize experiential learning, such as study abroad programs and practicum experiences, for the “new majority” of students who come to college later in life, have dependents, or come from backgrounds underrepresented in academe.

While universities are making great strides in expanding access to experiential learning as a high-impact practice (HIP) (Kuh 2008), it is generally operationalized as yet another aspect of the curriculum where faculty pass knowledge on to students, ignoring the complementary ways that students shape the learning experience. Indeed, students often demonstrate skills and insights that faculty may lack, such as intercultural communication and relationship management (honed from years working retail, for example). Activities occurring in “the real world”—whether in a travel course or an internship/practicum—may put students in their element.

Grounded in my experience working on experiential learning in global health and community development, I propose that educators should invert the logic of student learning outcomes in two ways. First, rather than speaking only of outcomes, educators should embrace the concept of essential learning inputs: the capacities that students bring to their experiential learning. Second, I urge the higher education community to reconceptualize the “barriers” to success created by students’ nonacademic lives—e.g., being the first in their family to go to college, enrolling part-time, or parenting while in school. I suggest that such “impediments” can also foster skills and insights that beget excellence in experiential learning.

In my years working with students in study abroad and field-based learning experiences, my expectations about this relationship have been upended many times. In moments when I have observed how a group of students responded to yet another aggravating delay during an excursion, or reviewed the electronic portfolio of a student who had just completed a field experience with a community organization, I have been repeatedly humbled by discovering accomplishments that fell outside the frames of learning outcomes I constructed for the experience. Moreover, some of the students who were the least engaged classroom participants have become dynamos in the field.

Operating from a didactic model of global health learning, where learning outcomes are defined based on faculty expertise, can discount the critical real-world experiences of students. Normative learning outcomes not only devalue the skills and accomplishments that students bring to field-based learning but also systematically obscure experiences of personal transformation, which many of us would consider the ultimate learning experience.

Reconsidering Success for the New Majority

A brief from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research compares “independent” college students, who now make up the majority of college students, with their dependent counterparts. The brief uses the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) definition of independent college students as those having at least one of the following characteristics: “at least 24 years old; married; a graduate or professional student; a veteran; a member of the armed forces; an orphan, in foster care, or a dependent or ward of the court since age 13; has legal dependents other than a spouse; an emancipated minor; or homeless or at risk of becoming homeless” (Reichlin Cruise, Eckerson, and Gault 2018, 1). According to the brief, independent college students are more likely to be female, be people of color, be parents of children under age 18, go to school part-time, work more than part-time, live on a low income, or have an unmet financial need for tuition. They are also 70 percent less likely to graduate within six years than dependent students (Reichlin Cruse, Eckerson, and Gault 2018). Accordingly, these populations are often discussed in terms of perceived deficits, such as inadequate preparation, barriers to success, language and culture gaps, health issues, and caregiving obligations that compete with academic work.

Yet by navigating each of the challenges listed above, students can cultivate skills that are readily transferrable to the academic realm—e.g., time management, empathy, communication (including nonverbal), and ability to build informal social networks. These skills are especially valuable in field-based learning, where the structures and supports of the university are reduced or liminal due to the geographical or psychological distance from the learning environment.

Rather than assuming that students go into the field semi-skilled, working toward discipline-based benchmarks, we might view field learning as a site of interface between the university and the broader community, with each student’s unique skill set catalyzing a new type of relationship between the two. That is, we might look at how students and others are changed by an experience rather than simply whether a certain set of boxes are checked.

In community-based learning, students’ existing skills can be tremendously powerful. Recently, one of my students completed a practicum at a housing rights organization where he helped the volunteer coordinator overhaul the system for scheduling volunteer shifts on a renters’ rights hotline. While he certainly drew on insights from his major, his years in the field of information technology before returning to college were also fundamental, as he used these skills to design the technological backbone of the system. No faculty member in the program would have been able to execute the system he designed or mentor him during the project. The student’s accomplishments fit squarely in the field of community development and represented a synergy of his coursework and life experience rather than the achievement of a faculty-defined outcome.

