Students’ Perceptions of an Experiential Learning Activity Designed to Develop Knowledge of Food and Food Preparation Methods

Authors


Direct inquiries to author Leveritt (E-mail: michael.leveritt@uq.edu.au).

Abstract

The aim of this study was to describe student learning after completing an experiential learning task that was designed to develop students’ knowledge of food and food preparation methods. The task required students to follow a special diet and then complete a daily online journal entry about the experience for other students to read and review. Twenty-five Masters level Nutrition and Dietetics students participated in individual semistructured interviews to evaluate the experiential learning activity. Interview transcripts were analyzed thematically using a constant comparative approach. Students perceived that the experiential learning activity successfully increased their understanding of the special diet they had been allocated, but learning from reviewing other students’ journal posts was less effective. They also felt better able to relate to the challenges facing future patients when receiving prescribed diets. The level of engagement and enjoyment resulting from the activity was more variable with some students finding the challenge of the activity a burden despite reporting good learning outcomes. Further evaluation of this approach to nutrition education in other areas is warranted.

Introduction

Nutrition and Dietetics education in Australia is focused on developing students’ competencies to practice as an entry-level Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) (Dietitians Assn. of Australia 2009). The required competencies cover a range of areas from foundation knowledge in biosciences through to very specific dietetic practice skills. Entry-level competencies are developed in both undergraduate (for example, Bachelors) and higher level (for example, Masters) programs in Australia. The development of students’ competencies is a challenge for educators and recent studies have been conducted to identify the learning styles of dietetics students in order to inform curriculum design (Palermo and others 2009). Traditional models of nutrition and dietetic education involve the development of knowledge through didactic style teaching prior to placement in professional settings where dietetic practice skills are developed. However, the learning styles of dietetics students are quite diverse and many students prefer to engage in practical activities in order to develop knowledge more effectively (Mitchell and Nyland 2005; Palermo and others 2009). Therefore, didactic style teaching may not be the most effective method to develop knowledge in many students.

The competencies required by entry level dietitians in Australia include a knowledge of foods and food preparation methods, which provides the foundation for skills in all areas of dietetic practice. Experiential learning has the potential to be an effective method of developing students’ knowledge of foods and food preparation methods, rather than traditional didactic teaching methods, particularly in Masters level programs where students are often older. Experiential learning is a process through which a learner acquires knowledge, skill, and value from direct experience, which can enhance meaning and relevance of learning, particularly in older students with more life experience (Briers 2005). The process of experiential learning involves 4 distinct stages including (i) concrete experience, in which the learner participates in a practical personal exercise; (ii) reflective observation, in which the learner reflects on their personal experience; (iii) abstract conceptualization, in which the learner relates their experiences and reflections back to theory; and (iv) active experimentation, in which the learner applies the theory and personal experience into practice (Kolb 1984). Experiential learning activities have been shown to improve clinical reasoning and critical thinking in occupational therapy students (Coker 2010); positively influence the attitudes of nursing students to nursing research (Pugsley and Clayton 2003) and have been successfully implemented into a large undergraduate food science and human nutrition course (Bohn and Schmidt 2008).

In order for a dietitian to prescribe a specialized diet for an individual, it is important that the dietitian has knowledge of relevant foods and food preparation methods. A thorough knowledge of food and food preparation methods requires an understanding of the range of food products available, methods to acquire food products, and the impact of an individual's personal and social circumstances on food selection. Learning activities that require students to actively follow a specialized diet may provide the opportunity for students to participate in the 4 stages of experiential learning outlined by Kolb (1984). This may then facilitate improved development of students’ knowledge of foods and food preparation methods.

The aim of this study was to describe students’ perceptions of their learning after completing an experiential learning task that was designed to develop students’ knowledge of food and food preparation methods. Students’ perceptions of the cognitive (learning) effects and affective (enjoyment) aspects of the learning task were explored.

