In his theory of experiential learning, Kolb (1984) argues that learning occurs through a cycle of experience, reflection, thought, and experimentation. Thus, learners make meaning from their experiences when they think about what they have done and re-learn by trying alternative approaches. For authentic learning to occur, students need to be in a “safe space” (Kisfalvi & Oliver, 2015) in which their experimentation is valued. In applying this approach to a university-level professional communication skills course, we have created many unassessed activities and tasks which require the use of the communication skills we are targeting. Our goal is to provide “safe spaces” for the learners to experiment with their skills in a low stakes environment before they are assessed on marked assignments. However, with students’ priority on achieving good grades, their willingness to go through the full process of experiential learning is often interrupted by their desire to ascertain what they believe the instructors want. In this paper, we argue that learning will occur best when instructors create safe and conducive learning spaces, and learners engage in the full experiential learning cycle.
Keywords: Experiential learning, authentic, safe spaces, engagement, experimentation
In higher education, the process of knowledge creation is often viewed as a social activity situated in a community of practice. Wenger-Trayner (2015) defines a community of practice as “a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (p. 1). Students become members of a community of practice by participating in the activities of that community. Learning takes place when the norms, tools, and traditions of the community shape students’ experiences as they gradually transition from novice to expert.
Similarly, in his theory of experiential learning, Kolb (1984) argues that learning occurs through a cycle of experience, reflection, thought, and experimentation. Learners first complete tasks and reflect on their experience, considering what needs to be improved. After the reflection, learners form hypotheses about alternatives strategies for completing the tasks. Experimenting with the insights gained helps learners to build knowledge about which of the possible alternatives work for them and which do not, thus perpetuating their learning cycle. In Kolb’s words, “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (p. 38).
For authentic experiential learning to occur, learners need to move through the full learning cycle, including the experimentation stage. At this stage, learners are given the autonomy to make decisions and must bear the responsibility for the results of their choices. However, with the inherent risk of failure, students may feel insecure and unsafe (Kisfalvi & Oliver, 2015) during the experimentation stage. Some may be reluctant to step out of their comfort zone and take such risks, especially with high-stakes graded assignments.
In most higher education institutions, evaluation of student learning is an integral part of the learning experience. Professors spend much of their time creating and marking assignments and exams, designed to identify and reward those students who have mastered the material. Students naturally focus on doing what it takes to achieve high marks in their assignments and exams, at times substituting exam strategies for real learning. With grades at stake, many students prefer to avoid experimenting during their learning and default to what worked sufficiently well previously or what they believe will grant them the highest marks. As noted by Ryan and Deci (2000), such focus on extrinsic reward can drive out intrinsically motivated learning. Schlechty (2011) terms this behaviour as “strategic compliance” when learners make strategic decisions to comply with the requirements without finding personal meaning in the work that they do. To enhance experiential learning and achieve growth-producing experiences (Kolb & Kolb, 2005), learners need to move beyond strategic compliance and be actively engaged in the full learning cycle. Therefore, it is important to create the space for students to see the relevance of what they are learning and to develop an appreciation of the skills they need.
For learning to be effective, learners need to be sufficiently engaged to persist when they face challenges. As Petrie illustrated in his resilience model of learning (2017; as cited in Russel, 2017), there is often a dip in performance when learners move out of their comfort zone. However, mistakes made during the experimentation stage may be necessary to unlock students’ opportunities for potential learning (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Petrie’s resilience model of learning (Source: Russell, 2017)
To maximize their potential, learners require the resilience and commitment to persevere through the complete cycle of experiential learning.
In order to help students persevere in a grade-driven educational context, instructors must create a “safe space” (Kisfalvi & Oliver, 2015, p. 721) in which students’ experimentation is valued. It is the creation of such safe spaces within a graded university-level professional communication course that is the subject of this paper. We will start by providing the context of the module that we teach. We will then describe how we implement a form of experiential learning and provide safe learning spaces for our students. We will conclude by describing the impact of this approach on our students and drawing implications from our work.
THE MODULE CONTEXT
Business and Technical Communication (known as IS2101) is a 48-hour customised professional communication skills module offered by the Centre for English Language Communication for the department of Information Systems and Analytics at the School of Computing, National University of Singapore. Our students are mostly first and second year undergraduates majoring in information systems or business analytics. They join the module with a generally high proficiency in English, but with minimal professional experience. The main aim of the module is to provide an opportunity for these students to enhance their professional communication skills to prepare them for working in information-technology related organizations.
