Reframing Experiential Learning

Students on a course-based bike tour
Need a "different" kind of fieldwork? Visit sites on bike for a uniquely intimate view of Chicago.

In weighing options for experiential learning, instructors should keep in mind the full range of opportunities available to them.  Large-group experiences such as whole-class field trips can be exciting opportunities for a class to share an experience, but can be costly both in time and in money, especially if class time is limited and transportation would have to be chartered.  In-person guest speakers (whether in the classroom or encountered somewhere in the city) offer students the chance to meet Chicagoans of different walks of life, but some guest speakers may not feel comfortable engaging with groups of students in person or prefer not to come to campus.  Giving students the opportunity to pursue individualizable, self-guided experiences (either solo or in small groups) can be a great way to encourage student initiative and "flip the classroom" as they share the learning outcomes from their fieldwork, but need to be carefully structured to ensure that they are equitable and don't over-burden students financially or put them in situations where they feel unsafe.

The various accordioned categories (below) offer specific suggestions for "reframing" popular types of experiential learning into individualized, collaborative-learning, and remote formats.  Many of these ideas were developed and/or field-tested by instructors during the COVID-19 pandemic.  While no longer demanded by public health conditions, many continue to have value as alternative ways to structure learning with the city into classes, whether to accommodate individual students/guests or to "change things up" for a particular course or assignment. The sidebar to the left offers links to additional resources, including equipment Chicago Studies can make available for interested instructors.  Email us at to request any equipment for course-related use, or with any questions about this content.


Experiential Learning - Reframed!

    Now that the public health situation has stabilized, instructors may once again host in-person guest speakers in their classrooms without special permission.  Chicago Studies can make it easier for guests to visit your class on campus -- send them to our reimbursements page to submit their receipts for rideshare or parking.  Remember that, weather permitting, campus offers lots of other venues, including larger spaces and outdoor spaces -- email us at for help finding a venue that suits your needs and those of your guest(s).

    For some presenters, context makes a difference.  If the funding and time are available, consider meeting a guest in their space instead of on-campus.  Chicago Studies can help arrange transportation, and will still pay an honorarium to your presenter (even if you and the students are the "guests").  On-site conversations often spontaneously engage more stakeholders, e.g. clients and other employees of the non-profit whose executive director is your "official" visitor.  Consider writing in a small catering budget for such on-site visits, as a way of breaking the ice and showing appreciation to anyone who chooses to join the conversation.

    Whether you're meeting a guest on- or off-campus, Chicago Studies has several types of easy-to-use amplification devices to help groups hear your guest's presentation -- see the sidebar for details.

    Guests who are uncomfortable coming to campus may be willing to meet with individuals or smaller groups of students in an alternate location.  Such conversations can be recorded for later posting to Canvas via Panopto and/or played during an in-person class session, possibly with a live introduction by the interviewer(s).

    Alternatively, interviewers may record an audio conversation with a guest, then share that content as a "podcast” via Canvas.

    The tasks of identifying, recruiting, scheduling, interviewing, recording and producing video interviews or podcast conversations with relevant interlocutors can also be assigned to individual students in the class.  For inspiration for this kind of assignment, visit the Storycorps website.  Voice of Witness also offers excellent resources for integrating appreciative interviewing or oral histories into the classroom.  Chicago Studies has some of the above resources available in eBook form for instructors’ use.

    To make a faculty-led individual interview more inclusive, send guests' names or bios to groups of students prior to the recording date, and have groups research and develop questions that the interviewer can share with the guests during the recording session.

    In a flipped classroom scenario, assign groups of students to facilitate class sessions based on one or more guest speakers.  With instructor oversight and approval, the group can identify, recruit, interview, record, and make available conversations with relevant interlocutors, and/or facilitate the speakers’ engagement with the broader class in synchronous/in-person sessions.  Such well-prepared groups can also engage their classmates in structured conversation about a prerecorded interaction.

