What higher education can learn from a classical approach to experiential learning model: The 4-H framework to improve outcomes

In this article, you will learn more about the concept of an experiential learning model and how it can improve educational outcomes.
August 14, 2023
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There’s nothing that prepares your students for their careers more than authentic, real-world projects. But if you have ever tried to incorporate these projects into your curriculum, you have most likely found it challenging and time consuming.

With the advancement of tech, approaches to teaching have evolved beyond the traditional emphasis on lectures and textbooks to engage students and improve educational outcomes.

One of the most adaptable experiential learning models that works well with these new technologies is the 4-H model. While traditionally known for its youth-based approach, it has shown remarkable promise in fostering personal and professional growth through practical, work-based experiences with higher education students as well. 

This article will explore how this proven framework provides a structured approach to creating engaging projects that align with your curriculum and gives your students practical experience.

Key takeaways

  • The 4-H experiential learning model is designed to help learners explore and understand new concepts practically.
  • The model consists of five steps (experience, share, process, generalize, and apply) which guide learners through a holistic and progressive learning pathway.
  • By actively working through this process, learners gain practical knowledge and develop life skills that prepare them for future careers and personal growth.

Theoretical foundation of the 4-H experiential learning model

The 4-H experiential learning model is grounded in the understanding that learning is a holistic process that involves the whole person and takes place throughout one's life, not just in traditional classroom settings. 

While it’s typically associated with agricultural and K-12 learning, its foundational principles and theories can be applied to higher education classrooms, particularly when it comes to hands-on, work-based learning.

Based on the work of educational theorists, such as John Dewey and David Kolb, this model emphasizes the importance of hands-on learning experiences and the role of reflection in the learning process. 

Experiences build upon one another and are connected to real-life contexts through the model's active, progressive, and social nature. Together, they engage in progressive learning pathways through the learning environment toward achieving desired learning outcomes.

The five steps of the 4-H experiential learning model

The 4-H Experiential Learning Model is a powerful learning and personal growth tool. It consists of five steps that allow learners to gain knowledge and develop life skills through hands-on experiences. 

1. Experience

The first step of the experiential learning model involves actively engaging in an experience that allows learners to practice specific life skills. The experience can take many forms, depending on the life/career skills being targeted and the learners' preferred method of engagement.

For example, let's say students are participating in a marketing activity to hone their skills in advertising. 

After being given a product or service, their job is to create their own advertisements by using various mediums, such as print, audio, or video, and promote it.

During this step, the leader or educator takes a back seat, letting the students learn by doing and making their own discoveries.

2. Share

The next step involves reflecting on the experience and sharing thoughts and observations with others. Learners are encouraged to share what they did, saw, felt, heard, and even smelled or tasted during the experience. 

For example, after creating their advertisements, the group gathers to reflect on their experience and share their creations. They might discuss what they learned about effective advertising and get feedback from their peers or the leader. 

Educators should encourage students to share by using strategies such as:

  • Active listening and asking appropriate follow-up questions to clarify thoughts and encourage deeper reflection
  • Facilitate group discussions to help students learn from one another
  • Encourage constructive peer feedback
  • Provide other reflection tools like journals, prompts, graphic organizers, etc.

The information given during this step will help in the next stage. 

3. Process

Now that the learners have completed the task and started reflecting, it's time to dive deeper. In this step, the group processes the experience by discussing how it was conducted, the procedures or steps they used, and the problems or issues that came up. 

Learners are asked to think critically about how they dealt with these problems and why the life skill they practiced is important.

For example, instead of simply sharing their advertisements, students are encouraged to reflect on their creative process and identify what strategies they used to create their ads. 

The leader might ask questions like:

  • What was your target audience, and how did you tailor your ad to appeal to them?
  • What messaging did you use and why?
  • What design elements did you incorporate, and how did they contribute to your ad's effectiveness?

4. Generalize

After learners have completed their reflections, the discussion shifts to what the experience meant to them and what they learned. 

