Experiential Learning FAQ

Experiential Learning FAQ

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What is Experiential Learning (EL)?

In most of our courses, we bring into our classrooms research, ideas, materials, and theories to help our students learn about a particular topic or discipline. In experiential learning, we take our students out of the classroom to help them test and practice what they have learned in new or different settings. We see this clearly in fieldwork and education abroad, but also in practicums and in courses that engage in project-based learning with partners outside the class.

Often, students pursue EL individually when they participate in an internship, in undergraduate research opportunities like UCARE or working in a faculty member’s research lab, or when they write a thesis.

How does EL benefit students?

EL can help students transfer what they learn in class into different contexts, expanding their knowledge of a topic or enriching skills through application and practice. EL enhances students’ understanding of the relevance of their education to employment and to participating in their communities. Because reflection is a critical component of EL, students will be challenged to make connections between what they’ve done and what they hope to do in the future, either through advanced education or employment.

Will every major have to require an EL opportunity? Will every department?

No. Students can participate in any EL opportunity that has been certified by any college on campus, they do not need to participate in one offered by their major or even by their college.

Some majors in the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) already require students to participate in research (chemistry) or education abroad/global learning (global studies) or fieldwork (geology), and others encourage and count specific EL in their majors (anthropology, sociology). If a particular type of EL helps to advance the learning outcomes of the major, then it makes sense to allow it to apply to your major and perhaps consider requiring it. The associate dean for undergraduate education can help you think through what you might need to put in place to ensure all of your majors could participate, but no major or department will be required to add or accept an EL course.

Will every faculty member have to lead an EL opportunity?

No. Faculty continue to determine whether they take on an individual EL student who asks to do research in their lab, participate in a UCARE project, or advise a thesis.

What resources can the college provide for an instructor who wants to create a new experiential learning course in order to help mitigate the time investment of creating a course from scratch?

Faculty can apply for a grant through the CAS Instructional Improvement Fund. The deadline has been extended to Feb. 1, 2022.

I’ve already been working with students on individual EL opportunities, and it is a lot of work! I’m afraid this requirement will add bureaucracy and paperwork and take up time I should be spending on research and teaching.

There are key components to individualized EL opportunities, like planning and reflection, that can be done in common ways for any discipline, leaving the actual academic work, assigned alongside the experience, up to department faculty. Academic advisors and career coaches both offer unique expertise in this area to complement your expertise in the discipline.

Our plans include facilitating this collaboration to alleviate administrative burden from departments and faculty. For example, best practices for internships are well established through the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a professional organization to which career development professionals like our career coaches belong. Helping students with the logistics of setting up EL and leading them through reflective activities that help them make connections to their future goals is central to their roles in the college.

How will college-wide EL courses using the designator CASC impact department revenues based on the new budget model?

It won’t. Most of the college-wide CASC courses are zero credit to allow students to document their experience without paying tuition for it, therefore there is no revenue. However, for any credit-bearing course, including CASC 395, the tuition is allocated 75% to the college of the instructor (not to individual departments) and 25% to the college of the students’ primary major.

I’m still concerned that making this a requirement will increase faculty workloads that will not be recognized or compensated. How will CAS recognize the time, expertise, and labor faculty invest?

Faculty who contribute to student EL will be credited for their work in the context of their teaching or service apportionments. Academic unit leaders and the Dean’s Office are responsible for ensuring fair and equitable workloads for all faculty and for ensuring that merit and promotion and tenure recommendations reflect the total contributions of all faculty. Additionally, some courses that are certified as EL will be part of a faculty member’s regular course load (e.g., MATH 435: Math in the City, ENGL 380: Writing Center Theory, Practice, and Research, and GEOL 460 Summer Field Course). Requests for counting EL courses/labs as part of a faculty member’s teaching load or as part of service apportionment should be made with academic unit leaders. Similarly, academic units can consider workload polices that recognize sustained and extensive contributions to the supervision of student EL in future course scheduling. The associate dean for faculty can help advise faculty and chairs/directors concerning these arrangements.

Why make EL a requirement? Why not just encourage students to engage in these opportunities?

