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Weaving Critical Thinking with Experiential Learning in Public Administration

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Angela Pool-Funai and Linda Hansen
October 18, 2016

Students become engaged in personal learning outside of the classroom environment by applying knowledge in practical, hands-on ways, and critical thinking plays an important role in learners’ success.  In an article titled, “Critical Thinking Assessment Across Four Sustainability Related Experiential Learning Settings,” Heinrich et al. explained that critical thinking can be put into practice through a variety of avenues. This essay will explore five of these methods (analyzing issues, applying evidence, framing problems, questioning assumptions, and identifying relevant contexts needed for a solution) through the lens of Kolb’s learning cycle and relate each step to experiential learning opportunities in public administration. (For more details on assessing critical thinking, see Assessing Outcomes and Improving Achievement: Tips and Tools for Using Rubrics by Terrel Rhodes).


Kolb’s learning cycle encompasses four phases: Experience, Reflection, Thinking and Acting. Through each stage, students are encouraged to take an active role in the learning process. This participatory framework for education meshes well with the notion of experiential learning.

The first stage in the Kolb cycle is Experience, or actively engaging in a learning activity. This phase corresponds with two of the critical thinking steps as outlined by Heinrich et al.: analyze issues and apply evidence. The process of analysis and application reinforce the experience that has taken place. In an internship with a municipality, for instance, a public administration student will experience the behind-the-scenes workings of a local government. Along the way, the student may become aware of important issues facing the community that he or she can research. The analysis can be applied by way of a report, or perhaps a presentation to the city council.

In preparing such a report or presentation, the student will reflect on the experience – stage two in the Kolb cycle – and frame the problems in such a way that the report will effectively communicate with the target audience, namely, the city’s decision-makers. Framing the issues then becomes the critical thinking skill that the student is developing. Communication in this phase of the process is crucial, as the student steps back from the nitty-gritty details of the project and reviews what has taken place up to that point. Thoughtful input from other participants will enhance this stage, as the student reflects on the experience.

The third stage in the Kolb cycle, Thinking (or abstract conceptualization), is particularly important at this time in the aforementioned example when the student has completed the presentation to city officials. In this phase, the student will need to draw on lessons learned, incorporate ideas from others gleaned in the reflection phase, and question assumptions (another critical thinking step) to make sense of what has transpired in the project thus far.

Lastly, the student will act on the feedback received from the project (Kolb’s fourth step of the cycle) and begin to identify relevant solution options (the final critical thinking phase) for the issues at hand. Returning to the example above, the student might consider options based on the community’s priorities, create prediction scenarios for the different ways to handle the situation, and put plans in place to enact the appropriate solution under the guidance of the internship supervisor.

Considering that the Kolb model is cyclical, this critical thinking application effort does not conclude with the Acting phase. Rather, new experiences will arise from the project, shedding fresh light on additional issues that need to be analyzed, and so the process continues. The cycle should be an ongoing effort to improve our courses, as we seek to prepare the next generation of public administrators and nonprofit leaders.

The interaction of critical thinking and Kolb’s learning cycle offers a framework in which to structure outcomes and objectives to enrich the learning experience of the student. In the context of experiential learning opportunities within public administration (e.g., internships and professional project courses), in particular, these combined models provide a guide to students in the field – as well as faculty and field supervisors – to ensure that these courses are focused on meeting the needs of learners and programs, alike. (For more on the Kolb cycle as it relates to experiential learning in public administration programs, please see “Experiential Learning: So What?”)

Authors: Angela Pool-Funai is an assistant professor of political science and public administration at Southern Utah University. Opinions are her own. She encourages feedback and can be reached at [email protected]. Linda Hansen is an MPA candidate at Southern Utah University.

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