Experiential Learning

It’s Monday night at 8 p.m. on the last day of class before reading week. The students in Journalism 373 are still in class, three hours after the scheduled end time, engaged in a marathon writing session. They are collectively poring over notes to confirm facts and wordsmithing the class article on the murder case they have been investigating all quarter.

Most quarters, the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications offers the elective class Journalism 373, Investigative Journalism, which gives students real-world experience in the investigation and reporting of a potential wrongful conviction. This class is supported by the Medill Justice Project (MJP) and taught by MJP’s director, Professor Alec Klein.

A new case is selected every quarter, and students participate in every aspect of the investigation—from requesting and reviewing records to locating and interviewing sources. The marquee feature of the course is the opportunity to travel to the scene of the crime, visit the prisoner, and interview the individuals involved in the case face to face. The course often culminates in a story written by the students that is generally published by MJP. These student-led investigations have resulted in local and national awards for student journalism. 

MJP is now trying to broaden its reach, grow its network, and expand its educational programming to students across the globe. This is where I come in. As the lead instructional designer on the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) that MJP is working on, which is scheduled to be launched in Spring 2018, my job is to help MJP translate the student experience from an intensive 10-person, selective enrollment course to a fully online, open-enrollment course taken by students around the globe. To facilitate this transformation, I had the pleasure of observing Journalism 373 in action during the 2017 winter quarter, including accompanying the students into the field. This proved to be an invaluable learning experience for me, and it reinforced much of what the educational literature states as best practices for experiential learning. Here are a few ideas that I took away from the experience:

Give students meaningful work with real stakes.

The students in the MJP class were assigned to investigate a potential wrongful conviction, where the individual convicted is currently in prison. The students were responsible for every facet of the investigation, from requesting and reviewing records, to tracking down and interviewing witnesses, to writing a story about their findings. This led students to be highly engaged in their learning and willing to go the extra mile to be sure they explored every facet of the case in the pursuit of truth.

A student searches through public records looking for information.

Students interview the lawyer for the defendant.

Prepare and debrief students when they undertake challenging tasks.

Before high-stakes interviews, Professor Klein would review the important questions and strategy for that witness. After the students finished an interview, Professor Klein would debrief the experience, what they had learned, and how they had executed the strategy. This allowed students to go into difficult experiences feeling prepared and gave them an opportunity for immediate feedback and reflection on their performance.

Professor Klein talks with students before their first interview of the investigative trip.

Know when to let students struggle (and when to step in, especially when the stakes are high).

As students did most of the interviews for the case, there were times when they would struggle with getting interviews started, asking questions in a way that elicited the right information, and keeping the conversation focused on the most salient points. Professor Klein would often let students wrestle with those challenges, allowing them to change their tactics and learn from their struggles. However, when it seemed an interview was going off course or the witness was being particularly difficult, Professor Klein would step in and take over the interview, putting it back on track. This allowed students to learn from their struggles while ensuring the investigation was not compromised. It also afforded students the opportunity to see how a professional handles a challenging situation and gave them insight into how to better approach those situations in the future.

Students interview the judge for the case.

Incorporate synthesis and reflection.

Every week, students wrote memos about their reporting and research. While traveling, students would often do multiple interviews in a day, but every evening they were tasked with writing memos summing up the day’s findings. These exercises were multipurpose. They allowed students to reflect on the skills they used, reinforced the knowledge they gained, honed their writing skills, and provided the other students in the class with important information regarding the case.

Students visit the scene of the crime.

Students knock on the door of a witness.

You can read the final article produced by the students in Journalism 373 during winter quarter 2017 here. Keep your eye out for the MJP MOOC, coming in Spring 2018!