When Kolb met Hillel: Using Reflection, Conceptualization, and Experimentation with College Students

The authors lead an interactive session on the use of the Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle on their campuses for fellow Hillel professionals at the recent Hillel International Global Assembly.
The authors lead an interactive session on the use of the Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle on their campuses for fellow Hillel professionals at the recent Hillel International Global Assembly.

By Benji Berlow, Lior Cyngiser, Erica Frankel and Michelle Lackie

[This is the first in a series of articles written by participants and alumni of the YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education (EJE), highlighting EJE related ideas and practices. This article was written by four Hillel professionals.]

How Students Learn

When designing a program or experience, we as educators often pour most of our energies into the things that we can control: the content, the learning environment, and the method of imparting knowledge and do not spend enough time on what we cannot control: what the learner actually learns. And while we cannot control what our learners learn, we can create the maximal environment for the application of what it is that they learn.

Through the EJE certificate program offered by Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, we were introduced to the David A. Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle. Kolb’s theory describes how people learn through a cycle of four stages: Concrete Experience, Reflective Observation, Abstract Conceptualization and Active Experimentation. For a graphic representation of the model, click here. This cycle of “[l]earning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 1984, p. 38).

During the first stage, the learner goes through a concrete experience in order to gain knowledge and ideas and this acts as the basis for learning. The second stage consists of reflection by the learner on the past experience in order to make sense of the experience itself. Traditionally, reflection is where most conventional learning opportunities end – for example, at the ‘debrief’ or processing session during a trip or on a program. Kolb argues that this is not sufficient. People need the opportunity to practice what they learn. They need an opportunity to not only reflect on the past, but also to apply the newly gained knowledge and skills in a future setting.

It is in the third stage of the Kolb learning cycle (conceptualization) that the learner removes him/herself from the experience and focuses on takeaways and key learnings. The learner then takes his/her key learnings and creates a plan for future action and implementation of the new knowledge in new settings. This is the final stage of the learning cycle – called active experimentation.

As educators, we need to purposefully include opportunities for learners – in Hillel’s case, Jewish college students – to ensure that their learning does not end with reflection, but that they continue to discuss key learnings from the experience itself and we need to provide the opportunity for them to implement these learnings into future experiences.

Case Study 1: Asking the Right Questions

Just as we are not able to control what learners take away from the educational experiences that we create, we certainly cannot control what learners take away from experiences we did not create. However, by asking the right types of questions, we can get a better sense of learning that took place from past experiences. Here is an example from Benji Berlow’s work at Hillel JUC in Pittsburgh:

‘One of the programs offered through Hillel JUC in Pittsburgh requires past participation in an Israel experience. In the application and interview for the program we asked: “Describe your past Israel experience. What were the highlights?” After a few rounds of interviews though, I realized that I still wanted more information. Applicants were telling me what happened on their trip, but I really wanted to know “so what?” I began asking questions that were not in the interview form like “That sounds like an amazing trip, but how did your Israel trip make an impact on you back home?” or “What did you learn about yourself?

‘It was not until I understood the difference between reflection questions and conceptualization questions from the EJE certificate program that I understood that the problem was not that students were shy about their experience, but that I was asking the wrong questions. While descriptions and highlights were good to know, they were not the key of why a past Israel experience was important to the program. Past Israel experience was not a checkbox for eligibility, but rather a prerequisite of a potential learning experience, one that hopefully encompassed the full Kolb Learning Cycle. Now the questions in the application process are separated out to not only get a description of past Israel experience (reflection), but also the learning that took place as a result of the trip (conceptualization) and what they may have done new since they came home (experimentation).’

Case Study 2: Establishing the Right Next Step

In addition to applying this theory to understand a student’s past experiences and growth, we also have the responsibility to use it to orient students toward future action, what Kolb describes as active experimentation. Here is an example of active experimentation from Erica Frankel’s work at NYU’s Bronfman Center:

‘In my conversations with students at NYU’s Bronfman Center we often evaluate together what might be their right next step – what next Jewish experience or encounter would be most meaningful and impactful for them? As we graduate 70 students each Fall and Spring from our semester-long Jewish Learning Fellowship, the question becomes urgent. For most participants, this has been their first or most formative Jewish experience on campus. And so, with an eye toward helping these fellowship alumni identify their next right step, and with an acknowledgement of the size of this group, we’ve taken to organizing semesterly “pep rallies.” These rallies are designed to help students (1) process their fellowship experience, (2) understand what from the experience was most important to them, and (3) identify a next “Jewish step” with a group of their peers.

‘The design is simple: groups of 10-15 students with like interests are convened by a few older student mentors. Each attendee has an opportunity to share, in “closing circle” format, their impressions, moments of clarity or challenge, and more. The student mentors convening the rally draw out common themes from the reflective conversation, for example: it sounds like prayer, encountering Jewish texts, and social action are emerging as themes in terms of what’s been most transformative or important for you.

‘In breakout groups, these mentors guide attendees through a series of questions to help identify what’s next for them. For example, if four attendees most enjoyed the experience of studying Torah with their peers, the mentor may ask conceptualization questions: What was most resonant for you about the spirit of our conversations? What could you do to continue a process of learning next semester? What kinds of questions are you most compelled by in your learning? In the past, these pep rallies have yielded a number of surprising and exciting student innovations (active experimentation), including a student-led weekly Chavurah of 25-30 non-Orthodox peers or new leadership for a Reform student club. Of course, these experiments and innovations become new learning experiences, and the cycle begins anew.’

Conclusion: Beyond Reflection

Hillel professionals are constantly engaging with students of all backgrounds and introducing them to new concepts and experiences, all with the vision of students “making an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel.” Applying the Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle to our work effectively enables us to help students not only process their experiences, but also identify the core understanding that is relevant to them, and then support them in testing out that new understanding in a safe environment. Where we have traditionally stayed in the reflection realm, we are now doing our own “conceptualization” and “experimentation.” Whether we’re transforming Alternative Break learning to help students conceptualize and experiment with their role as a Jew in the world, or even shifting our one-on-one conversations with students to help us understand our students better and help them understand their own experiences more deeply, the EJE certificate program is engaging a group of Hillel educators and others thoughtfully as we work towards impacting the formation of Jewish identity.

Benji Berlow is Director of Jewish Student Life at Carnegie Mellon University at The Edward and Rose Berman Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh; Lior Cyngiser is the Director of Israel Engagement, Education and Advocacy at the Hillel of Greater Toronto; Erica Frankel is the Senior Associate and Manager of Student Life at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU; and Michelle Lackie is the Director of Student Engagement and Weinberg Tzedek Hillel at the Schusterman International Center.

Lior, Benji, and Erica are graduates of Cohort III and Michelle is a current member of Cohort IV of the YU Certificate Program.

Applications for Cohort V of the Certificate Program will be accepted through January 26, 2015. For more information and to apply visit www.ejewisheducation.com

The YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education is generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.