First, making it a requirement increases equity in two important ways:

  1. We will develop clear processes that make these opportunities visible and the processes for arranging and engaging in them straightforward. As we tell our students, Academics + Experience = Opportunities.  EL is one of the most valuable ways that students can position themselves for quality after-graduation opportunities like employment or advanced education. We encourage all our students to participate in research, education abroad, and internships, and many do, but it is not always clear to students how to get started.  In fact, it hasn’t always been clear to our advisors how to help them get started. Right now, the burden is often on students to figure it all out, and many give up because they lack the tine or institutional knowledge needed to arrange the experiences. We also know that there is a significant amount of EL happening without connection to a course, and without the critical planning and reflection that accompany it.
  2. It becomes part of the culture, something everyone does. By normalizing EL, students more readily engage with the people and resources available to help them support them in the planning and arrangements.

Second, making it a requirement enables us to help students plan and carve time for these experiences. We do not want this requirement to be a barrier to anyone, and so that is why many of the opportunities will be zero credit so there is no additional financial cost to students.  But of course, costs for students also come in the form of time and effort; making this a requirement helps them understand the time commitment involved and incorporate it into their busy lives. Effort is always part of earning a degree, but we want to make sure the effort goes into the learning and not into setting up the experience. 

Finally, faculty groups involved in both the N150 vision and the N2025 strategic plan recognized the importance of EL for student success, and they said they wanted all students to engage in at least one EL activity and that they wanted it to be on their transcripts.  The proposal to make EL a requirement came from these two campus-wide visioning initiatives.

Will making EL a requirement really establish equitable participation? Education Abroad is costly and not all internships are paid. Won’t this requirement be a burden on students with financial need?

This is a genuine concern. Dean Button has been raising money that will enable students with financial barriers to pursue the experiences they want to pursue, so that a student might receive a stipend that makes it possible for them to participate in an unpaid internship or to increase the number of Education Abroad scholarships we can offer. These efforts alone won’t eliminate the equity gap in who participates in these opportunities, but they help. And connecting students with career coaches will also help them identify all the alternatives for pursuing EL in a way that meets their needs.

Won’t making it a requirement shift the nature of student’s engagement in the opportunities?

Some faculty have raised this concern and pointed to students’ lackluster participation in required classes they have taught. While it is likely that not all students will engage in these opportunities with the same motivations, we are incorporating the planning for EL into scheduled advising meetings for CAS students so that at multiple points throughout their four years, our students will be talking with advisors and career coaches about their goals and what opportunities best fit their interests and plans. Students will have a lot of options, the purpose/value of many of the options will be evident beyond the need to check a specific box.  In short, the experiences are all things (most) students want to do and will help them achieve their goals for what comes next.

You’ve said students are already engaging in a lot of EL. Can you give us data demonstrating what we know about what they have been doing?

One of the benefits of campus adopting an EL requirement is that it will help us to identify and count more of the EL that students have been engaged in. We know that we have been under-counting this activity. In the table below, we share the number of students enrolled in CAS each term, and the number of students engaged in each of the following types of EL during the Spring 2019, Summer 2019, and Fall 2019 terms. We chose these terms because they are the most recent terms that were not negatively impacted by COVID-19.

Spring 2019Summer 2019Fall 2019Total for 2019

Total Enrollment



Enrolled in research course 39 17 35 91
Enrolled in fieldwork course 0 14 0 14
Participating in UCARE 122 54 105 281
Enrolled in Education Abroad 64 142 87 293
Internship for credit 67 30 50 147
Submitting a thesis 53 2 8 63
Total 345 259 285 889

The table above significantly undercounts our students engaging in EL in a few ways:

  • It does not include students working in faculty research labs on grants or as volunteers if they were not involved in UCARE or enrolled in an existing research course. Under the new plan, students could register for a zero-credit course that would appear on their transcripts and allow you to know how many of your majors were taking part in undergraduate research.
  • It undercounts the number of students participating in internships. Currently, there is no incentive for students to register for an internship course and in fact, many students avoid it because of the cost. CAS created the zero-credit option to enable more students to represent this work on their transcripts without additional cost to them, but this is still relatively new and under-utilized.
  • It does not include EL courses beyond the existing research and fieldwork courses. If the proposal to make EL a requirement passes, we will establish a mechanism for designating EL courses. Until that designation exists, we cannot count enrollments in the courses.

