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SMA3 Metric: Experiential Learning

Service learning or community-based learning practices were included as one of 11 high-impact practices in the Association of American Colleges & Universities’ High-Impact Educational Practices report. The association identified service learning or community-based learning as one of the 11 high-impact practices, summarized together as experiential learning, and further set apart from the related high-impact practice of internships.

Experiential learning is learning that gives “students direct experience with issues they are studying in the curriculum and with ongoing efforts to analyze and solve problems in the community. . . . Students have to both apply what they are learning in real-world settings and reflect in a classroom setting on their service experiences.” (Kuh, 2008, p. 11)

Research has linked high-impact practices to increased student engagement, personal development, deep learning, and persistence as well as overall academic success (Zhao et al., 2005; Kuh, 2008; Swaner & Brownell, 2013).

These high-impact practices have seen wide acceptance as markers of better teaching and learning and have been taken-up across higher education.

Experiential learning has been an objective for Ontario PSE institutions

COU’s (2014) Experiential Learning Report highlighted experiential learning success across Ontario universities in 2014 and the council continues to highlight experiential education; both in its role in representing universities and in coordinating groups such as the Ontario Universities Council on Quality Assurance.

The National Survey of Student Engagement has also collected information about experiential learning at universities. There is evidence that all universities should make experiential learning a bigger part of their curriculum (Coker & Porter, 2017).

In 2015, Ontario’s then premier Kathleen Wynne appointed the Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel “to develop a strategy to help the province’s current and future workforce adapt to the demands of a technology-driven knowledge economy” (Conway et al., 2016, para. 1). The Building the Workforce of Tomorrow: A Shared Responsibility report included a recommendation that “Ontario should commit to strengthening and expanding experiential learning opportunities across secondary, postsecondary, and adult learning environments” (Conway et al., 2016, p. 3).

In 2017 the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development (MAESD, now MCU) circulated an experiential learning guide. The guide cited the Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel’s report and acknowledged the many types of experiential learning. The ministry outlined four principles of experiential learning and offered a six-point checklist for what counts as experiential learning:

  1. The student is in a workplace or a simulated workplace.
  2. The student is exposed to authentic demands that improve their employability, interpersonal skills, and transition to the workforce.
  3. The experience is structured with purposeful and meaningful activities.
  4. The student applies university or college program knowledge and/or essential employability skills.
  5. The experience includes student self-assessment and evaluation of the student’s performance and learning outcomes by the employer and/or the university/college.
  6. The experience counts towards course credit or credential completion OR is formally recognized by the college or university as meeting the five criteria above.

SMA2 vs. SMA3

SMA2 did not have a system-wide experiential learning metric for universities, but nine institutions included metrics related to experiential learning and four used metrics that imply their possible inclusion by measuring students that were exposed to two or more high-impact practices.

In SMA2, Ontario colleges were asked to report on the “number of students enrolled in an experiential learning program” (Algonquin College & Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development, 2018, p. 12). Indeed, the number, as opposed to the percentage measure, continues in SMA3 for Ontario colleges.

SMA3’s metric is defined as “number and proportion of graduates in undergraduate programs, who participated in at least one course with required Experiential Learning (EL) component(s)” (MTCU, 2019, p. 24) and is not initiated until the second year.

Though some university-specific SMA2 metrics included experiential learning, high-impact practices and NSSE results, the established U.S. PBF programs have not used this metric. The only previous system-wide application of an experiential learning metric in a PBF program appears to be the system-wide metrics included in SMA2 for colleges—and SMA2 was only 4% PBF-based.

This metric represents the only measure of a form of teaching and learning in SMA3.

Implementation of the experiential learning metric

07. Experiential learning

Across the four years of SMA3 from 2021–22, where the experiential learning metric is active, the average weight given is consistently 13%. The most common weight is 10% across all four years.

The Université de Hearst and Ontario Tech University have both assigned the maximum weight across all four active years, 35% followed by 25%. Lakehead University has consistently weighted experiential learning at 20%.

