Student Reflections on Personal and Professional Growth after a 16-Week Immersive, Experiential Learning Program in Equine Science 1

By Splan, Rebecca K.; Brooks, Ryan M. et al. | NACTA Journal, March 2016 | Go to article overview

Student Reflections on Personal and Professional Growth after a 16-Week Immersive, Experiential Learning Program in Equine Science 1


Splan, Rebecca K., Brooks, Ryan M., Porr, C. A. Shea, NACTA Journal


Introduction

Recent surveys find many college graduates unprepared for employment, with increasing employer emphasis on transferable skills (e.g., communication, collaboration, problem-solving, scientific literacy) rather than specific knowledge or technical proficiencies (Fischer, 2013; Hart Research Associates, 2015). As a result, educators must devise alternative ways to deliver student-centered, authentic experiences that promote both personal and professional growth (Brickman et al., 2009; National Research Council [NRC], 2009). Immersive, experiential learning programs can offer new ways to supplement traditional classroom- or laboratory-based curricula and develop soft skills desired by employers (Hodge et al., 2011).

Experience-based learning allows students to create new knowledge through transformation of experience (Kolb, 1984). Kolb's learning cycle generally begins with students participating in a concrete experience, upon which they reflect, generalize and draw inference through abstract conceptualization, adjust their worldview to incorporate this new information, and then form and test these new hypotheses through active experimentation and a subsequent concrete experience. Experiential learning in authentic contexts, reflecting student career interests and declared learning objectives, creates deeper understanding than didactic learning, due to the active, practical and relevant nature of the lessons learned (Manolis et al., 2013). This type of learning is also based in constructivist learning theory, with contextual learning influenced by prior experience (Dewey, 1938), and characterized by dynamic ownership by students of personal knowledge creation (Splan et al., 2011).

Appropriate time for reflection is a large component of experiential learning, although it can be a major limitation in assessing the ability of experiential learning paradigms to effect developmental change in an individual. Personal growth often requires fundamental reframing and altering of one's belief systems, and is often a longterm process (Hodge et al., 2011). Reflection during the experience may provide instructors or facilitators some measure of formative assessment, but students may not realize some program impacts until they have sufficient time to reflect upon the experience or are challenged to transfer their new knowledge to a new situation.

Another key feature of undergraduate learning programs which are successful in promoting personal and professional growth is individualized and group mentoring of students by faculty and staff. Mentoring is often reported to have both career and psychosocial benefits, including academic performance, retention, self-esteem and self-confidence (Kram, 1985; Campbell and Campbell, 1997). A mentoring model for educational settings (Brzosa et al., 1987) identified mentor functions of informal contact, role modeling, direct assistance, demonstration, observation and feedback, and professional development planning assistance. These mentor functions are characteristic of undergraduate agricultural sciences programs, which, by nature, are often experiential in design and offer rich opportunities for faculty- or peer-mentó ring of students (Wolfe et al., 2008).

With this theoretical background in mind, a novel undergraduate learning context was created in 2006 at a major land-grant university which removed students from the typical academic setting and fully immersed them in an intense, highly-authentic learning environment congruent with their motivations and desired career paths. The program targeted equine science students, whose anticipated careers often require a high degree of both technical skill and content knowledge, in addition to general social and scientific competencies (Splan and Porr, 2011).

Initially, the program was located on the university's equine teaching center on the main campus, and was conducted during the summer months from 2006-2009 under the direction of one of the authors. …

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