[The Montana Professor 25.1, Fall 2014 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

The Last Normal School

Robert C. Thomas, PhD
Professor of Geology/Regents Professor, Environmental Sciences Department
University of Montana-Western

Seeds of change

—Robert Thomas
Rob Thomas

Authentic experiences are at the heart of learning, yet we struggle to incorporate them into our classroom teaching. The roots of experiential learning are as old as our species and are not exclusive to humans. For well over 200,000 years, anatomically modern humans have learned through experience, aided by mentors. Sometime around the 5th century, monastic schools in the Latin west starting using lecture as the primary method of teaching, removing the student from direct experience and giving educational authority to the person behind the lectern. By the time the first modern universities appeared in medieval times, the approach was adopted as central to higher education, and experiential learning was relegated to the so-called learned professions or trades. Fast-forward to the 21st century, and the lecture method is still central to a university education./1/

The lasting power of the lecture raises the question: Is it still working? I think most of us who teach for a living think it has its use, but my email inbox tells me there is a robust industry forming around the need to compensate for a system that is not working for many students. The incessant ads tell me I can blend, flip, click, and map students into engagement with my lectures. Some universities hide the failings of our medieval system with "beer and circus," while others celebrate it by providing free video lectures through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Even if the causes of our difficulties are poorly understood or are unjustified perceptions, we can ill afford to sit back and ignore that higher education is changing./2/

Change at UM Montana-Western

If innovation is born of necessity, we were in dire need by the end of the 20th century. Founded in 1893, the Montana State Normal School was established as a center for training teachers. It remained a normal school well after others in the country had evolved into full-service universities, leaving it under-enrolled and vulnerable to closure. Our staffing was so limited by the 1990s that many professors had to teach all of the classes related to their disciplines and some taught well beyond their disciplines.

In an attempt to find a niche using our meager resources, a few faculty and administrators began searching for ways to distinguish the campus based on how we educated students, rather than through degrees we couldn't afford to offer. We integrated disciplines to maximize our resources and create interdisciplinary liberal arts degrees and began transforming the last normal school into an experiential learning university.

In a world where bigger is perceived to be better, Montana Western's greatest weakness, its small size, turned out to be its greatest strength. In order to become an experiential learning campus, we realized that in addition to small class sizes, we needed uninterrupted blocks of time. Like most universities, our schedule was set up for 50-minute lectures. We experimented with longer time blocks within the semester, but it created scheduling conflicts and so we decided to pursue the total-immersion scheduling model pioneered by Colorado College. What emerged was arguably one of the greatest experiments in American public higher education in recent times: Experience One./3/

Suffice it to say that Experience One did not happen overnight. An idea that was born as early as 1995 was implemented campus wide in 2005 but only after we showed it could work with a pilot program supported by a prestigious Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) grant./4/ Resistance to change came from everywhere, culminating in a low point we call "Black Tuesday," but we overcame the obstacles and used the criticism to make improvements./5/

How does Experience One work?

We use Experience One at Montana Western to engage students in authentic practice in the discipline. The new normal consists of students taking and faculty teaching the majority of their classes one at a time. The typical class meets five days a week for a minimum of three hours a day over 18 instructional days. There is flexibility in how class time is distributed to accommodate creative pedagogies, fieldwork, and travel—including frequent international travel. Most students take four 4-credit classes per semester for a total of 16 credits, increasing the percentage of full-time students on campus and improving their chances of graduating in a timely manner./6/

The majority of classes are structured in blocks, but flexible scheduling allows for variable needs. Some classes require long-term skills development and are scheduled in the evenings for the entire semester. Some courses are linked over two blocks and others are offered on weekends. Many of the continuing education and online courses are taught over multiple blocks to accommodate off-campus and working students. The goal is to eliminate scheduling barriers to teaching and learning whenever possible.

Like most universities, tenure-line professors at Montana Western are required to engage in scholarly activities. This can be difficult at teaching-centered universities with standard scheduling, but with Experience One we meet our 24-credit annual teaching load through three blocks per semester, leaving two blocks per year for research, grant writing, course development and other professional development activities. Since many of us include undergraduate students in our research activities, we are altering our official expectations or unit standards to reflect the importance of inclusion.

Examples of how it works

Experience One works all across the curriculum, but I can best speak to my own experience. As a geoscientist, I teach most of my classes in the field and engage my students in authentic practice in the discipline. Winter courses are taught in a classroom, but I employ the same philosophy. Each class produces a product for public consumption as the capstone experience, such as environmental assessment reports, landscape restoration plans, and educational brochures. A recent project on the geologic history of the Dillon area resulted in a professional booklet that is available for free at many local businesses.

