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Designing the Experience - Experiential Learning Hub

Designing the Experience


In seeking to shape graduates who are well-equipped to face the challenges of an ever-changing world, in addition to experiencing rich classroom interactions with esteemed professors and partaking in a diverse student life on campus, there are a wealth of ways in which education can be designed to take student learning into the community, workplace, research lab, and innovation and performance domains, both locally and abroad.

While there is no one way to design a student learning experience, authenticity of the experience and how integration with broader curricular learning is supported are logistical and practical considerations to be addressed in the design of the experience.

Further supporting students’ successful engagement in the learning experience is the importance of student matching and preparation.


  • Key attributes of the learning experience.
  • Logistical considerations.
  • Options for student matching and preparation.


Key Attributes of Learning Through Experience

At the University of Toronto, learning through experience involves the deliberate integration of disciplinary outcomes with competency development and authentic community engagement (where community refers to genuine practice with stakeholders inside or outside the university setting).

UofT integrated learning
(University of Toronto, 2017)

Community engagement:

Students engage with community and/or workplace stakeholders, members, agencies or organizations from the academic institution and/or larger communities (local, provincial, national, global) for the mutually beneficial achievement of educational and community goals in a context of partnership and reciprocity.

Integration with disciplinary outcomes:

Students apply disciplinary learning to hands-on practice with community stakeholders, and/or use practical experience to inform further study and disciplinary-specific objectives.

Competency development:

Students develop general competencies through the integration of disciplinary outcomes with community engagement. These might include learning competencies (e.g., learning how to learn), technology competencies (e.g., computer software), and/or transferable competencies (e.g., critical thinking, leadership, communication, teamwork, global 11 fluency, intercultural competencies, or attitudes about social responsibility and social justice). Students should be aware of the competencies they are developing.

(University of Toronto, 2017)

Six key attributes

Learning through experience is not a new concept, as many examples of this integration are already practiced across various disciplines.

The intention is that through this approach to designing higher education curricula, this integration may be more clearly articulated.

As well, through the deliberate augmentation of students’ integration of disciplinary outcomes with community engagement and competency development, the student learning experience and the impact of students and the institution in supporting greater community and societal needs is collectively enhanced.

(University of Toronto, 2017)

While the hallmarks of quality can differ somewhat based on the context and the type of experience, all student experiences should contain the following Key Attributes:

  • Authenticity
  • Alignment of classroom and community activities
  • Assessment and evaluation
  • Learning support
  • Partnership
  • Theoretical grounding


The experience should be meaningful, with appropriate levels of student autonomy and responsibility.

The student should make a valuable contribution to the community or workplace organization.

The degree of authenticity can be assessed based on the proximity of the student activities to the community setting and the similarity of student activities to the real-world tasks of the community.

Authenticity of the experience considers:

  • Alignment to real-world tasks
    • How similar is the student experience to day-to-day activities of the community/workplace?
  • Proximity to current workplace settings
    • How close is the student physically situated in relation to the community/workplace setting?

(University of Toronto, 2017)

Alignment Of Classroom And Community Learning Activities

The experience should align with the student’s academic and life goals, broadly defined. It is paramount that students develop intentional learning outcomes and a plan to achieve them.

Learning outcomes should be tied to the student’s academic program of study, as well as their goals for competency development (e.g., discipline-specific competencies, technology competencies, transferable competencies, learning competencies, essential skills).

The connection of theory and practice is achieved through deliberately designed curricular and community activities that facilitate the transfer of learning between academic and community settings in alignment with the learning outcomes set.

(University of Toronto, 2017)

Curriculum/experience mapping can be useful in determining how the experience is intended to fit within the students’ broader post-secondary experience.

There are four approaches that can be applied to enhancing the integration of student experience with the academic curriculum, including the cohesive approach, scaffolding approach, targeting approach, and the diverse approach.

curricular integration

(Campbell, Russell, & Higgs, 2014)

Assessment And Evaluation

Ongoing assessment of student learning and competence is importance for a high quality experience.

This includes both formative and summative assessments relative to the intended learning outcomes, along with the provision of constructive feedback to students.

Evaluation of the administration of the experience is also important to ensure quality student development.

(University of Toronto, 2017)

Learning Support

Supporting student learning in experiential learning opportunities includes the provision of administrative, social, psychological, and learning supports before, during, and after the community experience.

The availability of support services at both the academic institution and the community organization should be made explicit to students as part of the experience.

Examples of learning supports include: orientations, mentorship, community/workplace supervision, educational supervision, 14 counselling, training opportunities, accessibility services, health and wellness services, management of health and safety, insurance coverage, conflict management, debriefing.

(University of Toronto, 2017)


The quality of experiences is influenced by the partnership between the stakeholders involved. The development and maintenance of partnerships between academic and community organizations influences the preparation and organization of students and community supervisors for the experience.

