How to Prepare for a Successful Experiential Learning Experience

In this time of social distancing, you may have questions and concerns about engaging a student to work remotely.

Here are some practical tips to help you get maximum value from your experiential learning experience, even if your student is working from home for part or all of the placement.

As other questions come up, please reach out to your Office of Experiential Learning/Education for support. They’re committed to making the placement successful for both you and the student.

Note: The following content is provided for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other professional advice or an opinion of any kind.

Leveraging student input to build capacity

As the Coronavirus forces us all to cope with a “new normal,” is your organization trying to figure out how to pivot? Or are you perhaps taking a slow-down in daily activities as a time to prepare for the busy season you’re expecting once the economy takes an upswing?

A student could offer the ideal skill set to help you make the most of this moment. With the economy temporarily on pause, this is a great time to build capacity. Here are a baker’s dozen of different ways a student could help you do that:

  1. Prepare a feasibility study or market research report
  2. Develop a social media or social selling strategy
  3. Create social media posts for the next three months
  4. Produce opt-in tools (website give-aways) and follow-up email sequences
  5. Launch a newsletter or and write the first six issues
  6. Codify your organization’s best practices in an employee manual
  7. Develop user manuals and training materials
  8. Produce and lead a workshop on diversity and inclusion in the work place
  9. Write a recommendation report to solve a longstanding problem
  10. Prepare a research report to support product development
  11. Build or refresh your website
  12. Create marketing collateral
  13. Document processes and work flows

Consider a project or initiative that’s been simmering on your back burner for a while. Chances are there’s a student with the right combination of curiosity and creativity to make it happen.

The process of experiential learning

Experiential learning is sometimes called “learning by doing.” But it involves much more than performing hands-on activities. It’s more accurate to say that experiential learning is the process of learning by reflecting on doing.

As an employer, your role is to support the learning process so your student worker can develop practical knowledge and skills. The more engaged you are in the various learning stages, the sooner your student will integrate into your team and start making a valuable contribution.

1Four phases of experiential learning

In the workplace, each new experience provides an opportunity for building new knowledge and skills, which then become the foundation for a more challenging experience. When you recognize the mechanics of this cycle, you can help your student quickly level up their professional skills.

It’s useful to think of the experiential learning cycle in terms of four phases:

  • Concrete experience: This is the event or incident that provides the catalyst for learning. Any time you ask a student to do something they’ve never done before, you’re creating a learning opportunity.
  • Reflective observation: This involves a thoughtful review of the work experience so that the student extracts meaning from it. Reflection is a skill many professionals take for granted, but it actually takes time to develop, so your student may need some coaching in this area. (They should also get reflection tips from their Office of Experiential Learning/Education.)
  • Abstract conceptualization: This means examining the workplace experience and brainstorming ways to apply lessons gained from reflection. Ideally, at this stage, students are able to connect what they’re learning on the job with what they’ve been learning in the classroom. They may, for instance, be able to view the experience through the lens of a theory, a principle, or a historical example they’ve studied.
  • Active experimentation: This phase of the process is the launch pad for levelling up. It involves taking insights learned and applying them to a new work situation, creating the opportunity for a new experience and a new cycle of experiential learning.
Kolb's Model

The four-phase model of the experiential learning cycle comes from psychologist David Kolb, who first proposed it in 1984. 1 While other educational theorists have expanded, complicated, and challenged the framework, it remains a useful tool for perceiving the basic mechanics of how a raw experience gets converted into knowledge and skills.

1 Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Prentice-Hall.

2How to facilitate experiential learning

As a seasoned professional, you’ve mastered the art of observing, reflecting on, and taking lessons from your work experiences. In fact, you may have become so adept at experiential learning that the skills it requires feel intuitive.

