VIGNETTE: Lessons Learned as a First-Time Experiential Learning Program Instructor

Caitlin Cridland


As a teaching assistant and Graduate Teaching Scholar for a summer experiential learning program, I have had a very different experience than many other TAs[1]. The program I was involved in provided undergraduate students with hands-on basic and applied plant and food science research experiences. In addition to research experiences, scientific workshops are held throughout the summer to enhance student engagement with agricultural and food security techniques and issues, as are professional development workshops to help students navigate research labs and academia. During my last year as a Graduate Teaching Scholar, we were forced to pivot our usually in-person program online and provide a novel research experience virtually during a global pandemic. For those of you who are in similar positions working with an experiential learning program or course, or looking to include an experiential learning piece in your course, I hope this reflection on three lessons I learned can help you in your teaching journey.

1. Provide Clear Structure and Expectations from the Outset

With the changing schedules of online, hybrid, and in-person teaching that 2020 and 2021 brought, setting clear expectations and objectives for students was paramount for success. When designing the syllabus, create a consistent schedule, with recitations or report writing sessions spaced predictably throughout the semester. Schedule consistent deadlines and due dates for similar assignments or exams. For example, homework is always due on Fridays before class or exams are always on Thursdays. This structure helps keep the students on top of their deadlines in the class. Additionally, it helps you stay on top of grading, lesson planning, and assignment writing.


In addition to creating structure within the course, set clear expectations for the different sessions/lab periods and the materials students are expected to bring with them to class. If your experiential learning course contains a recitation portion where students don’t need to bring personal protective equipment (PPE) but do need laptops or textbooks, communicate these expectations early on to avoid confusion. If your experiential learning course is online and students are running experiments from home, set expectations early about how you will check in with their experimental setup and data collection. For example, will you require students to share their experimental setup in real-time over Zoom, or is sharing a prerecorded video or photo sufficient? Setting these expectations early also provides time for you to help students access institutional resources if needed—for example, renting a laptop, iPad, or camera from the library. Similarly discuss expectations and etiquette that you will follow when using video conferencing. For example, do you prefer your students to have their video on the entire time? Do you mind if pets walk in and out of the background? Discussing your expectations, and also your students’ expectations, is important in this new environment. It is important to note here that with the pandemic, our schedules and responsibilities have changed, and expecting a pristine background, quiet kids and pets, and top-speed internet the entire time is unreasonable. Additionally, provide resources on how to use the video conferencing software or application to help your students with the transition to online meetings.

2. Be Flexible

Just like in research, obstacles and delays are bound to occur in experiential learning. When I first started working with the program, I thought changing the schedule because of unavoidable delays or unexpected results would result in me looking disorganized and unprofessional. However, the longer I worked in research and teaching, the more I realized that adaptability and flexibility were key skills that students needed to learn. In addition to teaching students how to plan experiments and analyze data, we also need to teach students how to troubleshoot and adapt when experiments don’t go as planned. During my last summer with the experiential learning program, we had delays because the plants that students were growing weren’t growing as fast as they do in the lab. Instead of being worried (and also worrying the students) about how this delay would impact the schedule, we took the time to discuss their growing conditions and how different factors impact plant growth. By looking at other phenotypes the plants were displaying, we figured out that the lighting intensity for the at-home experiments was lower than in a lab setting, and discussed how this lower light could be impacting other phenotypes they were seeing in their experiments. From this experience, students came out with a better understanding of how abiotic factors impact plant growth, and how they could improve their experimental setup if they were to repeat the experiment. I encourage you to use problems that arise from students’ experiments as learning opportunities and still gather as much data from “failed” experiments as possible. Students will come out of your course with enhanced troubleshooting and critical thinking skills, which are important for researchers.

Whether or not your course or program is in-person, virtual, or hybrid, your students may still be feeling the impacts of the pandemic. Changing responsibilities, online schooling, and reduced childcare access due to COVID-19 can all contribute to additional stress. Acknowledge the constantly changing current environment and the extra bandwidth and time this can take. While this “lesson learned” may seem contradictory to the previous lesson, I believe setting deadlines and being flexible work hand-in-hand to make the students’ experience in experiential learning as beneficial as possible and your experience leading experiential learning as stress-free and organized as possible.

3. Check in Frequently

Whether your experiential learning experience is in-person or online, checking in with your students frequently is a must. Checking in with students can include surveying students about the course material (e.g., Do you feel like you understand impacts of phosphate starvation on plant growth? Would you like the instructor to spend more time going over statistical analysis in class?), if events outside the classroom are impacting their focus or performance inside the classroom (e.g., What concerns or worries do you have about being engaged in an online research experience compared to an in-person research experience?), or both. Consistently checking in with students allows you to cultivate a learning environment of respect and trust. When our experiential learning program went online due to the pandemic, I queried the students before the start of the program to get an idea of the level of plant science experience they had coming in and any concerns they had for the program. While we knew we could not control all of the concerns or comments that our students raised in the survey, making an effort to address the concerns that were within our control was important to build trust and openness with our students. In addition, every week students completed a short survey that included specific questions about the week’s content and space for students to leave any questions or concerns anonymously. Consistently, students asked for more lectures and tutorials on one of their projects, so we added weekly tutorials to take the students through each step of that project. If your program or course is online or even hybrid, consider making time for students to gather to work in groups or socialize. The physical distancing and lack of social interaction that virtual learning brings can lead your students, especially first-year students, to feel disconnected and lonely. Use weekly meetings as an opportunity to check in and discuss how they are really feeling. Create space, whether in current meetings or coffee hours where students can gather, chat and socialize. Encourage your students to prioritize their mental, emotional and physical health—even acknowledging current struggles and emphasizing their health as the priority can be helpful.


Being the instructor of record for the first time is scary, and leading an experiential learning experience with its many moving parts can be even more daunting. I hope these three lessons I learned during my first summer of teaching can help you on your teaching journey!

  1. How to cite this vignette:

    Cridland, C. 2022. Lessons Learned as a First-Time Experiential Learning Program Instructor. In: Westfall-Rudd, D., Vengrin, C., and Elliott-Engel, J. (eds.) Teaching in the University: Learning from Graduate Students and Early-Career Faculty. Blacksburg: Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. License: CC BY-NC 4.0.


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Teaching in the University Copyright © 2022 by Caitlin Cridland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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