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Experiential Learning Interview with President Worthen

President Kevin J. Worthen's keynote address and interview with Melinda Semandeni at the 2019 Experiential Learning Summit hosted by the office of Experiential Learning.


Thank you all for being here. I will just confess at the outset that many of you will be much more steeped in the idea of experiential learning than I am.

My remarks today really are going to be sort of autobiographical—I hope that it is not too rambling—about how I came to think about experiential learning and what I am thinking about now as president of the university.

The journey began about 13 years ago when I was part of the American Bar Association (ABA) Task Force. I was given the responsibility to come up with learning outcomes for law school. Law schools over the years have become more and more academic, more theoretical. We were quite resistant as a legal academy in terms of the whole idea of assessments. We said that we teach students really clearly and they go pass the bar exam—that is all we need to do.

But Congress and others who were in charge of legal education—the accrediting bodies—said, “That’s not good enough; you need learning outcomes.” So the ABA put together a task force about what it is we do. This came at a time in which there was an increasing demand from the practice for practical-skills training in law school. It is nice to have a theoretical abstract kind of thing, but they were looking for more concrete evidence of things that were being done in a practical way to help train lawyers.

Well, we started off, and this was new territory for everybody on the task force. We looked at other professions that had some learning outcomes—engineering and others—but I was particularly struck by what we found in the medical profession. One of the things that caught my attention was an idea that began in 1890 at Johns Hopkins University with a man named William Halsted, who was teaching surgery. He summarized that the best way to teach surgery is “see one, do one, teach one.” And that has been a mantra in medical education now for surgical procedures from that time.

There has been some criticism of it—some questioning whether it is valid or not, with the primary question being, “Is it really enough to just see one, and then you are doing one?” They are doing these on live patients! So some said we at least ought to say that we should see some before we start doing one. But the idea was that you really don’t understand something until you have done it and, more important, you have thought about it enough that you can teach someone else how to do it. That really resonated with me. In fact, in our legal circle we came up with “You can visualize, you can perform, you can demonstrate.” It is the same thing: visualize what you are going to do by seeing it abstractly or by seeing it being done, perform whatever task it is, and then demonstrate to others what the task is. You will notice that that is very experiential and fits in with the model that David Waddell just put up for us: being intentional about it, then doing it, then integrating it, and then being reflective about it.

At the same time, for the same purpose, I started reading just a little bit from George D. Kuh. Now many of you will know his name. He is now the coprincipal investigator of the National Institute of Learning Outcomes Assessment. He was at Indiana University for a number of years but is now, closing in on the end of his career, an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois. He very early got into the questions “How do we know how students learn?” and “What learning is most effective?”

George Kuh said that when he started out in this business, he would go around to different campuses and they would ask him, “What is the one thing we can do to enhance student success on campus?”

And he had to tell them, “I have no idea what it is. I have got some guesses, but I don’t really know.”

So he started collecting data, which eventually became the National Survey of Student Engagement, or NSSE. Some of you will be familiar with that. The first one was in the year 2000 or 2001. Over the years it started including our students as well. The most recent one surveyed almost 300,000 students—actually, it was sent out to 1.5 million students, and 300,000 students from more than 500 institutions nationwide contributed to it and finished the survey. And in the course of that, George Kuh—and this is not original to him—started thinking about deep learning, saying that deep learning is different from normal learning in that it really helps you not only acquire the information but understand the full meaning of and the theory underneath the information. George Kuh said that what he found is that if there was deep learning going on, you could see that students actually got higher grades, retained the information longer, and were able to integrate the information in different contexts and transform it from one context to another. So that was the goal he had in mind, this deep learning, but the question was, “How do we get there?”