Methods

Overview

The Master of Nutrition & and Dietetics program at Griffith Univ. incorporates an introductory Food Science course that aims to increase students’ knowledge of foods, food preparation methods, and special diets. In order to enhance students’ understanding of the range of special diets that are commonly prescribed by APDs, an experiential learning activity was incorporated into the Food Science course curriculum in 2011, named the “Special Diet Experience.” The “Special Diet Experience” encompassed 3 main tasks (Table 1) and contributed to 10% of the overall course assessment. The task was designed in a manner that enabled students to transition through the 4 stages of experiential learning described by Kolb (1984). This involved each student being allocated a special diet to follow for 7 d (stage (i) concrete experience). Students were required to modify their own food intake to comply with the guidelines of the special diet (stage (ii) reflective observation). During this period, students completed a daily online journal entry about their experience, which involved relating their experiences back to diet guidelines and theoretical challenges associated with dietary behavior change (stage (iii) abstract conceptualization). Finally, students were required to respond to at least 2 fellow students’ journal entries and outline how they would use what they learned from the activity in practice when providing dietary counseling to patients (stage (iv) active experimentation). The complete list of allocated special diets is found in Table 2.

Table 1. Description and rationale for “Special Diet Experience” components
ComponentDescriptionRationale
1. Follow an allocated special diet for 7 d.Students researched the nutrient recommendations for the diet, and followed any necessary grocery planning and food preparation tasks.Increase familiarization with nutrition requirements for the special diet, including important foods and brands.
2. Complete an online journal entry for each of the 7 d.Each journal entry incorporated their daily nutrition intake, barriers to following the diet, and key learning outcomes.Reflect on the experience of following the special diet, and disseminate this information to fellow students.
3. Respond to 2 fellow students’ journal entries.Each journal entry response provided practical suggestions for students following diets, including strategies to overcome reported barriers.Enhance familiarization with other special diets by reading fellow students’ experiences.
Table 2. List of allocated special diets
List of allocated special diets
  1. FODMAP, fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols.

Gluten freeHigh proteinLow fatNo added salt
High fiberLactose freeLow FODMAPTexture modified
High ironLow energyLow potassiumVegan

Students were required to research the nutrient content of foods from various food composition tables and databases. The current guidelines for intake of specific nutrients associated with each diet were provided in a student handbook or were available to students in written resources that were in use by local hospitals. Students were then required to modify their own food choices to achieve the required intake of the different nutrients. Students were not provided with diet prescriptions from academic staff, but they were directed to the appropriate resources, which outlined nutrient targets for each diet. Therefore there was consistency in nutrient targets, but obviously some variation in specific food choices by individual students.

Participants

The research team invited all students who completed the Food Science course (7044PBH Food Science), offered at Griffith Univ. in 2011 as part of the Master of Nutrition & Dietetics program, to participate in the evaluation. Thirty-six students enrolled and completed the course, which incorporated the experiential learning activity. Each student was sent an introductory email, including a participant information sheet. Students were assured that participation would not impact on the grade-outcomes of the course, and data collection was scheduled after the completion of all assessment items. Students interested in providing their feedback and perceptions were asked to contact a research assistant to arrange an interview time. The study protocol was reviewed and approved by the relevant university Ethics Committee.

Data collection and interview design

Data collection comprised individual semistructured interviews utilizing open-ended questions to guide discussions. Interview questions were formulated by the research team using an inquiry logic that reflected the investigative aims of the study. Table 3 outlines each question, including the inquiry logic in relation to generation of information from participating students. A research assistant, who was independent of the course's teaching team, conducted all interviews. Interview duration averaged 11 min, with a range of 6 to 16 min. Interviews were recorded with participants’ permission and were transcribed by the research assistant.

Table 3. Interview questions and inquiry logic
Interview questionsInquiry logic
Describe how this learning task has contributed to the development of your knowledge of foods and food preparation methods.Explore students’ perceptions regarding the effectiveness of the experiential learning activity in meeting the required learning objectives.
Describe how this learning task has contributed to your ability to develop special diet prescriptions.Explore students’ perceptions regarding the effectiveness of the experiential learning activity in meeting the required learning objectives.
Describe why you did, or did not like participating in this activity.Consider students’ perceptions regarding their enjoyment of undertaking the experiential learning activity.
In comparison with other learning tasks such as lectures, tutorials, and other assignments, describe both the strengths and weaknesses of this activity.Consider students’ perceptions of the experiential learning activity compared to other learning activities in the course.
Please outline the relative contribution of each of the components of the assessment to your overall learning.Identify the components of the experiential learning activity, which contributed significantly to student learning.
Describe any differences in the confidence you have about your food and food preparation knowledge for the special diet you followed compared with the diets followed by other students.Determine the extent in which students’ experiences of their special diet translated to increased knowledge of other special diets.
Do you have anything else you would like to add?Provide opportunity for open expression of views of the student.