Applying the Competency Pivot Approach
In developing this module, we have adapted Lucas and Rawlins (2015) Competency Pivot approach, which identifies two guiding principles and five core competencies. The two principles are: being goal-oriented and receiver-centric; and the five competencies include being professional, clear, concise, evidence-driven, and persuasive. In accordance with this approach, for each task, the students move through a process of strategic analysis, decision-making, and execution to tailor the way they communicate in a professional setting (see Figure 2).
During the analysis stage, the students examine the context, audience, and purpose for the communication. They then make decisions about the content, organization, and lexical choices of the discourse in order to ensure that the communication is professional, clear, concise, evidence-driven, and persuasive. Finally, in the execution stage, they deliver the required written, oral or visual products, completing the communicative task.
Figure 2. Tailoring communication
We discuss and apply Lucas and Rawlins’s (2015) two principles and five competencies during nearly all of our tutorial sessions. For example, when analysing sample email messages, the students identify the instrumental, identity, and relational goals of the writer, and whether the writer took into consideration the receiver when crafting the message. Where there are faults, we ask the students to specify in which competency area the writer needs to improve. Most importantly, we use the two principles and five competencies as the basis for each of our assignment marking rubrics. The descriptors for each component differentiate the students’ application of these competencies from excellent to poor.
Applying an Experiential Approach
In applying Kolb’s (1984) experiential approach to IS2101, we begin by simulating an IT workplace environment. We strive to create a scenario of a fictitious local subsidiary of an actual IT company. Students assume the role of an IT consultant working in this subsidiary and complete in-class activities and marked assignments as if they are responding to requests from their bosses or meeting with and/or presenting to colleagues and customers of this company. The main communication topics and marked assignments include writing an email and a business proposal, delivering oral presentations, and conducting/participating in meetings. While the email is written individually, the proposal, oral presentations and meetings are group tasks.
Following Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning cycle (described in the introduction), for each topic and its related tasks, the students experience the communicative situation and are encouraged to reflect on what they have done in order to draw conclusions about what they have learned. We require two forms of evidence of their reflections: a logbook and a brief report of their contribution to the group assignments. In the report, the students identify their own and their groupmates’ contribution to the writing of the business proposal and the related pitch presentation. They are asked to score themselves and their groupmates along a continuum from ‘little contribution’ to ‘goes beyond the call of duty’ and explain their evaluation. Thus, their descriptions should provide evidence for the scores they give.
In the logbook, the students record their experiences during the module, the feedback they have received from their peers and tutor, and the lessons they believe they are learning. They are encouraged to go beyond listing events and engage in deeper reflection. The students use these reflections to conduct a final meeting, loosely based on a 360-degree appraisal commonly used in many companies for their annual review exercise. The students meet to comment on and respond to one another’s reflections on their individual contributions and group’s performance over the semester. They use such categories as “teamwork,” “interpersonal communication,” “leadership,” and “problem solving” to frame the discussion. The result is often a deeper appreciation of the strengths of each team member, a heightened awareness of individual growth areas, and some practical suggestions for the way forward.
As briefly described above, one of the main challenges we have implementing this approach is that our students often hesitate to engage in the full experiential learning cycle. Being concerned about achieving good grades, students may not be willing to experiment with their communication patterns, even after reflecting on their recent communication experiences. Thus, learning is often interrupted by the students’ desire to ascertain what they believe the instructors want and what will assure them of a good grade.
In line with Schlechty’s (2011) idea of “strategic compliance”, students would rather comply with what they think would lead to a good grade than fully engage in the experimental phase of the experiential learning cycle. In order to avoid possible mistakes or a dip in performance quality, more risk-averse students may try to comply with what they think their professors want or what they have done successfully in the past. Some of them may become frustrated when they perceive the opportunities to take risks and make decisions based on their own judgment as a lack of guidance or clear instructions from the professors.
In IS2101, this frustration was evident in some of the comments students gave in the course evaluation:
Instructions were vague and marking rubrics were ambiguous, and students were left to wonder if their work would score well. Effort put into work did not translate well into grades.
At times, especially in the beginning of the semester, assignments are quite open-ended and given vaguely, with little guidance on what is actually required of students.
Why can’t the module just be normal…?
Obviously, these students were expecting to be provided with guidelines that they could comply with rather than an opportunity to exercise their judgment. Yet, to unlock their full learning potential, students need such challenges to take them out of their comfort zone and to provide an opportunity for them to experiment and learn from their choices. Consequently, the question remains: how do we encourage grade-focused university undergraduates to move beyond strategic compliance and engage fully in experiential learning? We believe part of the answer lies in the concept of creating safe learning spaces.