Through the surveys he came up with what he called “high impact practices.” And again, this will be news for some of you but for many it may not be. The interesting thing was that most of those practices—in fact, all but one of them—were experiential learning kinds of things, things that happen outside the classroom. There were things like the senior culminating experience, which is a capstone class. There were things like service learning, which is doing fieldwork in a community with a partner to address some specific problem. There were things like study abroad programs. There were things like internships, which included student teaching and clinical placements and other things. What caught my attention in the end was doing research with a faculty member, particularly as an undergraduate. George Kuh found that if students had these high impact practices, it led to a much greater degree of deep learning. Again, I noticed that these practices were experiential things—things happening outside the classroom, things in which people were taking what happened in the classroom and applying it in a certain way that led to deep learning and learning outcomes that you can measure.

For me, another part of all of this is thinking about things in a gospel context, which at Brigham Young University we hope we do. And it struck me that I had probably underestimated the importance of experience in the plan of salvation. We tend to talk on this campus about learning by study and by faith, but as I understand the plan of salvation, one of the primary purposes that we are down here for, in addition to getting a mortal body, is to have experiences—things that we could not learn abstractly up in heaven. It was not sufficient for us to be told there, “Here are the rules. Memorize them. Then you will become like Heavenly Father.” There are things that happen here that can only happen, as I understand it, in a mortal condition. And they are designed to help us learn from our experiences: learn how to distinguish good from evil, learn how to overcome difficulties, learn certain things that, I think, without a body, without this mortal experience, we simply could not do. Now for me, that really cemented my feel, I guess, for the importance of experiential learning.

As I became president and this sort of unfolded in the first couple of years, I asked myself, “What is it that we could really emphasize?” It turns out that for most of those who have been here on campus, experiential learning is not a new concept. We have been doing this for decades and doing it better for decades. But it has not been as intentionally cross-disciplined and university-wide as it might have been. If there is anything that I have done, it is to give meaning to that particular focus, to say that this is really important stuff. It is really important because it leads to deep learning, the kind of thing that any institution would be interested in. It is also important because we are learning what I call a celestial skill set: how to learn from experience in ways that I suspect will continue to bless our lives well beyond our mortal existence. Because we are a university that is sponsored and guided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that became important to me and led to this idea of inspiring learning, which I am actually going to talk about a little bit today in the question-and-answer part. Let me conclude with some of the things I have thought about over the last year about enhancing these experiences, as I have gotten into the literature a little bit to understand more of what is going on.

One is reading about David A. Kolb, who for many people in the management context was the father of experiential learning. In the 1970s he put together a learning model at Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. You see a lot of references going back to that as being sort of the beginning of the modern era of experiential learning. I was struck that David Kolb does not just talk about learning from experience. He said that we learn through reflection upon doing. If we are having the experience by itself, it is not sufficient; it is learning through reflection while we are doing the experience that is experiential learning. That makes sense.

The other thing that came out of reading George Kuh is that he said high impact practices are what he called “relationship rich”; that is, they are dependent upon and also more effective if there is some sort of relationship between the people who are working together. This explains to me why mentored-student research is so important; it helps create this environment that is relationship rich. If I were to ask, “What is experiential learning, now that I look at it?” I would say more reflection—for me, that is an important part of it—and more emphasis on relationships.

Now all of this again ties back into gospel learning. If you think about “see one, do one, teach one,” it sounds a lot like knowing, doing, and becoming—which has resonance with the Marriott School of Business. I think there is an eternal principle here. President Dallin H. Oaks has talked about this kind of thing. And I think reflection could be, if we use a scriptural term, something we might call pondering.

Pondering is important to us not only in this setting, in which we are learning academic and life skills, but in life. There is something about pondering on our experiences. The reason we write in journals and take time to think about things is because a kind of learning occurs while pondering that enhances learning by experience. And experiential learning is, of course, relationship rich. At the end of the day it is relationships that make for a celestial life. Again, what we are learning here is not just what we need to do to get our first job or to get our last job or to succeed in our careers. We are learning how to unlock our full potential as sons and daughters of Heavenly Parents, and experiential learning is a key part of that.

Let me close by saying that for me, this journey has been a revelatory experience, and I am grateful to David Waddell and all the others who have put together this conference—not only this conference but the idea of having an office here on campus that will coordinate how we can learn from one another and enhance our experiences. So thank you for participating in this process and thank you for the work you will do in the near future.

