In-Class Activities

Seen Something Like This on Co-op?

This post is one in a series on leveraging students’ prior knowledge from experiential learning in your course.

Encourage students to connect course content and experiential learning

Even when students have relevant prior knowledge, they may not recognize those connections spontaneously. However, when prompted to identify those connections, students’ relevant prior knowledge can become active and ready to support new learning.

How does connection-building support learning?

Research shows that even when students solve a problem on their own, most do not transfer that learning to a similar problem in a different context of their own accord (e.g., Gick & Holyoak, 1980). However, when prompted to consider what they learned from the first problem in tackling the second problem, far more students succeed at that transfer (in one example, the success rate jumped to 80%). Therefore, students can leverage previous experience to better learn new content—but they often need prompting to activate the relevant prior knowledge to do so.


One way to ensure that students make connections is to set aside two to five minutes at the beginning of each class session (or each week) for “Co-op Moments” or “XL Moments” in which students share their thoughts on how some aspect of what you’ve covered so far in the semester connects with experiential learning activities they’ve done. To facilitate parity in participation, students can sign up for a slot in the first week of the semester so they know when their turn is coming.

Alternatively, you might ask students to do 5-10 minutes of informal writing to reflect upon how their previous experiential learning activities connect to what they are now learning in class, as well as how what they are learning in class now prepares them for future experiential learning activities or employment. Ask students to share what they wrote either in small groups or with the class as a whole. Use this activity to prime students for whole-class discussions or other course activities.

Use students’ varying experiences to highlight the diversity in ways your course content can apply outside your classroom

It may seem like a limitation that every individual student brings a different set of experiences to class, so that no single example you share will connect with everyone. However, by making space in your classroom for all students to bring in their diverse experiences, you can actually enhance students’ learning even further.

How does a variety of examples enhance overall learning?

Investigating the different reasons, methods, and contexts in which concepts are used can reveal how the deeper conceptual structures persist across widely differing surface features, helping students begin to organize their knowledge more like experts do. “Contrasting cases” are powerful instructional tools for this kind of deep processes (Schwartz & Bransford, 1998).
Furthermore, knowing something (the “what”) is different than being able to make use of it (the “how”), which is also different from knowing the contexts in which to use it (the “when”). A greater understanding of the various ways and contexts in which to use a given piece of content can help bring everyone in the discussion to a greater level of mastery overall (Ambrose et al., 2010).


Intentionally pair students who have different experiential learning backgrounds, and ask them to identify the three most important differences between why, how, and when they have seen the concepts put to use. For example, a Human Services student working with autistic children and a Marketing student working with brand promotion both make deep use of classical and operant conditioning concepts from a psychology course.

Alternatively, work with Co-op coordinators in your college or department to identify students who are currently doing co-ops in areas relevant to your course. Invite those to speak in your class about the connections they see, either one at a time, or as a panel of near-peer “experts.”


Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., & Norman, M.K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ausubel, D. (1978). In defense of advance organizers: A reply to the criticsReview of Educational Research, 48, 251-257.

Gick, M.L. & Holyoak, K.J. (1980). Analogical problem solvingCognitive Psychology, 12, 306-355.

Lerner, J.S., & Tetlock, P.E. (1999). Accounting for the effects of accountabilityPsychological Bulletin,125(2), 255-274.

Schwartz, D.L., & Bransford, J.D. (1998). A time for tellingCognition and Instruction, 16(4), 475-522.

Svinicki, M.D. (2004). Learning and motivation in the postsecondary classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.