Brock University, Queen’s University, the University of Toronto, and the University of Windsor have all consistently assigned the minimum percentage.

Centralization and other themes

In the accompanying narrative responses, a quarter of Ontario universities discussed high-impact practices generally, not simply experiential learning. Many universities described efforts to centralize coordination, communication, and technology around experiential learning. York University explained that “by taking a university-wide approach to expanding our support infrastructure, we are confident that we can maintain a strong growth trajectory in the number of experiential opportunities available to our students” (MCU & York University, 2020, para. 54).

Trent University and the University of Toronto also described centralized hubs and approaches. Many also described taskforces and directorships tasked with growing experiential learning.

This approach could reflect the importance of experiential learning, growing it, tracking it, and reporting it, which the metrics’ inclusion in SMA3, and previous policy positions by COU and MCU, may have influenced. It should also be noted that outside of these policy priorities, the practical concerns of coordinating experiences with the community through one location would also promote centralization.

Community influences were highlighted by the University of Windsor, which like its graduate employment earnings metric narrative, noted that the local economy influences this metric.

The University of Windsor’s narrative explains that “regional capacity to absorb new work-integrated placements is not unlimited, and there is growing competition for these placements from other post-secondary institutions” (University of Windsor & MCU, 2020, p. 13) and goes on to describe a diversified growth strategy.

The University of Waterloo opened its narrative by highlighting that they are a world leader in work-integrated learning and supported this claim with initiatives and success indicators (including OSAP default rates). Western University offered the briefest statement, at only 244 words, but weight the metric at 15%, above the mode of 10%.

Laurentian’s 634 words are two-and-a-half times more than Western’s, but they weight the metric at 10%. Outside of Western’s narrative, all Ontario universities have a lot of interest and activity associated with experiential learning, but Brock University and a few universities do not assign a high weighting to this metric. This incongruity may be explained by the pressures of growth and target setting found in SMA3.

Strength and focus looks different in SMA3s than on university websites

Brock University’s minimum weighting is notable in the context that one of the university’s recruitment taglines is “EXPERIENCE IS EVERYTHING. COME TO BROCK”. Experiential learning is also ranked as number three in the university’s 5 Reasons to Choose Brock (Brock University, n.d.).

The statistical requirements of SMA3’s target setting may encourage institutions to pursue tactics that do not reflect other priorities or characteristics. This may be evident in some universities’ SMAs. A similar issue arises in the implementation of the Institutional Strength/Focus metric.

Brock University. “5 Reasons to Choose Brock.” Brock University. Accessed January 26, 2021.

Chun-Mei Zhao, George D Kuh, and Robert M Carini. “A Comparison of International Student and American Student Engagement in Effective Educational Practices.” The Journal of Higher Education (Columbus) 76, no. 2 (2005): 209–31.

Coker, Jeffrey Scott, and Desiree Jasmine Porter. “Student Motivations and Perceptions across and within Five Forms of Experiential Learning.” The Journal of General Education 65, no. 2 (2017): 138–56.

Conway, Sean, Carol Campbell, Robert Hardt, Loat Alison, and Pradeep Sood. “Building the Workforce of Tomorrow: A Shared Responsibility [PDF].” Government of Ontario, June 20, 2016.

Kuh, George D. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter, 2008. Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities, and York University. “2020-2025 Strategic Mandate Agreement:  York University.”, September 14, 2020.

Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. “Ontario’s Postsecondary Education System Performance/Outcomes Based Funding – Technical Manual.” Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, September 2019.

Swaner, Lynn, and Jayne Brownell. “Five High-Impact Practices: Research on Learning Outcomes, Completion, and Quality.” Teaching Theology & Religion 16, no. 2 (2013): 190–91.

University of Windsor, and Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities. “2020-2025 Strategic Mandate Agreement: University of Windsor [PDF],” 2020.