Awareness of Risk in Experiential Learning

Kellen Gilbert


Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Kellen Gilbert, Ph.D.

Professor of Anthropology 




Students in my Real-World Ready class work on a wildlife conservation project based in Tanzania from the (relative) comforts of Fayard Hall. They work and communicate with the staff of the international organization, via email, Skype, and social media. I wish I could take the students to the Serengeti for a whole other dimension of experiential learning, but when I consider the real and potential risks— malaria, lions, hippopotamuses, no Wi-Fi (!)— I am content to stick to my campus class. 

Identifying and effectively dealing with risks is important when we include experiential learning components in classes.  At the National Society for Experiential Education annual conference this past fall, I attended a session on risk management in experiential learning. Listening to the presentation by Clayton Frazier, the University of Tennessee’s Risk Manager and Assistant Director of Experiential Learning, got me thinking about potential risks related to class experiences.

From my perspective as a Real-World Ready course instructor, I want to present the best learning environment possible. I also want to reduce the University’s liability in real world experiences.   Based on court decisions, it is expected that universities will act with reasonable care to prevent foreseeable harm to students (Bickel and Lake 1999).  So where to start?  Frazier recommended these four steps when developing an experiential learning component in a class: identify potential risks, assess the likelihood of risk(s), manage the risk(s), and then monitor the risk(s).  

What Could Go Wrong? Identify Potential Risks

The first step is to think about potential hazards that may be involved with a particular experience. The common areas fall under the categories of transportation, location, project activities, special populations, and community partners.  The question Frazier posed was: “(C)ould a reasonable person foresee something hazardous occurring based on the characteristics of this category?”  In my class, for example, the students do a service-learning/community engagement project with an organization based in Tanzania, but the students do not leave campus and all communication with the staff in Tanzania is electronic.  I have not identified any potential risks to the students.  If, for example, they were doing a project for a local organization and had meetings at the organization’s headquarters in Baton Rouge, this would be different.   I would need to think about transportation issues, driving to and from Baton Rouge, providing directions, and parking instructions.

How Likely is Something to go Wrong?

The next step is to assess the risk(s).  How likely is a hazard occurrence on a scale from rare to near certain?  In the example above, a potential risk may be involved with the drive to the Baton Rouge office.  A reasonable assessment is that a student driving their own vehicle gets lost in Baton Rouge.  

What are the Consequences if it Does Occur?

The next questions are about the ramifications. Obviously, the most serious consequences are to a student’s well-being: physical or otherwise. The impact of something going wrong ranges from Insignificant to Catastrophic. The student above gets lost driving in an unfamiliar part of Baton Rouge. In this case, the consequences would have a low to moderate impact in terms of ramifications: the student may have become anxious and was late to the meeting.

How Can the Likelihood of Risk be Eliminated or Reduced?

To manage risk, there are various options. One is to treat risk. The most common way is through information- -having safety orientations, training sessions, discussion with community partners, in essence lots of participant education. Another way is to transfer risk, that is, shift the responsibility of risk, especially financial, to a third party, most often by purchasing or requiring insurance, or to require the students to sign liability waivers. Some Real-World Ready courses include “Hold Harmless” documentation for participants as well. Another option is to terminate the activity, particularly if the potential for harm is too severe. After risk has been reasonably managed through treatment, transfer, and high-risk activities terminated, the remaining risk should be tolerated. In my example, I would treat potential risks by providing information, both in written and oral forms, about the drive, specific directions, and maps. I would also provide my cell number to the students so they could contact me. Risk would also be managed by the required Off-Campus Individual/Group Visitation Forms that I would complete, as would all students who were driving their personal vehicles. I would also check the weather on the day of the meeting.  If weather conditions were such that driving could be hazardous, I would cancel the meeting (terminate).   

Much of risk management is common sense. Giving some careful thought to the risk management process beforehand is necessary for safe and successful experiential learning.

 For more information:

Office of Experiential Learning (

Division of Student Affairs, Office of the Dean of Students ( especially for off-campus visitation information

Environmental Health and Safety (

Teaching and Learning Innovation, Experience Learning, University of Tennessee Knoxville (

Bickel, R. D., & Lake, P. F. (1999). The Rights and Responsibilities of the Modern  University.        Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.