Safe Learning Spaces
The concept of learning spaces in higher education has been around for a while. Winnicott (1989) wrote that the experiential classroom can provide a “transitional space” in which learners progress from “not knowing to knowing” (as cited in Kisfalvi & Oliver, 2015, p. 722). Kolb and Kolb (2005) linked experiential learning with learning spaces when they wrote, “Experiential learning in higher education can be achieved through the creation of learning spaces that promote growth-producing experiences for learners” (p. 205). Kisfalvi and Oliver (2015) develop the idea of learning spaces as places for students to experiment and get feedback from their peers and professors so that they could move towards greater self-confidence in their learning.
However, for learning to occur through experimentation, students need to feel safe. The concept of a safe space includes physical and psychological safety. The fear of rejection, criticism or poor evaluation from others could inhibit a student from engaging in the learning process. Kisfalvi and Oliver (2015) also suggest that a safe space is created when there are clear boundaries, mutual trust and respect, high quality listening, and a suspension of judgment and censorship. Certainly, with grade-conscious students, the first and last of these characteristics are particularly important.
When creating safe learning spaces, instructors need to provide clear boundaries. In discussions, these boundaries could include ground rules about how the discussion will proceed and/or types of comments about others’ ideas that are expected (e.g., comment on the idea without belittling the speaker). For other types of communicative tasks, the boundaries may include specifying the context, audience, and purpose of the discourse so that the students are less at risk of being ‘off-task’ when making their decisions about the content, structure, and lexical items. In addition, instructors should provide students with opportunities to experiment without being judged or censored. In the university classroom, this typically means unmarked tasks and activities for which the risk of poor performance will not pull down one’s grade for the course.
In Business and Technical Communication, our goal is to provide a safe learning space for our students. We do this in several ways. First of all, we establish project teams of 4-5 students during the first tutorial lesson. Our intention is that the students need time to build the trust necessary for them to feel safe with one another. Knowing that they will be working together for the whole 12-week semester should persuade them to invest the energy it takes to build trust. Secondly, we encourage our students to experiment with their communication skills in low-stakes, ungraded activities before they are assessed on marked assignments. For example, we introduce meeting skills in the beginning of the semester through a mini-lecture, and the students make ungraded presentations on the meeting culture of the fictitious subsidiary they “work for.” Subsequently, they are expected to use what they have learned about meeting skills in out-of-class team meetings that they arrange for the purpose of completing the group-based assignments. Their meeting skills are formally assessed only at the end of the semester during their 360-degree appraisal meeting.
Thirdly, during the many unmarked communication tasks, the students have the opportunity to receive feedback from their peers and the instructor using the same criteria that will be applied during the marked assignments. As described previously, we have created marking rubrics using the two principles of being goal-oriented and receiver-centric and using the five competencies of being professional, clear, concise, evidence-driven, and persuasive. These criteria and the related descriptors are used when providing feedback to the students on the unmarked in-class activities in the same way as they will be applied during the marked assignments. By providing many opportunities for feedback using the same criteria, we not only model how to give appropriate, respectful feedback, but also provide the opportunity for students to become comfortable with the assessment criteria that will eventually be used during marking.
Finally, to create a safe space for experiential learning, we arrange the marked assignments from lower-weighted tasks at the start of the module to higher-weighted tasks at the end of the module. Again, our intention is to reduce the impact of grades at the start, when the students are still settling into the course, building trust with one another, and understanding the assessment criteria. The assignments that carry more marks for the final course grade come at the end, after the students are quite familiar (and hopefully feel safe with) the assessment criteria. While not perfect, IS2101 has many of the characteristics of a safe learning space.
IMPACT AND IMPLICATIONS
Our experience of providing safe spaces for students in this module shows that these learners have become more reflective learners who tap on their personal experiences to grow. With the element of grades removed as a motivator in unmarked assignments, the students move away from strategic compliance to engagement, which promotes a deep approach to learning that, according to Biggs and Tang (2011) emphasizes meaningful understanding and a mastery of concepts. As a result, students’ motivation comes from their appreciation of the relevance of what they are learning to the workplace. Schlechty (2011) describes the engaged student as committed, persistent, and motivated. Committed students voluntarily deploy their time, energy, and attention to learning without the promise of extrinsic rewards or threats of negative consequences. Persistent students stay committed to a task despite difficulties or poor results. Motivated students find meaning and value in the tasks themselves and have the drive to press on until better results emerge.
