Leveraging Students' Prior Experiential Learning

Using Past Co-ops in Class

Experiential Learning at Northeastern

Northeastern is a recognized national leader in experiential learning of many forms: co-operative education, global experiences, service-learning, research experiences, and more. Co-op is Northeastern’s most popular experiential learning program:  in recent years, over 90% of our graduates had completed at least one Co-op experience, around half had completed two, and about a third had completed three or more.

This video briefly describes how Co-op works at Northeastern, and how faculty from across disciplines make use of its unique effects upon our students.


The Benefits of Integrating Your Students’ Experiential Learning Into the Classroom

Helping students to reflect upon, share, and use what they have learned through experiential learning offers us significant benefits as teachers:

  • Motivation – Students are more motivated when they see useful connections between their classroom learning, prior knowledge and experiences, and future work in and out of the classroom (Svinicki, 2004).
  • Transfer – Engaging students experiential learning activities helps them use their own vivid experience to bridge from what they already know to the new material you are teaching them, in terms of both content and skills (Brooks & Dansereau, 1987).
  • Cognitive Elaboration – The more associations a memory has with other memories, the easier it will be to retrieve and use. Creating opportunities for students to embellish what you teach them with their own experience facilitates long-term memory retrieval (Ormrod, 2012).

You can engage the knowledge and skills your students have acquired through experiential learning in many ways, at different points across the semester. See examples below.  

Have suggestions of your own to offer? Share them with us by writing to [email protected]. You can also use this email address to schedule a confidential consultation with one of the Center’s learning scientists to discuss how to integrate your students’ experiential learning into your classes.

Early SemesterSet yourself up for success by including specific objectives on your syllabus and setting a “professional” class culture.
In-Class ActivitiesWith the semester underway, gathering diagnostic information and “cross-pollinating” among students can create a rich rhythm of integration.
Written AssignmentsDeeper into the semester, students can make more thoughtful connections to previous experience in both words and images.
ProjectsAs culminating creative acts, projects provide opportunities for students to perhaps most deeply bridge the divide between academic and “real life.”
ExamsAcross the semester, students can help you write your exams by generating questions linked to their prior experience.
Late SemesterAs students prepare to leave your classroom, you can equip them to succeed beyond your course–and they can help equip your future students.



Brooks, L. W., & Dansereau, D. F. (1987). Transfer of information: An instructional perspective. In S. M. Cormier & J. D. Hagman (Eds.), Transfer of learning: Contemporary research and applications (pp. 121-150). New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Javonovich.

Ormrod, J. E. (2012). Human Learning, 6th Ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

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