Students’ capacities may not just improve their learning experience but also contribute to their colleagues’ learning. Language is one example: students who have had less exposure to English outside the classroom may be disadvantaged when it comes to academic writing, yet they bring irreplaceable skills to activities where language barriers are present. During a recent sustainable development travel course I taught in Ecuador, a heritage speaker1 of Spanish interpreted during some sessions when faculty and local counterparts were otherwise occupied. Doing so built his comprehension and familiarity with technical vocabulary and created a new entrée for students to discuss the course material—because a fellow student is often more approachable than a faculty member or guest speaker. (Instructors should ensure that students are not forced into such leadership or professional roles, as this could detract from the students’ own learning or inhibit relationship building with their peers.) In this same program in Ecuador, US Latinx students enhanced their learning and that of their peers by introducing discussions about pan-Latinx identities and the specificity of Ecuadorian culture.

Tapping Student Potential

Despite their contributions, nontraditional and underrepresented students are often poorly integrated into experiential learning programs. For example, not only are students of color underrepresented in study abroad programs, but the rate of growth in their participation lags behind their increasing representation in the college population overall (Sweeney 2013). And sadly, there is evidence that faculty may be a barrier rather than a facilitator to students of color studying abroad, through creating a campus climate that devalues study abroad and assumes that students of color are uninterested or unprepared (Sweeney 2013). A study of high-impact practices (HIPs) (Finley and McNair 2013)—including study abroad, service learning, and capstone experiences—found that Hispanic and Asian American students engage in significantly fewer HIPs than white students do, although transfer students participate in significantly more HIPs than nontransfer students do. The same study also notes that while HIPs may be “good for everyone,” “equity effects” include stronger boosts for certain groups (Finley and McNair 2013, 19). For example, Finley and McNair cite Kuh’s work (2008) showing the greater impact of HIPs on “African American, Latino/a, and students with relatively low ACT scores” (2013, vi).

How might faculty lower barriers to underrepresented students engaging in HIPs, thereby boosting the equity effects? What would it mean to view students’ lived experiences as essential learning inputs?

First, humility is requisite. The passion for learning that drew many faculty to their careers should be assiduously applied here: we need to be open to what students can teach us and aware of the limitations in our patterns of thinking about what learning is and how we measure it. This requires reconceptualizing the notion of learning that underpins field-based learning experiences, away from topical knowledge and into a consideration of the catalytic process of the student’s engagement with the field setting.

Second, we need to understand and valorize what students bring to the learning community. This means that faculty need to recognize that students are not blank slates, ask about their life experi­ences, and help make connections between their experiences and academic work. For example, I recently advised a student preparing applications for graduate school in urban planning who felt insecure about his limited experience in the field. But because I knew about his work history, I could point out that many years of working in restaurants had given him the capacity to work in busy settings and defuse interpersonal conflict: key skills for urban planners managing sometimes inflammatory public meetings.

Third, we can build into the curriculum this idea of life experience as foundational to learning. As one example, I ask students to write positionality statements to reflect on how their life experiences influence their experience of the field. This advances students’ thinking about difference, power, and identity and also opens the conversation about what students bring to an experience in addition to what they take from it. Crucially, it also highlights the interactive processes that occur in the field setting, where different types of knowledge operate in sometimes unexpected and generative ways. Further, students can mentor each other through experiential learning by working in small groups or doing other collaborative activities that foreground students as experts.

Adopting these practices of faculty humility, inquiry about students’ life experiences, and reflective and synergistic practice among students shifts our conception of experiential learning to something where students with complex lives and histories of underrepresentation are experts and assets rather than outsiders and “less-than.”


Finley, Ashley, and Tia McNair. 2013. Assessing Underserved Students’ Engagement in High-Impact Practices. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Kuh, George D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Reichlin Cruse, Lindsey, Eleanor Eckerson, and Barbara Gault. 2018. Understanding the New College Majority: The Demographic and Financial Characteristics of Independent Students and Their Postsecondary Outcomes, vol. C462. Washington, DC: Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Sweeney, Karyn. 2013. “Inclusive Excellence and Underrepresentation of Students of Color in Study Abroad.” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad 23 (Fall 2013): 1–21.


1. Heritage language speakers are those whose language learning occurs in household and cultural contexts rather than formal education; they may have any level of proficiency in the heritage language. In contrast, “native” speakers are fluent in what they consider their first language.

Moriah McSharry McGrath is Instructor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University.

Select any filter and click on Apply to see results