Question-and-Answer Session

Melinda Semadeni: Well, President, thank you for sharing that vision of experiential and inspiring learning with us. When I think about the legacy of BYU and just what we are about, education is really baked into our DNA as members of the Church of Jesus Christ. Sometimes there are questions about the relationship between all the types of learning that we have here at BYU. We do talk about learning a lot, but we have experiential learning, lifelong learning, and inspiring learning. Can you talk about the relationship between those different types of learning and how they connect?

President Worthen: Yes, this is one of those areas in which, I have to confess, I feel I have caused a considerable amount of confusion, about inspiring learning and experiential learning in particular, while tying them in with the aims. I actually have a visual prepared, because I knew this question would come up. For those of you who have known me, from the outset I have focused on the mission of Brigham Young University, and that is where I will start. What I would say is that experiential learning is a type of inspiring learning. It is a subset. It is not the whole thing; they are not completely congruent in that respect. Things that happen in the classroom, for example, are part of what I think is inspiring learning, and inspiring learning is just a two-word summation of the mission statement. The next slide will show you where you can find the aims in the mission statement. I think most people understand that “a BYU education should be (1) spiritually strengthening, (2) intellectually enlarging, and (3) character building, leading to (4) lifelong learning and service.” The aims were intended to be an explication of the mission statement. It is not a new vision; it is tying them in. In the visual of the mission statement, some of the highlighted lines explain “spiritually strengthening,” some explain “intellectually enlarging,” some explain “character building,” and others are about “lifelong learning and service.”

Even with only four aims, I felt the need to say something fairly short and engaging. We did some thinking about these things and actually had some focus groups that we worked with, and we came up with the idea of inspiring learning. The aims all lead to inspiring learning, and those of you not familiar with this—which may include some on campus and certainly some from outside—the idea is inspiring in two senses. One is that it is deeply motivating: we want to motivate and inspire our students to learn. That ought to happen in the classroom, but it certainly ought to happen with experiential learning as well, so it is a kind of deep learning thing that happens. In addition, it is a particular kind of learning: it is learning that is inspiring or that leads to inspiration—or that leads to what I would say is revelation. What you really want is to have students who are deeply motivated to learn as a result of what happens here at the university, and then that motivation causes them to learn in a way that ultimately leads to inspiration or revelation. That is what inspiring learning is, and experiential learning is a type of inspiring learning, which is another way of saying it embodies the aims: “spiritually strengthening,” “intellectually enlarging,” and “character building,” “leading to lifelong learning and service.”

And this is where I started causing confusion, in part with donors and others. I think we have been doing a lot on campus, but people tend to focus so much on the classroom that my emphasis has been on experiential learning as being a type of inspiring learning. It was easier with donors just to say, “Think about inspiring learning; get that concept in your mind. And here is what we are doing.” And what we have emphasized is experiential learning. So you can use them interchangeably. But I want to say that what happens in the classroom is part of inspiring learning as well. It is the traditional kind of teaching, and we want that to also be motivating for the students and to lead to inspiration as well.

That is a long explanation, but I also want to tie it in with lifelong learning. The idea is that all of this learning—inspiring learning, experiential learning, and learning in the classroom—really is designed to help us achieve our full potential as lifelong learners. And, as Brigham Young asked, when does that end? Never, not even in the eternities (see JD 3:203 [17 February 1856]). Again, we are learning one of those celestial skill sets when we believe in lifelong learning. We believe in really, really, really long lives when we talk about that.

Melinda Semadeni: And we have a quest for perfection, right? So how can we not be lifelong learners if we are doing that? Well, our next series of questions from attendees centers more on quality, evaluation, and assessment of this experiential or inspiring learning, and we know that most departments and academic areas decide their own inspiring learning priorities and outcomes. But what is the vision for the overarching university-level outcomes of this inspiring or experiential learning?