Those same skills may be brand new to your student. So they likely need your help to develop the situational and self-awareness that drive experiential learning. Here are some easy tactics you can try to make the experiential learning cycle explicit:

  • Acknowledge that an experience is new and may feel uncomfortable. When we feel discomfort, that’s often a sign that we’re stretching outside our comfort zone, and that’s where learning happens.
  • Encourage students to develop their observation skills. Taking notes during meetings is one way they can do this.
  • Model reflection by conducting regular debriefs with the student. Invite the student to process emotions that came up during a work experience and to connect the experience with other experiences they’ve had, on the job or in their personal life.
  • Ask the student how their work placement intersects with their academic learning. How does life in the “real world” compare with textbook principles and examples?
  • As the student prepares to tackle a new experience, prompt them to think back to a previous experience. How can they apply lessons learned?

Review with the student any materials on experiential learning, including tips for reflection, made available by your Office of Experiential Learning/Education.

How to define a remote position

If your student will be working from home, it’s critical to set clear expectations. Let the student know:

  • Expected working hours and work schedule (including lunch break). If the student will have flexible working hours, put some parameters around those. Will there be certain days and/or time periods during which they’re expected to be online, for instance? When should they be available for meetings? If something is due by EOD (end of day), what time is that—5 p.m. or midnight?
  • Reporting requirements. How often will the student check in with you? Will you have a standing daily meeting or meetings? (Many students find that kind of scheduled accountability helps them keep on track.) Will they send a daily or weekly progress report via email? Do they need to update anyone besides you on their achievements?
  • Specific outcomes. What are the overall goals for the experiential learning work placement? How do those break down into monthly, weekly, and daily goals? And how will the student’s performance be evaluated?
  • How their work integrates with what the rest of the team is doing. Working from home can be a lonely experience, even when you’re already bonded with your co-workers. For a student new to the workplace, remote work can feel alienating. Take time to share the big picture of how daily tasks help accomplish strategic priorities. Share your organizational chart, preferably including photos of the team. Better still, invite the whole team to a “get to know you” meeting so each member can introduce themselves and their role.
  • Required equipment. Many students live on a lean personal budget, so they may not have all the technology you take for granted in your home. You may need to supply such items as a laptop, a printer, a long-distance phone plan, or a Skype number. If you’re unable to provide a laptop and the student doesn’t have one, your Office of Experiential Learning/Education may be able to help.
  • How to get technical support. Make sure the student knows whom to contact when they have an issue with software, communication apps (such as Zoom), or hardware. Also make sure they know the best way to reach that person. If your organization uses a ticketing system, for instance, the student may need an orientation to that.
  • How to reach you when they have questions. What is the best way for the student to reach out when they have a run-of-the-mill question about an assigned task? How about emergencies? Who’s your delegate if they can’t get in touch with you?

Tips for remote onboarding

First impressions make lasting impressions. Long after the experiential learning work placement has ended, a student will remember how you treated them when they first joined your company. You want to make sure the experience is positive and reflects well on your brand.

Managing the remote onboarding process

1Taking the Four C’s of onboarding online

Successful onboarding includes four levels of orientation:

Source: Bauer, T. (2010.) Onboarding New Employees: Maximizing Success. SHRM Foundation.

When you’re bringing a remote employee onboard, it’s easy to cover off the bottom two levels—compliance and clarification—because they simply involve information sharing. You can email the employee manual or the link to the shared drive where policy documents are stored. And a Zoom or phone call takes care of a short briefing on the employee's role, job duties, and accountability to others in the organization.

But the top two levels of onboarding prove tougher to achieve when you and the new hire don’t share the same physical space. At the same time, culture and connection make the biggest difference to employee engagement, and that’s a primary concern when we’re talking about remote work.

To successfully onboard a student into a remote position, you’ll need to get creative about how you communicate your culture and how you facilitate connections with colleagues. Use each step in the onboarding process as an opportunity to achieve these onboarding essentials.