    For guests who are unable or uncomfortable coming to campus, instructors may invite guest speakers to join synchronous class sessions held over Zoom.  The College also has a number of A/V "kits" and A/V enabled classrooms that permit two-way realtime interaction between classrooms and remote speakers.  (As always, make sure your security settings permit guest log-in to virtual rooms/class Zoom spaces, and that both you AND your guest have practiced using the technology beforehand.) 

    Of course, if a guest is unavailable to join during your class time, you can always have them video record themselves delivering the talk they'd planned; such video content can be used during in-person class time or made available for assigned viewing on your class Canvas site via Panopto.

    Chicago Studies provides financial and logistical support for class trips through our experiential learning micro-grants program. Keep in mind that weekday transportation, especially using rented buses, continues to be difficult to obtain due to an ongoing shortage of drivers.  Do not count on the availability of rental buses on short notice.  Chicago Studies can assist in brainstorming solutions for class transit, including chartering a U-Go Shuttle, setting up a Lyft Event for your students, or plotting routes on the CTA (taking rush hour crowds into account) -- see our Grants Processes & Procedures page for more details, and for the link to our transportation request form (and other related webforms).

    If visiting a public place, be sure they are prepared to receive a group of your class’ size. Some sites, especially those that are indoors or that cater to out-of-town visitors, may prefer that you visit in shifts, ask you to come at odd or non-peak hours, or request to break up large groups upon arrival.  Advance communication with the site is essential.

    If a destination is reasonably close to campus and/or accessible via public transit, instructors can save class-time by assigning city-based exploration to students individually.  Prepare an “excursion guide” that students can use to structure their visit to the site.  Be sure to include recommendations for getting there (and back) safely, the address(es) of the site, any costs of admission, and a map or other guide with the information students will need to make the most of their time while there.  Chicago Studies can set up Lyft Passes to assist with individualized or small group transit to and from experiential learning sites, as well as arrange Metra tickets and/or reimburse students who drive; if it fits with your class design, you can even offer your students a "budget" (e.g. "Chicago Studies will reimburse you for up to $50 in expenses that you incur while exploring this neighborhood").  For more information, review the "Transportation" and "Student reimbursements" sections on our Grants Processes & Procedures page.

    For a still richer experience that includes community building, invite your students to visit one or more sites around the city in small groups.  Provide each group with an excursion guide.  Groups can be random, chosen by the students themselves, or based on access to/preferred mode of transportation (e.g. CTA, bicycle, Uber).  Remember to counter-balance time spent on excursions by reducing reading and other assignments during the week(s) the students are required to do fieldwork.

    To flip your classroom, have your students research and propose their own excursion guides, either for themselves or for one another. 

    To add a further layer of critical thinking to the experience, invite each group to produce a virtual tour (or an edited/more sophisticated version of the excursion guide) based on their experiences.

    Regardless of product, encourage students to document their experiences (photos, audio recordings, artifacts) and share via social media and/or in subsequent class discussions or presentations.

    Chicago is a well-documented city. In the event that in-person visitation is impossible, a virtual tour of your planned destination may well already exist. For example, WTTW's Geoffrey Baer has been conducting video/POV tours of Chicago sites for years. (For an archive of his work, visit WTTW's website.)  If a pre-recorded tour does not exist, consider filming one yourself using Chicago Studies' GoPro camera and audio recording equipment (see sidebar).

    Had you planned to have your students meet with a "local expert" at a site you'd hoped to visit?  If that person is working on-site, ask if they could capture some footage for you, or even broadcast synchronously using Zoom.  (Remember to offer to give them/their organization an honorarium for their time - more information available in the Payments to External Persons/Entities section on our Grant Processes & Procedures page.)  This can provide a "behind the scenes" experience for your students.

    Like any other in-person activity, large group visits to cultural institution partners may necessitate prior arrangement with the site, particularly if the instructor hopes to make use of conference rooms or lecture halls at the partner institution. In some cases, these arrangements should be made by College administration (or UChicago Arts, in the case of arts partners) rather than by individual classes to prevent over-burdening a University partner. Please consult with Chicago Studies well in advance of planning and announcing any such visits to your students or on your syllabus.