Data analysis

Data analysis was conducted using a constant comparative approach to thematic analysis, including open and axial coding (Strauss and Corbin 1998; Thorne 2000). First, sections of the transcripts were manually coded and organized into categories with common themes. Second, the identified themes were entered into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet in order to link themes according to their properties and dimensions (Strauss and Corbin 1998). Saturation of themes occurred when additional interviews did not produce new themes. Postanalysis discussion and verification of themes was conducted by the 3 authors to identify common or dissident viewpoints among interviewed participants. Original transcripts were edited grammatically to provide examples of key and/or contradicting themes.

Results

Twenty-five of 36 potential participants participated in the study in June 2011. Many key themes were identified regarding students’ perceptions of the “Special Diet Experience.” Key themes included—enhanced skills such as label reading and food preparation; improved knowledge of specific diet guidelines; greater patient empathy; a better learning experience than other approaches; and a valuable challenging experience. These themes have been separated into 2 topics: themes relating to the knowledge outcomes of the activity, and themes relating to the engagement in, and enjoyment of, undertaking the activity.

Knowledge Outcomes of the “Special Diet Experience”

Students generally perceived that the “Special Diet Experience” successfully increased their understanding of the diet they had been allocated. Participation in the activity resulted in students gaining insight into a prospective patient's experience of following the diet, and particularly resulted in enhanced label reading skills, food preparation skills, and knowledge of inclusion and exclusion guidelines for the diet. Greater understanding of the diet appeared to be specifically related to the students’ own personal experience of having to follow the diet. It was clear that students not only gained an understanding of the food choices required, but they could also relate this to the process of food preparation activities such as shopping and cooking.

I feel like I know heaps about my particular diet…knowing who it would be suited for, and actually experiencing it yourself gives you real life suggestions that you could help a patient with.” (Student 1, High Protein diet)

It was really good because we learnt what the diet was about…I had no idea about [my allocated diet] and then we had to actually learn what a person who had this would have to do; how they'd have to prepare their meals and that sort of thing, and the problems that you face when you go shopping.” (Student 8, Low FODMAP diet)

It's taught me cooking styles…and types of foods that people on the diet would have to eat. They're not usually the foods that I would eat, so it gives you a better idea…It introduced me to new sorts of things like that.” (Student 11, Vegan diet)

As a result of experiencing the allocated special diet, students reported high levels of patient empathy, and careful consideration when prescribing a special diet in future work environments. It was evident that students had greater depth of understanding of how a diet might impact a patient's lifestyle beyond the logistics of food selection and preparation. They expressed a realization of the significance of dietary modification and that the impact of changes to a patient's diet was far more involved than simply modifying nutrient intake.

It gave me an appreciation of the diet…I have more empathy towards [patients], instead of saying ‘just follow it’, you actually know how hard it is to do.” (Student 2, No Added Salt diet)

I sympathize with [patients] a lot more. I am more likely to ease someone onto their diet rather than to say ‘Right, yesterday you ate normally and today you have to do this straight up’ because it's really difficult…” (Student 20, High Fiber diet)

I'd be reluctant to put [patients] on to a special diet unless they really needed it, because I know it's not fun. It gives you a bit of empathy and it's not something you want to do lightly.” (Student 3, Texture Modified diet)

Students perceived that the experiential nature of the activity considerably enhanced their learning experience in comparison to other possible modes of learning such as didactic lectures or textbook readings. Consistent with adult learning theory, it was clear that students derived more meaning from the activity because they were actually doing things rather than just listening, seeing, and/or reading.

