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Developing a Well-Worn Path Between Classroom and Workplace Through Managed Experiential Learning

Jody L. Mattern

NDSTA Journal
Volume 16, 2003


A hybrid classroom/experiential model activity is presented. This model was designed to serve as an intermediate step between classroom instruction and full-time internships. The curriculum allows participants to interact with clients from area businesses with frequent classroom instruction interspersed. Steinaker and Bell’s Taxonomy of Experiential Learning (1979) was used as a guide. The sequence outlined in the Taxonomy--exposure, participation, identification, internalization, and dissemination--was applied during research, plan writing, and creative development segments. Both students and clients completed evaluations with largely positive results. More-frequent communication between clients and students, between instructor and clients, and between instructor and students was recommended.

Key Words: experiential learning, education, public relations

About the author.

Teaching Objective: To develop a hybrid classroom/experiential learning model designed to serve as an intermediate step between classroom instruction and full-time internships.

Course: The class was planned for use in a public relations campaigns class, but the format would be applicable to other topic areas.

It has long been accepted that genuine empirical knowledge must have experiential content (Keeton, 1976). Yet, experiential learning, defined as “knowledge of the everyday world of human action,” is yet to find a prominent place in secondary learning curriculums. Even though a student may have one full-time internship experience in their senior year, classroom instruction has remained the dominant teaching method, largely because of concerns related to cost, time, risks, and effectiveness (Keaton, 1976).
Professionals in the public relations field commonly complain that new college graduates lack practical experience and have little concept of how things are done in the “real world.” If senior level students were exposed to more experiential learning activities before graduation, it would benefit them in their job searches.

This class activity was designed to serve as a bridge between traditional classroom activities and full-time internships. The curriculum allows participants to interact with actual clients from area businesses in a professional manner, yet on a controlled basis with frequent classroom instruction interspersed. Students learn principles in the classroom that they immediately apply to their clients’ situations; then they return to the classroom to share their experiences with others.

Brain-based learning principles tell us that students learn from relating to others (Cain & Cain, 1994). According to social learning theory, what we learn is determined by reinforcing response-feedback systems (Bandura, 1985). Social reinforcement consists of feedback from the external environment, an element not possible with classroom learning alone. In this case, learning occurs because participants are able to see that their actions have consequences. These consequences are immediate, not separated by months or years, as is the time between traditional classroom activities and actual employment.

This semester-long class was planned using Steinaker and Bell’s (1979) Taxonomy of Experiential Learning (see Table 1). These authors contend that experiential learning occurs in a sequence of definable categories: exposure, participation, identification, internalization, and dissemination. Exposure is a consciousness of the event and anticipation towards participating in it. Participation involves physically becoming part of the experience. Identification occurs when the participant begins to apply earlier-learned experiences and knowledge to the situation. When the participant is able to apply the concepts and ideas to other situations, internalization has occurred. The final phase, dissemination, takes place when the participant informs others about the experience and sees the experience as imperative for others to experience (Steinaker & Bell, 1979).

The Activity
Before the semester began, the instructor secured clients from ten businesses in the surrounding community, each with a public relations-related problem. None of the businesses contacted declined the offer. The clients were advised that after three months of consulting with the students they would be presented a complete public relations plan. Students were positioned as semi-professionals, ready to apply their public relations knowledge to the clients’ problems. This positioning assured the client that they would receive something for their efforts other than just a good feeling for helping someone out. In today’s competitive business environment, if there is not an immediate benefit presented, there is little interest in participating.

Securing clients was not difficult since the instructor was a practicing professional with many business contacts. If an instructor is not well connected in the business community, s/he should contact the community’s volunteer coordinator for suggestions of non-profit organizations with public relations needs. The clients secured for this case study included an aircraft museum, a campus coffeehouse, a nearby city’s recycling effort, campus alcohol prevention, a local historical tourism attraction, the city/county public health service, campus disability services, a community foundation, a political campaign, and the campus’s communication department.

The first four weeks of the semester were spent in the classroom. Here the students learned the basics of developing a public relations plan. Each of the elements of a plan was studied in detail including research, situation analysis, audience analysis, objectives, strategies, tactics, implementation, timeline, budget and evaluation.

Also communicated in these first four weeks were the instructor’s expectations of how students would relate to their clients. It was clearly explained that this would be a professional/professional relationship, not a student/professional relationship. Training included information as simple as how to shake hands the first time they met their clients, what to wear, and how to control the initial interview.

