Experiential Learning and Retention

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The Presence team is made up of student affairs professionals and former student government leaders with a passion for student engagement. We know the first hand importance of experiential learning and its relation to student retention. We came across an article written by Kimberly A. White called Experiential Learning and Retention that we thought was worth a share. I hope you all enjoy this as much as we did!

As a student affairs professional who lives in the world of experiential learning, I firmly believe that getting students involved in active learning through co-curricular involvement positively impacts retention, particularly for at-risk students. Research on retention and involvement in student activities as well as service-learning projects seems to support my thoughts on the subject. Moore, Lovell, McGann, and Wyrick (1998)* found that personal development is best achieved when students are involved outside of the classroom, particularly when they engage in a diverse set of projects, experiences, and activities. This fits in beautifully with Astin’s theory of involvement as well as Kuh’s work, suggesting the abundant gains that come with participation. Students who engage with experiences outside of the classroom may feel a greater connection to the campus, more supported by faculty, staff, and students in the community, as well as gain a better understanding of themselves as learners and future professionals.

While the literature focuses mainly on student activities, with some research being done on service-learning and student development, I believe that some of these gains can be experienced in high-impact practices such as internships. In one of my previous posts on how critical reflection supports experiential learning, I outline the gains that our students have experienced through reflecting on their internship experiences at Birmingham-Southern. I wanted to take my thoughts on the subject a step further, and consider the ways in which both critical reflection and experiential learning could influence retention. While my thoughts are mostly centered around individual students who participate in these activities, supporting just one student’s journey from beginning to end on this campus impacts retention.


While I’ve discussed the merits of critical reflection and unpacking a single experiential learning practice through writing, I believe that the same is true for the college experience as a whole. I’ve found that the students I’ve worked with so far tend to reflect beyond the internship in their writing, often examining their college experience holistically and how this experience has supported their learning and development.This process could be transformative for students who are deciding on their academic and professional goals; engaging with coursework outside of the classroom, realizing their strengths and opportunities for growth, and how they can choose their major or course of study to fit in with where they excel and what their interests may be. As students begin to clarify their goals and form an academic plan to achieve them, they may be more invested in the institution. I also believe that by bringing their experiences inside the classroom to life, that some students may be positively influenced by the practical application of their studies and how they could have an impact on the community. It can be significant for some students to truly observe the fruits of their labor, both inside and outside of the classroom. This practice may both clarify academic and professional goals for students, as well as increase their “love of learning,” boosting both morale and enthusiasm for their work.


When students become involved with activities outside of the classroom, particularly those that take place in the surrounding community, their assumptions about themselves, their institution, their coursework, and a host of other things are put to the test. While this may further exacerbate negative assumptions, I would argue that in some students are pushed to reconsider some of their previous presumptions about their college experience through participating in co-curricular activities. They may interact with different groups of students by way of the experience, meet students at neighboring institutions, or engage in dialogue with community members. When given the chance to reflect on their experiential learning experiences, students may realize that some of their attitudes have changed over the course of the term, in addition to making more connections with students and alumni of the institution – all things that could positively impact both our students and retention. Again, some students may find that their assumptions are true, or that exposure to different perspectives did not have a significant impact. But, if we can improve the college experience for some students by way of experiential learning, and encouraging them to stay with us, then we have increased retention rates.

While experiential learning cannot solve every issue regarding retention, I do believe in the positive effects that these experiences have on our students. What are your thoughts on experiences outside of the classroom?

*Moore, J., Lovell, C.D., McGann, T., Wyrick, J. (1998). Why involvement matters: A review of research on student involvement in the collegiate setting. College Student Affairs Journal, 17(2), 4-17.

Reposted with permission from Kimberly A. White Internship Coordinator at Birmingham-Southern College

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