Comments taken from student reflections and feedback show the impact of our approach in three areas:
Learning from experience – Students indicated that by working with their team-mates they realized the importance of interpersonal skills. They also appreciated the safe learning space since it allowed students to practice without fear. This realization is indicated by the following comments:
Working with my teammates every lesson … has made me realise how important having interpersonal skills is. Whether it is during meetings, or group work, or group presentations, making it a point to know and understand, interact properly with your teammates is the key to making a group function well, and everything else will start to fall into place once a group is on the same page, while being friendly, cordial and helpful to one another.
This is an important skill especially when we enter the workforce in the extremely near future.
I enjoyed that the module provided us a means to practice real world communication skills in a controlled/safe environment. This enabled us to practice without fear of backlash.
Less focus on grades – The biggest backlash that students fear is that their grades will suffer if they make mistakes. However, within a safe learning space, students were more willing to take risks. Of course, this is an undergraduate module that includes marked assignments. Grades are important. However, there is sufficient safe space given so that the students effectively engage in the process of learning from experience and appreciate the value of what they have learnt, not just the grades. Feedback to support this includes the following:
Not gonna lie, I struggled a lot … and I kinda failed to adapt quickly enough to the work given, and it kinda showed in my grades. I recognised my weaknesses for the module though … and I enjoyed learning a lot from the experience itself. That wouldn’t have been possible without me recognising that I lack certain core skills in order to actually work well in a technical environment, and I’d like to thank you and the module for exposing the weakness in me and giving me the opportunity to grow from it.
Paying more attention to feedback – As engagement increased, students saw mistakes as opportunities for learning and not the cause of poor grades. As a result, receiving feedback, especially constructive criticism, became less threatening and was better appreciated. Reflecting on outcomes helped the students to understand and reshape their thinking as they applied what they had learned to new contexts and situations. This focus on feedback is important in experiential learning as reflection and experimentation lead to further reflection and more experimentation. Students’ comments show this growing awareness:
I received some useful feedback after my impromptu presentation, which I felt was effective in helping me improve. For the pitch presentation, I think I should try to speak more naturally, which will also help my audience better relate to me.
While giving and receiving feedback, I learned that it is important to be open to criticism. I will learn from my mistakes only if I acknowledge them. I gained important skills in giving feedback and receiving feedback. More importantly, I learned how to handle constructive criticism. These skills can be put to use in the future when I enter the workforce.
To conclude, our application of experiential learning shows much promise as an exciting approach that bears fruit when students are fully engaged in the learning process. In this paper, we have argued that students will be more likely to engage in the full experiential learning cycle when instructors create a safe and conducive learning space. It is clear that these safe spaces must be carefully put together and intentionally created by instructors committed to their students’ learning process. When such spaces are present, students may be more likely to shift from focusing on grades to learning from their experience. It is through such authentic and meaningful experiences that students discover the relevance and find the joy of learning.
Austin, R. (2020). Designing better courses: Blending the best of pre- and post-pandemic pedagogy. Harvard Business Publishing (Education).
Biggs, J. B., & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university (4th ed.). Buckingham: Open University Press.
Kegan. R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Harvard University Press.
Kisfalvi, V., & Oliver, D. (2015). Creating and maintaining a safe space in experiential learning. Journal of Management Education. 39(6), 713-740.
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Prentice-Hall.
Kolb, A. Y., & Kolb, D. A. (2005). Learning styles and learning spaces: Enhancing experiential learning in higher education. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 4(2), 193-212.
Kolb, A. Y., & Kolb, D. A. (2009). Experiential learning theory: a dynamic, holistic approach to management learning, education and development. In S. J. Armstrong & C. V. Fukami (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of management learning, education and development (pp. 42-68). SAGE Publications. https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9780857021038.n3
Lucas, K., & Rawlins, J. D. (2015). The competency pivot: Introducing a revised approach to the business communication curriculum. Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, 78(2), 167-193.
Russell, M. (2017, December 25). Building credibility in the Workplace. The Startup. https://medium.com/swlh/strategic-leadership-building-credibility-in-the-workplace-4b99e125635f
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68
Schlechty, P. C. (2011). Engaging students: The next level of working on the work. Jossey-Bass.
Wenger-Trayner, E., & Wenger-Trayner, B. (2015). Introduction to communities of practice: A brief overview of the concept and its use. Retrieved June 27, 2022, from https://wenger-trayner.com/introduction-to-communities-of-practice/
Winnicott, D. W. (1989). Playing and Reality. Routledge.