For all the innovations that are taking place on our campuses, the curriculum remains course-centric. It consists largely of lectures and seminars, plus, in some cases, lab sections. With a few notable exceptions — such as Drexel or Northeastern, with their emphasis on co-op experiences — the course remains the cornerstone of undergraduate education.
But what if we were to break away from the stand-alone course model. What would be the alternative? What, then, might an undergraduate education look like?
My answer: it would be organized around various kinds of learning experiences.
You may have noticed a far-reaching shift in the American economy: supplementing the industrial economy and the service economy is the experience economy. No longer is the marketing of experiences confined to the travel, leisure or hospitality industries.
Firms don’t simply sell tangible goods or commodities or consumer and business services; they market personal, novel, memorable and even transformational experiences. The Apple Store’s appeal lies not simply in the products it sells, but in the ways these products are showcased and staged.
The heightened emphasis on experiences is readily apparent in museums, which increasingly offer frequently changing exhibits, along with restaurants, film series and parties to attract visitors and other social gatherings, alongside their permanent collections.
This shift is also apparent in the way that conferences, including scholarly meetings, have evolved. To attract, engage and energize attendees, these conferences have increasingly become events, combining substance with lively entertainment.
The experiences that commercial firms market take a variety of forms. Some are immersive, others interactive. Some require the user to actively participate (think theme parks), still others emphasize affinity and connection.
How, then, might this apply to higher education? How might colleges and universities supplement traditional lectures and seminars with other kinds of learning experiences? Let me suggest four strategies that institutions are undertaking.
Strategy 1: Alternatives to Traditional Class Formats
Our campuses already offer classes that differ markedly from the instructor-centered classes. Currently, these are largely confined to specific disciplines, but it’s easy to see how they can be applied more broadly. Here are several examples:
- Studio courses. Already common in art, music and architecture programs, studio courses place students and their projects at the center of the learning experience. As they undertake their work in a semi-public setting, students receive immediate feedback from the teacher and their peers.
- Workshopping. A staple of creative writing programs, students present their work to classmates and an instructor, engage in discussion and analysis, and receive suggestions and criticism. As in a studio course, the students’ work occupies center stage.
- Clinical courses. Found not only in health science programs but in law schools as well, clinical courses typically provide services to actual patients or clients, and, in consequence, give students hands-on practical experience with essential skills. In a health program, this might entail taking a patient history and a physical examination and assisting with patient evaluation, diagnosis and care.
- Lab courses. Labs aren’t only found in the natural sciences. Law schools have policy and litigation labs. Social science departments often have data labs. A handful of institutions have digital scholarship labs or history labs, where teams of students develop innovative digital humanities projects or instructional courseware or instructional activities and serious games.
There is no reason why studio courses, workshopping, clinical courses or lab courses need to be confined to a narrow range of disciplines. One could easily imagine how these approaches might be adopted to any program that requires students, either individually or in groups, to complete a project, such as a business plan, a policy proposal or an impact study, or to acquire certain practical skills, for example, involving archival research or data analysis.
Strategy 2: Off-Campus Learning
Why should learning be confined to a classroom? Some of the most powerful learning experiences — internships, apprenticeships, practicums, fieldwork, study abroad and service learning and civic engagement activities — take place off campus, where students have the opportunity to apply knowledge and theory acquired in the classroom to real-world environments.
Our challenge is to expand those opportunities beyond those who can afford to study abroad or who have the connections, self-confidence and personal skills to obtain an internship.
But there’s another form of off-campus learning that is too often neglected. Our campuses are surrounded by museums, archives and a wide range of performance venues, concert halls, theaters and opera houses, among others. Even before the pandemic, many of these institutions faced serious audience development challenges; now, post-pandemic, many face severe financial difficulties. The obvious solution: integrating visits to these cultural centers and combining those visits with a seminar where the students can contextualize and analyze what they’ve seen.
Strategy 3: Solver Communities
Big problems — climate change, human rights abuses, inequality, migration, poverty, substance abuse — surround us, and academic institutions offer the ideal setting to research, analyze and debate possible solutions.
As an alternative to a traditional course on a specific societal or international problem, we might consider organizing students and faculty from a variety of disciplines as a solver community, to harness collective knowledge, perspectives and skills to tackle some of our time’s greatest challenges.
A solver community shares research and insights, weighs interpretations, and debates policy options. Participation in a solver community fosters active engagement, accountability and a sense of agency and promotes the development of higher-order thinking skills.
This approach also underscores three key insights that a range of institutions have recently come to acknowledge:
- That bringing diverse perspectives to a particular problem is essential to understanding a challenge in its full complexity.
- That this team-based approach builds essential interpersonal skills, including empathetic listening, purposeful questioning, relationship building, emotional intelligence, receptiveness to feedback, workplace etiquette and the ability to negotiate differences.
- That teams tend to generate more robust understandings and more creative solutions than do lone individuals.
Strategy 4: Maker Spaces
If you’ve spoken recently with medical school faculty, you’ve no doubt heard that their students, in increasing numbers, simply refuse to attend lectures. These students are do-it-yourself learners who have no doubt that they can master required knowledge on their own. They can review recorded lectures, research topics independently, meet in study groups and master essential material outside class.
Resistance to attending lectures isn’t confined to medical students. At my institution, a very significant number of students are project-driven. What they’d like most is to pursue a personal project in a setting where they can receive advice from experienced professionals: specialists in intellectual property, manufacturing, marketing, pricing and technology.
To meet that need, a growing number of campuses have established maker spaces, innovation hubs, entrepreneurship centers and other spaces where students undertake projects while receiving the support they need.
Why don’t we significantly expand access to such spaces, beyond the engineering and business students who dominate them now?
Making experiential learning a bigger part of the undergraduate experience is likely to have some big consequences. It might, for example:
- Shift curricular priorities away from replicating the expertise of existing faculty to ways that knowledge can be applied outside academic contexts.
- Strengthen graduates’ competitiveness in the job market by allowing them to point to skills they’ve acquired and projects they’ve completed.
- Encourage campuses to hire more practitioners and practicing professionals, who would bring real-world experience and the ability to collaborate with off-campus partners, which might accelerate the diversification of the faculty.
In my view, each of these outcomes would be a good thing.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.