2The meet-and-greet
  • Welcome the student with a warm email. Give the message a personal touch by stating a particular reason you’re looking forward to bringing the student onboard.
  • Set clear expectations for the first day. Communicate when and how the student is to report to work on the first day. If they’ll be reporting via a video conferencing tool, such as Zoom, provide instructions about how to do this, or point them toward an online tutorial. If they’ll require access to any personal documents, such as an identification card or Social Insurance Number, let them know that too.
  • Organize a virtual onboarding session, preferably via video call. Prepare a slide presentation to guide your discussion and make it easy for the student to absorb all the information you’ll be giving them. In your presentation, include:
    • Organizational structure, particularly the functions of different units and the reporting structure
    • Role of your team within the organization
    • Examples of company values and culture in action
    • Achievements the team and organization are proud of
    • Tips for meeting colleagues and finding out information
    • Advice from recent new hires about fitting in and quickly getting up to speed
    • How to get help with various kinds of issues, including technical support, questions about daily tasks, concerns about workload, and so on.
  • Encourage conversation. As you go through matters related to compliance and clarification, pause often to ask “What questions do you have so far?” (Assuming there will be questions tends to elicit more of a response than the closed question, “Do you have any questions?”)
  • Make it personal. As you speak with the student, address them by name. Ask them how they feel about joining the organization and invite them to communicate any information or concerns they’d like to share.
  • Invite follow-up. Make it easy for the student to approach you with questions after the onboarding session. Let them know the best communication channel to use and the best time of day to reach you.
3IT and HR Setup
  • Explain how technology supports your work culture. As you set the student up with communication and collaboration tools, explain how the team uses them to interact. Which tools are used in which situations? Who prefers certain tools over others? What are some of the unspoken ground rules that apply to certain tools?
  • Present policies as customs. To your student, entering your organization is like arriving in a foreign country. To help them assimilate into your work culture, explain policies as “the way we do things around here” rather than as rules to be followed.

    Allow plenty of time for questions, and take time to provide the rationale for policies that may seem strange to students. For instance, you may need to explain exactly what confidentiality means and why it’s important. Social media and email policy may also be areas to explore in some depth so that the student understands the “why” behind them.

  • Guide the student through the HR paperwork. The student may have little experience completing official forms and little knowledge of how tax deductions and benefits work. If you don’t have time to walk them through the paperwork, perhaps you could assign a colleague to help out via video conferencing.
  • Provide background on your organization, not just manuals. Help the student understand the strategic goals and chief activities of the organization so they can appreciate their role in context. Bring procedures to life by sharing examples of projects you’ve completed or other accomplishments.
  • Avoid days of isolated reading. The most efficient way of orienting a student might appear to be giving them a stack of reading material and leaving them on their own to work their way through it over a few days. However, this approach creates feelings of isolation and fails to initiate the student into your work culture.

    If the student needs to absorb a lot of information, try to break up reading time with opportunities to engage with colleagues. Perhaps different colleagues could help provide different pieces of background information via a phone or video call. The more contact the student has with the team at an early stage, the more quickly they’ll ramp up, and the more motivated they’ll be to learn and contribute.

4Orientation to team and tasks
  • Provide key contact information. Compile a list of all the contact information the student might need in the run of a week. Depending on the size and structure of your organization, that list could include the supervisor, the manager, IT support, HR, and colleagues the student will be working with.
  • Connect the student with a “work buddy” or mentor. This person doesn’t have to be a senior employee. In fact, a recent hire who’s recently gone through the onboarding process could be the ideal mentor.
  • Make a formal introduction. Officially welcome the student to your team via a team-wide or organization-wide welcome note.
  • Provide e-introductions. If the student were working in the office with you, you’d walk them around the space so they could meet as many people in the organization as possible. In a remote working arrangement, you can provide introductions by e-mail, just as you would do when connecting two people in your network. Invite more senior employees to reach out to the student to say a quick “hello” or perhaps grab a “virtual coffee” via video.
  • Create opportunities for virtual job shadowing. Learning by observing often comes before learning by doing. Provide opportunities for the student to observe work in progress, the way they would in an office environment. For instance, a colleague could use screen sharing to allow a student to “look over their shoulder” virtually while they use a piece of software to complete a task.
  • Explain how work will be assigned and monitored. A student new to the world of work may require more structure and oversight than an experienced hire. Provide clear weekly and daily directives and desired outcomes.
  • Arrange regular check-ins. Students can be timid about approaching a supervisor for help, so it can be helpful to set up regular check-points when they can ask questions. Maybe that’s a standing meeting every morning for 15 minutes, or a daily review at 4 p.m., or both. Over time, the student will likely require less structure, but investing time in the beginning to interact with them at least once a day will enable you to clarify expectations and help them feel connected to the team.
  • Include the student in meetings. As many as possible. To experienced workers, meetings can be yawn-fests, but for students, they’re great opportunities to witness work in action and connect with colleagues. The closer the student feels to the centre of the action, the more motivated and productive they’ll be.
5Experiential learning plan