More ambitious learning activities include long-term field projects in cooperation with local agencies and non-profit organizations. As soon as we adopted Experience One in 2006, classes in environmental field studies began assessing stream restoration work by federal and state agencies in the upper Big Hole River drainage. In this continuing project, our goal is to assess habitat restoration designed to aid in the recovery of fluvial Arctic grayling, a declining fish species. Each fall, students spend up to 7 hours a day walking miles of stream under adverse conditions to gather data for a massive (over 300 pages) assessment report. The document includes recommendations for changes to the restoration plan which are commonly implemented by the agencies. A similar study has been ongoing for years in the Centennial Valley with The Nature Conservancy./7/

Each student receives a copy of the report to include in her portfolio, which has landed more than one student a job or a slot in graduate school. Students present and defend their work at professional meetings and through our on-campus undergraduate research forum. The reports have made it onto the desks of politicians, the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and most importantly into the hands of local landowners and citizens groups, who see with their own eyes the value of a Montana Western education.

How do we know it works?

The outcomes of Experience One on campus stability and student success are very impressive. Prior to Experience One (fiscal year 2000-01), the campus was at 990 full time equivalency (FTE) and its future was uncertain. After Experience One, student enrollment grew by a staggering 44.3% and now stands at over 1400 FTE./8/ It is important to note that during this time, we didn't add any other major attractions for students, so the growth is likely attributed to Experience One. When state funding models heavily factor in headcount, the importance of this enrollment growth for the Montana Western campus cannot be overstated.

What about student learning? Our student population is very similar to other open-enrollment public universities, including many working students, student athletes, and students who are "at risk." An impressive 56% of our incoming freshman class in 2012 required developmental coursework. With that in mind, retention rates among first-time freshman from the fall of 2012 to the spring of 2013 reached an astonishing 88%, and degree completions increased 37% from fiscal years 2001 to 2013. Our cost of education is one of the lowest of the four-year campuses in the Montana University System, so we are more than meeting our cost-benefit obligations./9/

A common criticism of Experience One is that students are missing content as a result of reduced lecture time. No data supports that claim, and, in fact, the opposite has been shown to be the case. In 2006, we conducted a campus-wide Cornell Critical Thinking Test that showed a marked increase in performance over an exam given prior to the adoption of Experience One. There has been no discernable negative impact on GRE or MCAT scores, and student success in graduate school remains positive.

Student satisfaction surveys show that our students are overwhelmingly positive about Experience One. In 2006, a Noel-Levitz Student Satisfaction Inventory (SSI) survey showed significant improvements over a pre-Experience One survey, with students particularly pleased with instructional effectiveness and student centeredness./10/ A National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) survey conducted in 2007-08 showed that student engagement in their education was significantly higher than other institutions in our Carnegie class and within the Montana University System. Most notable were high scores in three categories important to our educational model: 1) the level of academic challenge, 2) student-faculty interaction, and 3) active and collaborative learning. The NSSE survey was designed to query undergraduates about their educational experiences and to determine the degree of engagement in their education. The premise of NSSE is that student persistence and subsequent success in college is directly related to the level of challenge and time on task. They also contend that the degree to which students are engaged in their studies directly impacts the quality of student learning and the overall educational experience. As a result, NSSE contends, student engagement can serve as a proxy for educational quality. If true, the Montana Western survey data show that our educational quality is very high./11/

Evaluation of Experience One by discipline also looks very promising. In my discipline, our job placement is well above the national average. A nationwide study of undergraduate geoscience placement by the American Geosciences Institute in 2013 showed that 40% of graduates with a baccalaureate degree were seeking employment, yet a mere 15% were employed in the discipline./12/ At Montana Western, 92% of graduates with a baccalaureate degree in the geosciences were employed within two years of graduation. Our students place well because they build portfolios filled with skills and experiences that are attractive to employers. They also make connections with employers through their service-based classes and internships.

Much of higher education is perception, so it's crucial how the outside world rates your educational quality. Since the adoption of Experience One, we have frankly been on an award train. As a campus, we have consistently placed very high in U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges rankings. Our latest ranking placed us as the third best public regional college in the west, and the second best campus in the nation for offering small class sizes on a budget. We have also been featured multiple times in high profile, educational magazines, including the Chronicle of Higher Education./13/

Montana Western educators have scored big as well. We have received the last five Carnegie/CASE teaching awards in a row, including the Carnegie/CASE U.S. Professor of the Year Award in 2009, an honor never before bestowed upon a faculty member in Montana./14/ In 2013, two professors were acknowledged with the Mike Malone Montana Educators of the Year award, and we have the first and only Regents Professor outside of Missoula and Bozeman. A Montana Western professor, who shall forever remain unnamed, even "appeared" in Playboy magazine's Honor Roll list of the top 20 "most brilliant college professors" in America./15/ Our staff, administration, and students have also been recognized with various awards for their contributions to the success of Experience One, attesting to the team effort that made our grand experiment possible.