Students were allowed to select which client they wished to work for on a lottery basis. As each student’s name was drawn, s/he was able to sign his or her name on one of the available slots under each client. Once a client had four names under it, that client was no longer available. The day of this lottery was one of the more memorable of the semester and served to increase enthusiasm for the project and mobilize the class into action. A party atmosphere prevailed, with cheering when particular names were drawn, boos as desired clients became unavailable, and even side bets on whose name would be drawn last.

After the first four weeks of class, students were instructed to begin conducting secondary research and to conduct an interview with their newly assigned clients to gain information for a situation analysis. Students were given several field days (no regular class) to accomplish this.

A pattern of classroom instruction interspersed with fieldwork continued throughout the semester. Students were instructed to meet with their clients after the situation analysis and campaign objectives were completed; once again to discuss proposed strategies and tactics; and, finally, to give a formal presentation of the completed plan. Additional meetings were encouraged as needed. As the semester progressed, there were fewer in-class days and more field days. On days when there was no structured class, the instructor was present in the classroom during class time for consultations.

In-class sharing sessions helped the students vicariously experience the projects of other groups. As they were completed, each group presented elements of their plan to the class for feedback and problem-solving assistance. When developing strategies and tactics, creative brainstorming sessions were held during which groups presented their objectives and asked the class to contribute creative solutions. Two problem-solving sessions were also scheduled for each group with the instructor for individual help on projects.

The class celebrated successes. For example, when three members of the class appeared on the local news promoting a recycling program, a tape of the news story was shown during the next class session.

The semester was divided into three segments: research; plan development; and creative development. After each segment, students were assigned a reflection paper, and a class session was devoted to debriefing. Discussions centered on frustrations they encountered during that particular segment. A detailed group grading process was conducted at semester’s end with group members evaluating one another in several areas. The instructor also contacted each client at the end of the semester to complete an evaluation of his or her group. Private meetings were scheduled with each group by the instructor to discuss this client evaluation.
The final grade was comprised of 50% individual grades (obtained through reflection papers and inter-group individual grading) and 50% group grades (obtained from the various sections of the final plan, the final presentation, and client evaluations).

Overall, evaluations indicated that students felt this was a positive experience and added value to their college education. Students expressed concern in two areas: the first in the area of grading, the second in the area of instructor involvement. Some students expressed anxiety because so much of their grade rested on the performance of other group members. They expressed feelings of helplessness because they were unable to control 50% of their grade.

Second, students did not have an ongoing sense of how they were doing in the class. This lack of knowledge made many students (especially conscientious ones) uncomfortable.
Student evaluations were also divided regarding the amount of instructor involvement. Some students indicated they were uncomfortable with the amount of freedom they were given toward the end of the semester and desired more structured instructor involvement. Others enjoyed the autonomy.

Clearly communicating expectations to the clients is critical to the success of this program. Much of the differentiation in value students received from their projects was the result of their particular client. Even though the clients were given the same instructions before the semester began, their relationships with students varied considerably. The clients ranged from those who treated the groups like inexperienced students, thought their suggestions were “cute,” and never considered using their recommendations, to those who completely relied on them for advice and even gave them budgets (one as much as $10,000) to spend on paid media.

Overall, client evaluations were positive. About half of the clients asked to participate in the project the following year, even though their desire to participate again was not one of the evaluation questions. Two of the clients expressed dissatisfaction with the limited amount of contact they had with their student groups, indicating they were often surprised by the information presented and did not feel their input had been solicited or was welcomed.

It was clear at the end of this activity that some students were able to “pull off” the required level of confidence and professionalism, and some were not. Since this problem was not identified until the client evaluations at the end of the semester, no remedial activities were possible. Closer contact between the instructor and clients while the project is in progress would be a possible solution for this problem.

Participant evaluations included comments related to positive aspects of the experience. Many of the students had produced actual documents they could use for their portfolios; contacts were made that could lead to future internships or employment; and many felt an increased confidence in their ability to succeed in the public relations field.

Bandura, A. (1985). Social Foundations of Thought and Action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:

Cain, N., & Cain, G. (1994). Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.

Keeton, M. (1976). Experiential Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Steinaker, N. & Bell, M. (1979). The Experiential Taxonomy: A New Approach to Teaching and Learning. New York: Academic Press.

About the author
Jody Mattern is a doctoral candidate and lecturer in the Department of Communication at North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota. She has over 20 years of professional experience in the areas of advertising and public relations.

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