Your student will have received guidelines from their Office of Experiential Learning/Education. Depending on the nature of their work placement, they may be required to set learning goals, complete reflective activities, and/or fulfill elements of a competency framework.

If you have any questions about what’s expected of you as an employer, reach out to your Office of Experiential Learning/Education. They’ll walk you through the simple steps needed to fulfill any academic requirements.

6Making sure your student gets paid

Someone new to the workforce may not be familiar with the concepts of tracking time or submitting hours. Make sure you orient your student to any procedures and tools they’ll need to use to collect their pay.

If your student is being paid by an external funder, such as a philanthropic organization or FutureReadyNB, make sure you’re clear about processes and timelines before your student shows up for the first day of work. Your Office of Experiential Learning/Education can help you find answers to any questions you have.

Smart ways to support your student

1How to help your student stay focused and motivated

Remote work can be challenging, even for seasoned employees. It can be doubly challenging for students because they may have little experience working independently. They may be used to studying in groups, living and eating in groups, and completing group projects.

You can help your student stay on task by providing structure and opportunities for social connection. Here are some suggestions you might try to create structure:

  • Offer ideas for creating daily rituals to mark the start and end of the workday.
  • Work with the student to create a daily schedule that takes into account their natural energy flows.
  • Encourage breaks and physical activity.
  • Arrange at least one check-in a day, by phone or video.
  • Provide mentorship in managing task lists.
  • Celebrate daily achievements.
  • Assign a special project that enables them to leverage their personal strengths.
  • At least once a month, set aside time to discuss the student’s overall performance and professional development.

And here are some suggestions for creating opportunities for social connection:

  • Encourage employees to set up working meetings, during which they complete tasks rather than report on completed tasks.
  • Hold regular team meetings via video, and when you meet, allow some pre-agenda time just for socializing.
  • Phone the student at unplanned times, just to say hello and find out how their day is going.
  • Set up a collaborative space (such as a Slack channel) where people can share motivational quotes or images, relevant reading material, or ideas for future projects.
  • Pair up the student with a work buddy, someone to check in with once a day.
  • If you’re supervising more than one student, assign them tasks that require them to work together.
2Communication and collaboration tools

Students may be unacquainted with some of the technology you take for granted. Here are links to tutorials for some of the tools you may need them to use:

  • Zoom—For video calls.
  • Google Meet—Also for video calls as well as voice calls and group chats.
  • Google Docs and Google Sheets—For real-time collaboration on documents and spreadsheets.
  • Slack—Direct messaging for collaborating on team projects; also enables file sharing, voice and video calls, and screen sharing.
  • Microsoft Teams—For file sharing, direct messaging, scheduling, and video calls.
  • Trello—For sharing project plans, tasks, and files.
  • Asana—For coordinating team activities on various projects.
  • Toggl—For tracking time, via a timer or manual data entry.
  • Evernote—For taking notes, storing web clippings, and storing and annotating PDFs.
  • Miro—For creating online whiteboards.
  • Outlook calendar—For scheduling meetings and responding to meeting requests.
3How to mentor a student remotely