Students also play a pivotal role in shaping the quality of the practice and directing their own learning and engagement within the community experience.

Academic deans, directors, faculty, staff, sessional instructors, and teaching assistants in both the academic and community settings all contribute to the development and delivery of experiences that are purposefully designed and tied to the intended learning outcomes.

Partnership development and maintenance is a shared responsibility. It includes establishing, maintaining, and troubleshooting relationships with community partners, keeping records, maintaining contact, addressing ethical issues related to placements, and ensuring mutual respect, relevance and reciprocity.

(University of Toronto, 2017)

Theoretical Grounding

Experiential learning opportunities should be structured deliberately and grounded in student learning theory.

This theoretical grounding provides a conceptual framework to maximize quality through intentional design, effective delivery, supportive resources, and appropriate assessment of student learning.

(Butin, 2010; Smith & Worsfold, 2015; Stirling et al., 2016)

Logistical Considerations

There is no one way to design a student learning experience (University of Toronto, 2017). In the videos below, Professor William Ju and Dr. Ira Wells describe how to think creatively about designing new experiences for their students and the iterative nature of this process.

Professor William Ju, Associate Professor, Teaching Stream, Human Biology Program, Faculty of Arts and Science

Dr. Ira Wells, Program Manager, Jackman Scholars-in-Residence (SiR), Jackman Humanities Institute

In thinking about expanding the available opportunities for students to learn through experience, it is important to consider the following questions:

  • How can we enhance access to existing opportunities?
  • What new opportunities may be developed?
  • How can diverse options for experience be facilitated?

(University of Toronto, 2017)

Logistical Questions That Should Be Considered In The Design Of Student Learning Experiences, Include:

  • In what location will the experience occur (e.g., research/innovation institute, community or workplace organization; local vs. abroad)
  • How will the experience be recognized (e.g., academic vs. co-curricular credit)?
  • What are the parameters of the experience (e.g., duration, hours, start/end dates)?
  • What will the students be doing?
  • Is the experience paid or unpaid?
  • For whom is the experience available?
  • Is there a limit on the number of students participating?
  • Is the experience optional or required?

Matching and Preparation

There are a number of logistics to carefully consider when matching and preparing students for experiential learning opportunities. In the video below, please join Susan Soikie as she describes some of these considerations and how to navigate them.

Susan Soikie, Director, Arts and Science Co-op, University of Toronto Scarborough

Processes for student matching and preparation:

Processes for student matching and preparation are important aspects of the design of the student experience. Below are some questions to be considered in this area:

  • Will the experience by attained by the student or the academic unit?
  • How will the students apply to the experience?
  • Is there a limit on how many students can participate?
  • What resources will be required to facilitate the pairing of students
    with specific experiences (e.g., personnel, matching software)?
  • What happens if there is no match?

Student preparation

Student preparation and pre-requisites are specific to each experience.

Student Preparation:

  • One-on-one advising.
  • Preparatory course.
  • Experience sharing.
  • Workshops.
  • Online support materials.
  • Resume-building and interviewing assistance.
  • Time to identify and apply for experiences.

Student Prerequisite:

  • Course/GPA.
  • Certification (e.g., First Aid, CPR).
  • Health screen.
  • Vulnerable sector check.
  • Drivers licence/access to a vehicle.
  • Work permit.
  • Computer skills.

(R.A. Malatest & Associates Ltd., 2018)




  • Key attributes of student learning experience include authenticity, alignment of classroom & community activities, assessment and evaluation, learning support, partnership, and theoretical grounding.
  • There is no one way to design a student learning experience.
  • Student matching, preparation and prerequisites should be considered when designing the student learning experience.

References and Acknowledgements


Campbell, M., Russell, L., & Higgs, J. (2014). Designing a WIL curriculum. In S. Ferns (ed.), Work integrated learning in the curriculum. Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australia guide (pp. 21-26). Australia Collaboration Education Network Ltd.

R. A. Malatest & Associates Ltd. (2018). Barriers to Work-integrated Learning Opportunities. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. Retrieved from

Stirling, A., Kerr, G., Banwell, J., MacPherson, E., & Heron, A. (2016). A Practical Guide for Work-integrated Learning. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. Retrieved from

University of Toronto (2017). Rethinking Higher Education Curricula: Increasing Impact through Experiential, Work-Integrated & Community-Engaged Learning. University of Toronto White Paper.

Thornton Moore, D. (2010). Forms and issues in experiential learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 124, 3-13.


These modules are grounded in A Practical Guide for Work-integrated Learning, funded by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO).


Dr. Ashley Stirling
University of Toronto

Powerpoint Version

A Powerpoint version of the content provided in each resource section is available for individuals wishing to use this material for local professional development programming.

The resource is licensed for re-use under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License” using the following citation:

Stirling, A. (2019). Designing the Experience. Presented at the Experiential Learning Hub. Retrieved from