Experiential Learning Forum: “Again and Again”

Chancellor Howard Cohen Chancellor Howard Cohen

Keynote Address
Howard Cohen, Chancellor
September 17, 2009


Delivered by Howard Cohen


Good Afternoon.

Thank you for inviting me to be the keynote speaker for this year’s Experiential Learning Conference and Expo.

As you know, Experiential Learning is the cornerstone of the Purdue Calumet 2008-14 Strategic Plan and the curriculum innovation that will lead our university’s effort to become both distinctive and distinguished.

  • Experiential Learning helps students with the transition from academic study to the world of work and citizenship.
    • Integrated, guided, connected
    • Sets standards for performance expectations
  • Experiential Learning links academic departments to their community constituencies, as they develop experiential placements for their students.
    • Feedback to departments
    • Authentic assessment of student performance
  • Experiential Learning deepens the value of Purdue Calumet to the community agencies, organizations and businesses that provide placements for our students.
    • Pre-employment screening
    • Additional help for important projects

These points speak to the practical value of experiential learning as a cornerstone of a Purdue Calumet education. Today I would like to talk about the value of experiential learning in more conceptual terms.

All experiences do not have the same value. There is a big difference between “being there” (just showing up) and “being transformed” (changing how you think and act as a result of what you have done). And, of course, there is also a difference between “being transformed” and “being improved.”

Some experiences make us better….not just different.

Perhaps some of you remember the 1993 film “Groundhog Day.”

In that Existentialist Comedy, Bill Murray plays Phil Connor, a jaded, know-it-all meteorologist who is, yet again, assigned to cover Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day.

Phil (Connor, not Punxsutawney) is bored, cynical and contemptuous. He distains the event, the people of Punxsutawney, PA and his co-workers and fellow reporters.

The film takes its existentialist turn when a coming blizzard strands Phil in Punxsutawney and he wakes up to the tune of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You, Babe” to relive Feb. 2 again.

This single day cycle occurs not once, but recursively and endlessly. No matter what happens during the day on February 2, tomorrow never comes. Each morning its “I Got You, Babe.”

Phil re-experiences Feb. 2 in endless variations. He is an actor, with the same cast of characters, trying to get the plot right. In the early cycles self-gratification reigns…Phil can take advantage of others without consequences – even including seductions and theft. Self-gratification, however, turns to despair. Even suicide cannot keep him from waking up to Feb. 2. Phil is condemned to a life of endless “do-overs.” His principal do-over is the pursuit of Rita (Andie McDowell), who will have none of his cynicism or his attempts at seduction.

Until, of course, Phil uses his time to turn himself into a decent human being. Phil goes from scamming the good people of Punxsutawney to helping them. He develops his talents (learns to play the piano). He is everyone’s new best friend.

Sincerity wins the day and Phil wins Rita.

The cycle is broken and Phil and Rita face the morning of February 3, and their future together, as the curtain comes down. Tragedy is averted. Sisyphus walks away from the rock. Life resumes.

And just why is Groundhog Day an emblem for Experiential Learning?

To answer a question with a question: what is experiential learning about, if not averting tragedy and despair and cultivating our better selves?

Am I serious?

Well, “yes.” And to make my point, I am inviting you to look at the Eight Principles of Good Practice articulated by the National Society of Experiential Education through the lens of Groundhog Day.

1. Intention: “the purposefulness that enables experience to become knowledge”

I think it is pretty clear that Phil was purposeless in his early cycles of living out Feb. 2. Only when he intentionally took on the winning of Rita did he begin to get the day right. Indeed, there was no standard for getting it right until Phil had a purpose.

There is no successful attainment of knowledge without an end in sight, and there can be no end in sight without intention.

If you don’t know where you want to go, no road is better than any other.

2. Preparedness and Planning: “enter the experience with sufficient foundation to support a successful experience”

Phil blew this one. Actually, it never crossed his mind. In fairness, he had no idea what he was in for. Being a meteorologist did not prepare him to deliver a meaningful report on Punxsutawney Phil or the Groundhog Day festivities. Phil was not ready…and it made his journey longer and more difficult than it might otherwise have been.

Because these experiences are part of a major course of study and tied to coursework, students enter them in the best position to make something of value out of them.

Absent preparation, success is just luck.

Our students work too hard at these experiences to leave their entry to chance.

3. Authenticity: “the experience must have a real world context”

This is a stretch…the world of Groundhog Day is hardly “real.” Nevertheless, authenticity is probably the core idea in the film. Only the authentic Phil can break through February 2 to get on with his life.

To invoke the film’s metaphor: the best Experiential Learning placements will be structured to model the kinds of actual work that will help our students grow as professionals and as competent people.

The work experience should be real so the stakes are high – high enough for the students to feel the importance of doing rather than “playing at” their assignments.

4. Reflection: “transforms simple experience to a learning experience”

Phil had a luxurious amount of time for reflection. He didn’t have to let a day go by without thinking about what he had done and how he might have done it differently. Actually, (once he got past self-gratification and despair, he used his time to learn to play jazz piano, sculpt ice and speak French. He also learned how to make friends and win Rita.

To the extent that Phil’s life – and the plot – have any direction, it is because he is able to reflect on his day.

Reflection is, perhaps, the core of experiential learning. We learn by doing, to be sure, but we mostly learn by thinking about what we have done.

5. Orientation and Training: “it is important that (learners) be prepared with important background information about the…context and environment in which the experience will operate”

No help for Phil here. What could prepare him for the endless Feb. 2 experience? We, by contrast, by working with our community partners, have a reasonable chance of preparing our students for their experiences. It’s not that it is impossible to be thrown into a situation and figure it out for yourself. But it is a whole lot more efficient to have some orientation.

Of course, our semester, unlike Phil’s Feb. 2, is time limited. Our students have 15 weeks or so to make the most of their experience. The better the orientation, the greater the likelihood that they will be able to engage and reflect early in the learning experience.

6.Monitoring and Continuous Improvement: “a feedback loop related to learning intentions and quality objectives” and “change in response to what that feedback suggests”

Give Phil credit here. He did manage to get better in the face of the ultimate negative feedback – waking up each morning to “I Got You, Babe.”

This is a dimension of experiential learning that fits very well with Purdue Calumet’s approach to education.

Experiential learning is quality improvement at the student level as AQIP is quality improvement at the institutional level.

Experiential learning is not just about getting experienced…it is about getting better. And getting better requires paying attention.

7. Assessment and Evaluation: “a means to develop and refine specific learning goals and quality objectives”

Assessment is the price we pay for ending the do-overs. Phil needed to take an honest look at his life on Feb. 2 in order to get to Feb. 3. Mercifully, assessment is not a metaphysical requirement for us to get from day-to-day. We would, however, probably save ourselves a lot of pain and heartache if we did a little more assessment on a regular basis.

Experiential learning builds it into the process and does not leave it to chance. At its best, assessment and evaluation includes the student, the faculty member and the community partner. At its best, assessment is less criticism and more appreciation of what works and strategy for creating more of that.

8. Acknowledgement: “recognition of learning”

This, of course, was Rita’s role.

I understand that Andie McDowell cannot be the reward for our Experiential Learning students…but I’m sure that there are other, if not greater, satisfactions to be gained from a job well done.

I the world of quality improvement, we have learned to ask the question: How will I know when I am successful?

Our students know this when they complete the ExL requirement and have it posted on their transcripts. Experiential Learning is more than another learning strategy…it is a step from the world of academics to the world each of our students will inhabit and improve when they leave us.

We are committed to having them leave well prepared.

Thank you.