    If assigned as part of a course, individual or small-group excursions require prior preparation on the instructor's part, including contacting the destination sites in advance.  They may have special rules related to use of their materials, require admission fees or a letter from the University, require students to make an appointment, etc. Chicago Studies can help facilitate these conversations/make the necessary arrangements if necessary.  Always check in with the partner and clarify any requirements before announcing an assignment to your students so that you can provide them with complete information about arranging their visit.

    If sending students to a cultural institution to do research or engage a collection in small groups, encourage them to schedule their visit as a project team (or to delegate representatives of the whole team to do the research). This minimizes the amount of coordination the partner institution needs to provide at any one time.  Note that Chicago Studies may be able to facilitate both transportation arrangements and reimbursements that individual/small group excursions in the city require -- see our Grants Processes & Procedures page for more information.

    Since the pandemic, a number of Chicago cultural institutions have created audio/video content for educators to use, based on current/recent/future exhibitions or shows. Some are also digitizing and/or making special archival footage available, either to the general public or to educational partners like the University.  Such content can, with permission, be embedded into Canvas modules or discussions for students to engage with. Some of these resources are available through the Library; see their guide to Chicago Studies for more information.  Also note the resources of the Chicago Collections Consortium, of which the University is a part.

    Many forms of course-related service or fieldwork take place outdoors (e.g. ecological restoration, community asset mapping, housing inventories, walkability analyses).  Such experiences should be planned well in advance and carefully coordinated with any external partners and with Chicago Studies to ensure appropriate arrangements can be made for the group's transportation, equipment, food (if required by the length of the experience), and student and partner safety during the experience. 

    Chicago's weather during the academic year can be quite unpredictable; make sure you have a backup plan for any scheduled outdoor class activities, including a clear mechanism for communicating last-minute changes to your students.  Instructors should also plan an alternate assignment for any students unable to participate for whatever reason (including accommodations due to differences in ability, illness, schedule conflicts, etc.).

    In certain classes, requiring individual students to perform relevant community service or conduct field investigations may be a valuable way to apply skills/concepts learned in the classroom, or to gather data to inform future class-based conversations.  Such assignments should be detailed in the syllabus or class Canvas site, including their rationale, parameters for their completion, mechanisms for their documentation, and alternate assignments for students who are unable to participate for whatever reason.  For additional information, consult with Chicago Studies directly.

    Small-group fieldwork or service may strike an attractive balance between individual work and large-group, logistics-heavy experiences, affording students the chance to build community without overwhelming external partners or sites in the city.  As in any such experience, instructors should coordinate with Chicago Studies and external partners to plan groups’ work, transportation, and safety well in advance.  As with individual service experiences, such small-group assignments should be carefully described in the syllabus or in Canvas, including alternate assignments.

    Given the unpredictability of Chicago's weather, consider offering students at least 2 weeks to complete city-based assignments (inclusive of one or more weekends).  This will give them ample opportunities to match their availability to promising conditions for their work and better accommodate students who work or have other commitments outside of class.

    Remote class-based projects on behalf of Chicago-based partners are possible, particularly where instructors have an existing relationship with an external partner.  

    Click here for a list of ways research can advance community priorities.  In pursuing such projects, instructors should be mindful of not imposing additional burdens on partners whose time and resources may already be significantly strained by the current circumstances.  Note that Chicago Studies microgrants can be used to provide collaborating partners with a stipend or honorarium for their time supervising/consulting on student projects - see our Grants Processes & Procedures page for more information.

    Entire classes can take on a particular place-based or Chicago-themed project that engages a specific set of real-world data or experiences.  Students can work in parallel (all fulfilling the same assignment at the same time), or in teams to sequence aspects of a more complex project.  Remember that such activities may require IRB approval, especially if human subjects are involved.