Future of Experience One

The success of Experience One as an educational philosophy depends on it being more widely adopted. Any school of any size with limited resources can do it, but two basic requirements must be met: 1) small class sizes and 2) teachers willing to commit to experiential learning. The most common response to this pitch is that it will not work at a large university. In fact, honors colleges have been providing the appropriate learning environment for Experience One at large universities for many years. Maybe universities should create honors colleges where high potential, but less well prepared students take their general education courses one at a time. Our data show that this approach dramatically increases continuation and persistence rates in this student population, so it should be attempted.

Another hybrid opportunity is to develop senior-year or senior-semester experiences within departments. Students benefit greatly from building portfolios filled with examples of what they can do with their knowledge. With a few willing faculty and some creative scheduling, senior-level classes can be offered in blocks, possibly with a thematic thread or project holding the classes together. Teacher education programs have been successfully doing this for decades with senior-level education blocks.

The real reason to consider Experience One is simply because it's more fun than lecturing. Southwest Montana is my lab. I walk the streams of the Big Hole and Centennial valleys each fall with my students, knowing we are making a tangible difference in this world. I sleep well at night knowing that political rants about the failings of higher education do not apply to me because my students are getting jobs as a result of experiences I provide. I turn down employment opportunities without regret because I can no longer buy into daily lecturing while my audience dwindles in size with each passing day of the semester.

Ultimately, Montana Western's grand experiment attests to the hard work and commitment of public employees. Many people have dedicated their careers to this endeavor and risked everything for the purpose of improving educational quality and saving a public institution. If I live long enough to afford retirement—and can still remember the journey—I know with certainty that I will recall this time with the courageous people who engaged in this struggle as our finest educational hour.


  1. Kolb, D.A. 1984. Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. 288p.[Back]
  2. Sperber, Murray. 2001. Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Has Crippled Undergraduate Education. New York: MacMillan. 352p.[Back]
  3. Thomas, R.C., Kirkley, J., Mock, S., Roberts, S., Ulrich, K., and Zaspel, C. 1996. The integration of the sciences at Western Montana College-UM, Dillon, Montana. Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs. v. 28, p. A358.[Back]
  4. Mock, R.S. 2005. Report on the Experience One pilot project at the University of Montana Western. Unpublished report submitted to the U.S. Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) program. 14p.[Back]
  5. Thomas, R.C. 2003. Overcoming obstacles to incorporating experiential learning into the geology curriculum. GSA Today, v. 12, no. 8, p. 11.[Back]
  6. Thomas, R.C., and Roberts S. 2009. Experience One: Teaching the geoscience curriculum in the field using experiential immersion learning, in Whitmeyer, S.J., Mogk, D.W., and Pyle, E.J., eds., Field Geology Education: Historical Perspectives and Modern Approaches. Geological Society of America Special Paper 461, p. 65-76.[Back]
  7. Thomas, R.C., Bartlett, L., Bronson, R., Cavill, C., Cottom, J., Grubb, C., Joramo, S., Lang, D., Langel, C., Linse, T., Morrison, L., Munar, J., Shepard, L., Zettel, A. 2013. Inventory and Assessment of a portion of Steel Creek in the Big Hole River drainage near Wisdom, Montana. Submitted to Mr. Jim Magee, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 325p.[Back]
  8. Storey, R.D., Ulrich, K.E., and Ripley A.A. 2014. Ad-hoc self-evaluation report for the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. Available at https://moodle.umwestern.edu/course/view.php?id=5248[Back]
  9. Montana University System. 2014. Enrollment Data and Reports. Available at http://mus.edu/data/enrollment/enrollment.asp[Back]
  10. UMW Accreditation and Assessment Information. 2009. UMW student response to Noel-Levitz Student Satisfaction Inventory (1998 & 2006). Available at http://hal.umwestern.edu/administration/vcaa/accreditation[Back]
  11. NSSE. 2009. Using NSSE data: National Survey of Student Engagement. Available at http://www.nsse.iub.edu, p. 1-17.[Back]
  12. Wilson, C. 2013. Status of Recent Geoscience Graduates, 2013: American Geosciences Institute Student Exit Survey. Available at http://www.americangeosciences.org, 25p.[Back]
  13. Blumenstyk, G. 2013. Academic calendars enter a season of change, in Mooney, C., ed., NEXT: The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. B7-B10.[Back]
  14. Aujla, S. 2009. Professors of the Year: Award winners are celebrated for innovative teaching. The Chronicle of Higher Education, v. LVI, no. 14, p. A7-A8.[Back]
  15. Ma, L., McCormick, T., and Schollmeyer, J. 2010. The Playboy Honor Roll, meet 20 professors who are reinventing the classroom. Playboy Magazine, March issue, p. 80-83.[Back]

[The Montana Professor 25.1, Fall 2014 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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