It's good to get involved. In lectures you just get told things and hopefully absorb some of it, whereas this is experiencing something for yourself.” (Student 3, Texture Modified diet)

[The activity] is getting you to actually go out and do it, rather than just sitting in a lecture where someone's just feeding you information which can be a little bit boring. This is actually ‘here's your task, go out and find the information…by doing something I learn better.” (Student 14, Low Fat diet)

You had to go look and research up what the actual diet involved and it was really good because you were doing it instead of just being taught it, and you were putting it into practice…you could relate to it a lot better than just reading it off the lecture slides and studying it for an exam.” (Student 15, Vegan diet)

Although students reported positive improvements in their knowledge associated with their own allocated special diet, the same degree of learning did not appear to translate across all of the other special diets. The main reason provided related to the different learning experience of following their allocated diet, compared to reading and responding to journal entries about other diets. It was evident that the passive process of reading the experiences of others in online journal entries was far less effective for learning than the experience of actually following a particular diet.

I got a really good understanding of what was required for my diet, but I don't have a good understanding of the others… because I didn't do them.” (Student 25, Texture Modified diet)

I know much more about my diet than I do about any of the other diets, because that's the one I experienced…I think I'd have to look up all the other diets again, because I can't remember details off the top of my head just from reading blogs.” (Student 6, Lactose Free diet)

Student Engagement of the “Special Diet Experience”

Students reported mixed perceptions about their enjoyment in undertaking the “Special Diet Experience.” It appears that students placed value on the learning gained through the activity, despite finding the activity challenging.

I think it was a good experience but I didn't like doing it.” (Student 3, Texture Modified diet)

I really liked this assignment. It was challenging but it was definitely worth it…it's going to help me in the future.” (Student 15, Vegan diet)

I wouldn't say I liked it, but I can definitely see the value in it. I'm sure we will do it again in second semester, and I'm not looking forward to it, but it is a valuable experience.” (Student 10, Gluten Free diet)

Despite placing value in the overall learning activity, common difficulties were reported by students. These difficulties mainly related to time required to research and prepare foods in accordance with an allocated diet, as well as financial and personal implications of adhering to a special diet. Students did express some concern that the weighting of the assignment toward overall marks for the course was low given the time required for the task. Interestingly, students clearly aligned the weighting of the task with length of time spent and effort required rather than the depth, degree or importance of the learning outcomes from the task.

Being uni students, you need a low budget and it was a bit costly because if you wanted to get into it you were trying new things.” (Student 19, Low Potassium diet)

It was really expensive changing everything in your cupboard and that sort of thing, and it required a lot of planning.” (Student 8, Low FODMAP diet)

It was time consuming and it was weighted quite low, but it was still a worthwhile experience.” (Student 17, High Iron diet)

Common references were made to the “fairness” of allocating a special diet to each student. Interestingly, conflicting comments were made regarding the equity of following special diets, which are perceived as simple, in comparison to complex special diets.

The only criticism I have of the assignment is that I would have liked a more challenging diet. I know that sounds crazy, but you learn better from it.” (Student 5, Lactose Free diet)

I was actually glad I had a harder diet because it was better than some of the others where they didn't have to change their diet much. It really made me research and I think that's a better result in the end.” (Student 15, Vegan diet)

It was good because it wasn't very hard for me, and I know a lot of the foods that were appropriate.” (Student 24, Gluten Free diet)

My diet was very complicated and involved a lot of preparation, whereas one had a diet that was exactly how she eats normally anyway… that's not too good.” (Student 19, Low Potassium diet)

Discussion

The aim of this study was to describe students’ perceptions of their learning after completing an experiential learning task that was designed to develop students’ knowledge of food and food preparation methods. Students’ response themes relating to the knowledge outcomes of the activity, and themes relating to the engagement in undertaking the activity were identified. Students felt strongly that the activity was very beneficial for improving their knowledge. The level of engagement and enjoyment resulting from the activity was more variable with some students finding the challenge of the activity a burden despite reporting good learning outcomes.

The learning activity used in this study was quite different from traditional didactic modes of teaching knowledge competencies in nutrition. The activity combined the experience of undertaking a new diet with a facilitated reflection process, and is typical of an experiential learning activity (Fowler 2008). Participants had positive perceptions of the learning activity, which were partly attributed to the interesting, applied nature of the task and the dissimilarity of the task to their previous learning experiences. These perceptions support previous findings of the positive perception associated with experiential learning reported from food science and human nutrition students (Bohn and Schmidt 2008).