    Chicago Studies can provide resources and logistical support, not only for field-based research, but also for procuring materials, relevant training, or identifying mechanisms for the documentation/publication of the products of students’ efforts.  See our Grants Processes & Procedures page for more information.

    In an effort to complement ready-to-hand or digitally available materials about Chicago, instructors may choose to send students individually into the city to gather data first-hand, to be personally inspired by architecture or public art, or to learn from other aspects of life in the city’s diverse communities.  Students may use such input to reimagine the city’s lifeways, to craft artistic reflections, or to produce case studies that articulate the complex interactions between theory and practice.  Chicago Studies can help instructors frame excursion guides and reimburse students for costs associated with visiting specific city sites. 

    Students can also be dispatched to the city to work on individual or small-group projects in teams of varying sizes.  This can inspire additional creativity and confidence in choices of sites to visit, promote collaboration, and build community among classmates…while also potentially simplifying administration of any needed reimbursements for visits.  Individual place-based projects can also be compared to one another to enhance learning about a specific location by examining it from multiple perspectives.  As always, Chicago Studies can support individual excursions with individual/small-group transportation (e.g. Lyft Passes) and other forms of support.

    Even fully remote experiential learning projects can encourage students to build critical thinking skills through the creative application of course themes to a range of real-world, digitally-available content.  Such projects can also integrate multiple high-impact teaching and learning practices, including supervised undergraduate research, diversity learning, or writing across the curriculum. Consult with Chicago Studies and the Library for access to public or non-profit data, virtual archives of primary sources, and other materials that will permit students to virtually engage Chicago through a wide variety of projects.

    In planning an on-campus event to "cap off" a Chicago-focused class, instructors must balance potential audience size and the needs of those imagined participants.  For example, parking may be an expensive challenge for external partners invited to an on-campus event during the work week.  Chicago Studies can help brainstorm both venues and options for "extending" events -- e.g., presenting to smaller in-person audiences while live-streaming via Zoom to involve a much larger group online.

    Academic posters can integrate web-based presentations about their content via QR codes and be displayed in public places on campus (including the Urban Lounge at 1155 E 60th) to permit broader engagement.  Such asynchronous-but-in-person events should be promoted to encourage broader engagement -- reach out to Chicago Studies' program administrator via for assistance in marketing public-facing events of this nature.

    For classes where students' individual work may be of interest to external audiences, Canvas' ePortfolio functionality allows individual students to anthologize and publish their in-class work for external audiences.  Students can also produce significantly more polished portfolios using WordPress, Wix, Weebly, or other free web design services. 

    Chicago Studies can support a full range of ePortfolio-based class designs with sample portfolios, assessment frameworks, and syllabus models.

    If the process of students' work in a particular class is of interest to external audiences, or could be enriched by external input/feedback, groups of students (or entire classes) can be asked to maintain a blog in which they share their findings and articulate their learning collaboratively.  The services listed in the previous paragraph could also be used to host a wide range of blogs that are available to the broader public.  Adding peer review of other groups’ blogs can further enhance students’ learning from such experiences.

    Classes may arrange either virtual, synchronous (e.g. Zoom webinar-based) colloquia -- with students as designated, exclusive presenters and others using the Chat feature to comment -- or asynchronous virtual presentations of students’ work, in which pre-recorded multimedia presentations are made available to students’ peers and/or external audiences.  Instructors wishing to increase engagement and discussion around asynchronous student presentations can arrange synchronous discussion sections or panels (either in person or via Zoom) after students have had time to review one another's work, or can use rubrics to encourage and structure peer evaluation.

    Classes looking to create a digital exhibition with detailed image information (metadata), such as provenance, date, type, or style may also consider using Omeka, available through UChicago Library. Omeka is a web-publishing platform designed for creating media-rich digital exhibitions featuring image galleries.

For help thinking through these or other "alternative" forms of experiential learning, or for assistance with funding and logistics, schedule a consultation with our team!