Since we have roughly 4200 students and everyone would need at least one EL experience in their four years, we can expect to identify roughly 1050 opportunities a year. In 2019, even with all of our undercounting, we identified nearly 900 EL experiences in CAS. This is admittedly back-of-the-envelope math. We know students can pursue EL opportunities throughout the university, and some will take advantage of opportunities offered by other colleges. We also know (and hope!) some of our students will pursue more than one EL opportunity, so 1050 opportunities is likely the minimum, but we are clearly in reach of the goal.

The dean is actively fundraising to support students who wish to pursue internships and education abroad; we anticipate these two areas will be our greatest areas of growth in EL in the coming years.

How will courses be certified for EL?

The CAS Curriculum and Advising Committee will establish simple criteria and a form for proposing a course for EL designation.

  • Permanent courses: opportunities to apply learning in an outside-the-classroom context or to design and implement original research​. These will primarily be 300- and 400-level courses because students should enter these disciplinary courses with at least a foundation in the discipline.
  • Individual courses: (e.g. research, thesis, internship) can be either zero-credit or for credit experiences. All require clear methods for planning and reflection along with academic work.

Independent study, special topics, and transfer credit may be possible by substitution.

What kinds of assessments will be required of EL courses?

There will not be any additional assessments required of EL courses, rather, departments will be asked every three years if the course continues to meet the EL designation.

Have the other colleges at UNL passed this requirement?

Yes. CASNR, CoB, CoE, CoARCH, HLCoFPA, CEHS and CoJMC have passed it.

Will NSF funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) count? These are often at other institutions and are quite competitive.

Yes. When students pursue experiential learning opportunities through other intuitions (e.g. an REU or an education abroad opportunity through another institution), they can work with their advisors to have the experience count toward the requirement.

Regarding education abroad: you want to recognize only faculty-led study abroad programs?

We can only certify courses offered by UNL as meeting the Experiential Learning requirement. When students pursue experiential learning opportunities through other intuitions (e.g. an REU or an education abroad opportunity through another institution), they can work with their advisors to have the experience count toward the requirement.

The current definition and the outline provided isn't very clear and I worry that the undergraduate curriculum committee who reviews these proposed courses will not have a clear set of guidelines on how to assess what courses meet the spirit of the requirement.

The college curriculum committee will use the criteria outlined for the university by Academic Solutions Council for existing group courses. For individual experiential courses like internship and research, we will seek a syllabus that outlines the planning/logistics process, a set of academic learning outcomes, and the reflection process.

Pedagogically speaking, you are asking career coaches to help students connect theory and practice and they are simply not trained to do that. The career coaches are not educated in the disciplines from which students are coming and therefore any reflection pieces done in the CASC course (such as the final reflection paper which I assume should be a meaningful reflection on how this experience connects to theories and practices in their disciplines) will be meaningless since it will not be done by an expert in the field.

The career coaches have significant expertise in how a variety of experiences relate to careers and employer needs. While they are not experts within the academic disciplines, they are well versed in helping students plan and prepare for experiences, and in helping them reflect upon them in ways that allow a student to understand and articulate connection to future opportunities, either in advanced education or employment. The department designated version of the internship course is a good collaboration that allows the department to set the academic work and the career coaches to help in the planning and reflection processes.

Will the college provide funding to hire graduate teaching assistants to help with experiential learning courses?

The college provides funding support for graduate teaching assistants and works with academic units to assign teaching assistants to areas of greatest instructional need and student impact. In consultation with the college and in support of our goals to improve academic and career outcomes for our students, academic units may request to utilize college and NUF funding to assist with experiential learning opportunities.

My concern is the burden we will place on the local organizations/nonprofits and community organizations that will all of a sudden see an influx of students from UNL looking to fulfill this requirement. How do you ensure that students who take these opportunities are prepared for the organization where they will work? How do you ensure they are doing this experience because it matters to them rather than to just tick a requirement?

Maintaining the trust and confidence of our national and community partners is a priority for every unit in the college and at UNL. The college will be adding additional staff positions to assist with community outreach and coordination as well as student planning and preparation. Students will have a variety of different ways to fulfill the EL requirement – both on and off campus – and the college’s academic advisors and career coaches have the expertise to assist students in aligning their choice of an EL opportunity with their academic and career interests.