Students perceived that the learning activity effectively increased their knowledge of food and food preparation methods related to their allocated special diet. Each student followed their allocated special diet for 7 d, and completed a daily online journal entry about their experiences. Due to the concurrent nature of these tasks, it is likely that the learning activity engaged students in each of the 4 stages of experiential learning described by Kolb (1984), including (i) concrete experience—students following the diet; (ii) reflective observation—modifying food intake to comply with guidelines; (iii) abstract conceptualization—completing the journal entries relating their experience back to the guidelines; and (iv) active experimentation—providing responses to journal entries describing what they would do with future patients. Therefore, the completion of the experiential learning stages may have enhanced the perceived effectiveness of the learning activity.

In contrast to their allocated special diet, students perceived that the learning activity did not adequately increase their knowledge of food and food preparation methods of other special diets followed by fellow students. Students were only required to read and to respond to journal entries about the other diets, whereas they were required to undertake a more personalized experience in following their own allocated special diet. As a result of these differences, students were not likely to have completed each of the experiential learning stages for the other diets, which may have influenced the effectiveness of this part of the learning activity. A more personalized approach to learning activities has the potential to enhance learning outcomes (Hickcox 2002). Modifying the learning activity in the future so that students follow multiple special diets during the course may facilitate the completion of the experiential learning stages for each diet, and subsequently increase knowledge. However, the time and resource implications of these modifications require consideration, and it may not be feasible within a single course.

In addition to developing knowledge of food and food preparation methods, students developed empathy toward patients who follow special diets due to the range of challenges associated with adhering to a special diet. Many participants perceived that the learning activity had enhanced their ability to build rapport and provide meaningful, practical advice to future patients. Interestingly, experiential learning activities have been shown to contribute to students’ professional development through the use of practical, applied learning tasks (Cronin and Connolly 2007). In the case of Nutrition and Dietetics students, these additional learning outcomes are important because they are likely to supplement learning outcomes of related courses, and may contribute to students’ readiness for professional placement activities, which are undertaken later in their training.

The increased empathy for patients following prescribed diets reported by the students may also be an evidence that students had a deeper perspective on the role of a dietitian after this learning activity. It was clear that recognizing the challenges of following a specific diet caused students to consider the importance of behavior modification for dietetic practice. Before this activity, students were aware that formulating diet prescriptions is a key role of a dietitian, however, they were often unaware that successful implementation of diet therapies involves much more than simple prescription of a list of foods. The task allowed the students to relate food choices with other food selection activities such as shopping and cooking.

Students did not always report enjoyment of the learning activity. However, the level of enjoyment did not appear to be related to the perceived value of the activity. Many students reported favorable learning outcomes despite finding the activity challenging. Indeed, a number of students associated the difficulty of the task with an improved understanding of the challenges involved in adhering to prescribed diets. Expectancy and task value have been suggested as factors influencing students’ motivation to learn (Wigfield and Eccles 2000). However, factors influencing the motivation to learn are complex. Interestingly, Bohn and Schmidt (2008) demonstrated that student reports of learning outcomes from a nutrition-based experiential learning activity were very high despite more variable scores recorded about enjoyment of the activity. This suggests students’ enjoyment of the task may not always be crucial for achieving optimal learning outcomes. Enjoyment and perceived benefit of the task may also have been influenced by the relatively low (10%) contribution of this assessment task to the overall marks for the course. Gibbs and Simpson (2004) suggest that students allocate time to learning tasks based on assessment requirements. It is possible that students did not always enjoy the current task because they felt a discord between the time required for the task and the relative weighting of marks.

This study describes the experiences of students in the context of this particular learning activity using a qualitative approach. It is important to recognize that this approach is not intended to make findings generalizable to other contexts (Swift and Tischler 2010). Nevertheless, the themes identified in this study may provide a framework for future quantitative evaluations of experiential learning activities in nutrition and dietetics, which may offer additional insight into how core competencies are developed in students in a range of contexts.

Conclusion

An experiential learning approach to the development of knowledge of food and food preparation methods in nutrition and dietetics students can result in positive learning outcomes. The level of engagement and enjoyment resulting from the activity was more variable with some students finding the challenge of the activity a burden despite reporting good learning outcomes. Further evaluation of this approach to nutrition education in both knowledge and practice related areas is warranted.

Acknowledgment

The authors thank Alannah Quinlivan for her assistance with data collection.

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