Experiential Learning in Health Professions: Using Occupational Therapy as a Qualitative Instrumental Case

Tammy LeSage, University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences


The purpose of this study is to identify and understand experiential learning opportunities for health profession students using the health profession of occupational therapy as the case study. Experiential learning is an essential component of knowledge acquisition and the human development process (Dewey, 1938; Kobe, 1984; Vygotsky & Cole, 1978). Schaber (2014) through her investigation of occupational therapy literature from 1948 forward recognized that occupational therapy educators emphasize learning-through-doing. She identified highly contextualized active engagement as a consistent pedagogy within occupational therapy education. The profession of occupational therapy refers to the experiential learning portion of occupational therapy education as fieldwork education. Fieldwork education is valued by the occupational therapy profession and is considered the essential bridge between academic education and authentic occupational therapy practice (AOTA, 2016a).

The qualitative methods of stakeholder group interviews and document review were utilized in order to provide a comprehensive representation of the case so that it can be thoroughly understood. Interviews from three stakeholder groups 1) occupational therapy students, 2) fieldwork educators (FWE), and 3) occupational therapy academic fieldwork coordinators (AFWC), in addition to document review were used to explore experiential learning opportunities in occupational therapy education, specifically Level I fieldwork.

Results show that participants in all three stakeholder groups, occupational therapy documents and literature find experiential learning within occupational therapy education important and valuable. All three stakeholder groups advocate students spend more time with v experiential learning opportunities despite the identified challenges. It was also recognized that active participation is preferred over observation. Additional recommendations to enhance occupational therapy fieldwork education include: experiential learning should parallel didactic courses, reflection must accompany the experience to improve clinical reasoning, FWEs must learn ways to encourage reflective practice and students should be adequately prepared prior to fieldwork