Whether you or a colleague will be mentoring the student, it’s a good idea to structure the mentor-mentee relationship so that both parties are clear about how it will work. Here are some pointers to keep in mind:

  • Conduct the first meeting via video to foster a strong personal connection.
  • Discuss and agree on specific goals for the mentorship.
  • Establish a timeline (end point) for the mentorship.
  • Lay out guiding principles, such as how often you’ll meet, the technology you’ll use, and how you’ll communicate between meetings.
  • Each time you meet, start with a quick check-in to review progress toward goals.
  • Act as a coach, not a teacher. Focus on asking questions, rather than providing advice, so that the student guides their own learning.
  • Share your personal experiences; allow yourself to be vulnerable so students can learn from your mistakes as well as your successes.
  • At the end of your formal mentorship, decide on whether or not you’ll continue to meet or just stay in touch.
4How to recognize signals that a student may need more support

Remote work can be stressful, especially for someone who may already feel a lot of pressure about starting a new position in a new environment. Watch for these signs that your student may be struggling with the demands of virtual work:

  • Inability to meet deadlines
  • Trouble doing simple tasks they could do previously, either for you or another employer
  • Outbursts of irritability or frustration
  • Talking more or less than usual
  • Slow response to email or direct messaging
  • Poor personal hygiene

If you notice any of these warning signs, it might be time to do some troubleshooting with the student. If some coaching in time management and personal productivity doesn’t seem to make a difference, you may want to make the student aware of health and wellness resources available to them. You should also feel free to reach out to your Office of Experiential Learning/Education to brainstorm possible ways to support the student.

5Accommodating students with children

Students may feel timid about disclosing that they’ll have children at home during the work day. You can help ease any anxiety they feel by sharing your organization’s practices about work-from-home parenting, whether nor not you know details of the student’s personal situation.

If your student does have children at home, here are some tips for helping them work productively:

  • Invite them to engage in creative problem-solving. Encourage them to come to you with workarounds and solutions that will enable them to do their job more efficiently or effectively.
  • Rethink the standard work day. If possible, allow the student to structure their work day around their parenting responsibilities. Some work-from-home parents split their work day so they can be productive before their children wake up and while they’re napping. Others split child care with a partner, with one partner taking an early shift and one taking a late shift.
  • Establish protocol for phone and video calls. Negotiate reasonable expectations. Does the employee always need to turn their camera on, for instance? Do they need to attend all team meetings? Before the first meeting, talk about how to handle interruptions, which will inevitably happen.
  • Strengthen connections with the team. Encourage the student to build supportive relationships with colleagues. Give them examples of how to act as a true “team player” and how to ask for help when they need it.

Common mistakes employers make with remote student workers

Bringing a student into a remote role requires you to pay special attention to their human needs, particularly the need for feedback and social connection. Here are some pitfalls you’ll want to avoid:

Don't Instead
DON’T assume that office work is the same as remote work. You’ll need to rethink the way you’re used to managing both experienced and new hires.
DON’T micromanage. Keep the focus on outcomes rather than how or when the work gets done.
DON’T leave the student too long on their own. Promote contact with yourself and other colleagues.
DON’T let emails and voice mails languish. Respond promptly to questions, and make yourself accessible via multiple communication channels.
DON’T let efficiency get in the way of social connection. Working at a distance requires you to invest more time in building the relationship with your new employee than you’d spend if you were both working in the same physical space.
DON’T give sketchy directions. Provide explicit instructions. If you don’t like to write directions down, talk the student through a task by making a voice or video recording.
DON’T exclude the student from team discussions. Involve the student in as many team meetings as possible, and cc them on email threads. Do everything you can, daily, to remind them they’re a valued member of the team and to show them your organizational culture in action.

How to get help

As questions come up about your role and responsibilities in the experiential learning process, feel free to reach out to your Office of Experiential Learning/Education. They are there to support you every step of the way, through the onboarding process and beyond.

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