President Worthen: We are now getting to a hard question, so I will answer the easy part of that hard question first. Let us go right back to George Kuh, who said when he started this that people asked him, “What one thing could you do to help student success overall?” And he said, “I have no idea.” I can tell you 20 years later that, at least from his perspective, if the students can have two or more high impact practices or experiences during their time here, that would be the one thing that would make the biggest difference in terms of student success overall in deep learning. So they need to have at least two of them. I say this is the easy part of the question because of how are we doing. We participate in NSSE—they do the survey for freshmen and they do it for seniors. In the most recent survey in 2019, of those who were seniors, 94 percent had had one high impact practice or experience; 77 percent had had two or more. So most of them are having them. One measure from a university standpoint is to ask if we can increase those numbers. Can we increase experiential learning in all the facets of the university setting—such as internships, study abroad programs, capstone classes and projects, faculty research, or any of those kinds of things?

We are actually doing quite well in terms of our Carnegie classification. But maybe what would be more important to me is doing well when compared to institutions that have more than 20,000 students, because this is more typical of an emphasis that you would find at a small liberal arts college, and we are trying to do it on a really big scale with a student/faculty ratio that is much higher than that of those larger institutions. So if you look and see our 94 percent compared to other institutions that have 20,000 students, their result is at about 85 percent. Of those who have had two or more experiences, ours have had 77 percent while theirs have had 61 percent. Now that gives us a little comparison. The goal is not to be ahead of the others; the goal ultimately would be to have 100 percent. The aim we want to have for our students, and we want to convey that to the students. It is going to vary from discipline to discipline and, again, it is going to be more obvious in some than others. I am convinced there are insights along those lines that would help faculty. We need to keep in mind that really the students are the end product, and one of the things that we have to uniquely offer is that kind of vision.

Melinda Semadeni: When I think of the students at BYU, even with increased enrollments that are coming, and how we continue to offer these quality experiences, how can we help them understand? If you could speak to students who, frankly, may not understand that they are having experiential learning as part of their day or their work or in an internship or field study, what would you say to the students in terms of how they could catch that vision and understand it better?

President Worthen: The temptation is to say, “Take out the earbuds and put away social media,” which is sort of getting to a practical level in a sense. But really the idea is that we say, “Give some thought and be more grateful for the experience you are having.” When I think about it, maybe we want to tell the students to give some thought and to say, “Isn’t this wonderful?” It is so easy to get caught up in what are very stringent academic demands for our students and just go live life one day at a time, from one assignment to the next assignment to the next assignment, and miss out on all the things that are good. I have found that if you say to people (and psychologists have found this to be true), “Tell me ten things that you are grateful for,” their perspective changes and they become more self-aware in terms of the good things that are happening to them and the good things that are happening around them. I am sort of rambling a little, but we want to get them in a sense to spend more time, to just take a little bit more time each day, pondering and reflecting, not necessarily on any class the student is doing but just on life overall.

Melinda Semadeni: When you were talking at your inauguration, I was struck by how you talked about the vision of “going to the mountains” and how the overarching theme was to see beyond (“Enlightened, Uplifted, and Changed,” BYU devotional address, 9 September 2014). As we think about this vision of BYU, as we think about our heritage, and as we come up on a pretty significant anniversary as a university, how can we capture that vision to be into that next century? What would that look like for the university and what would that look like for the faculty and students to be able to have that inspiring learning infused into all that we do?

President Worthen: I think it would be a place in which there is a more unified approach to these kinds of things. It would be an effort that is rightly decentralized and organized by discipline and college, but we would be able to have this kind of discussion. The Office of Experiential Learning would connect the various disciplines and centralize the interactions—not only as a clearinghouse but also as a place of instruction and a place in the community in which there are discussions between individuals saying, “This is what it looks like in my department,” or, even better, “This is what it looks like in my life.” Having those conversations across interdisciplinary lines would really make this a place in which exciting things will happen and in which we can celebrate the successes of everyone, even outside of our own departments and anywhere else, recognizing the commonality that we have.