Students are encouraged to think about what they learned from the experience, how it relates to other things they've learned, and similar experiences with this life skill or subject matter.

For our example, students are encouraged to explore what they learned from the advertising experience and how it applies to other parts of their lives. The leader might prompt them with questions like:

  • What did you learn about effective communication from advertising?
  • How can you apply what you learned about advertising to other areas of your life, such as public speaking or writing?
  • What other experiences have you had that required effective communication or marketing skills?

5. Apply

In this final step, learners are asked to apply what they have learned to their lives. By reflecting on the experience and considering how the skills they learned could be applied in other situations, learners can start to see the broader implications of what they've learned. 

This can help them approach similar tasks more thoughtfully and intentionally and can also help them transfer their skills to new situations.

To facilitate this thinking in our advertising example, educators can ask questions like:

  • How can you use what you learned from advertising in the future?
  • Can you apply what you learned about effective communication to other areas of your life?
  • How can you be more strategic and intentional in your messaging and design in future projects?

Through this process, learners can gain a deeper understanding of the life and subject matter skills they practiced during the activity. And ultimately, they can learn to apply these skills in their everyday lives.

Where is the opportunity for higher education to apply the 4-H approach to work-based learning programs?

When exploring the potential of work-based learning programs in higher education, a clear pathway between academic knowledge and real-world application emerges—one that can be further enhanced by applying 4-H approach. 

By promoting active learning, reflection, mentorship, and the acquisition of practical skills, educational institutions stand to strengthen students’ employability upon graduation.

Here are just a few opportunities to implement these work-based programs into higher educational curriculum and practices:

  • Curriculum Integrated Work-base Learning (WBL): Rather than treating WBL as an option, it becomes an organic part of the curriculum, letting students see first-hand how their studies relate to practical, real-life situations so they can enrich their understanding of theoretical concepts.
  • Cooperative Education (Co-op) Programs: By collaborating with industry partners, universities can provide structured work-based learning experiences that align with students' fields of study and allow them to gain practical skills, expand their industry knowledge, and network with professionals. This symbiotic relationship benefits both students and employers.
  • Internship and Externship Programs: Apart from merely placing students in organizations, these programs should be thoughtfully designed to offer comprehensive practical experiences. This can include hands-on involvement in projects, regular reflection sessions to link experiences with academic coursework, and one-on-one mentorship to guide students' professional development. 
  • Entrepreneurship and Innovation Programs: Work-based learning plays a pivotal role in entrepreneurship and innovation programs by empowering students to develop their own ventures. Students can apply their knowledge and skills in real-world situations, learning from hands-on experiences and tackling real business challenges. This integration fosters a culture of innovation and prepares students for the dynamic and competitive world of entrepreneurship.
  • Capstone Projects and Research Opportunities: By designing these experiences to be more interactive and work-based, students can engage in real-world problem-solving, collaborate with mentors or industry professionals, and reflect on their learning outcomes. This approach allows students to apply their knowledge and skills in meaningful ways while preparing for their future careers.

Explore Riipen’s experiential learning marketplace

Now, imagine having access to an experiential learning marketplace that connects you with hundreds of industry partners, businesses, and organizations so that you can seamlessly integrate truly engaging and authentic experiences for your students that improve job readiness.  

That's where Riipen comes in! 

Our industry-leading experiential learning platform helps hundreds of educational institutions harness the power of experiential learning and improve learning outcomes by connecting them with over 31,000 industry partners and businesses to offer students exciting projects and opportunities to develop essential skills.

With our platform, you can create engaging projects that align with your curriculum or work with industry partners to provide your students with practical, hands-on experience. And the best part is that you can easily manage your projects and students on the platform. 

Plus, you'll have access to a variety of resources and tools that will help you maximize the potential of experiential learning.

If you are interested in learning more about how Riipen can help you take your experiential learning to the next level? Schedule a demo today.

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