Practical Learning: Bringing Alumni Expertise into the Classroom

“The idea is to connect students directly with alumni from a whole range of different working situations and professions, and bring to the students’ attention the areas which might never have occurred to them.”

–Richard Price, Professor (POLI)


Instead of a standard outline of lectures, multiple sessions take place throughout the semester featuring previous alumni from the department. In these three-hour long workshops, students are granted the opportunity to learn more about applying their skills from their discipline in Political Science to a range of different professions, problems, and real world responsibilities.


Practical learning is meant to address the gap between the types of skills and knowledge that students gain in our Political Science and International Relations (IR) courses, and what they are asked to do in any number of professions that they might find themselves in after graduation. Some of those professions are related to what they study, while in other cases they may work for a whole range of professions that don’t seem to obviously have close links, but for which the types of critical thinking skills and writing skills that students develop can certainly be leveraged.

Practical learning in my course aims to simulate some situations that students may encounter in their professions, such as writing a report on an unexpected critical situation in a country. It is meant to expose students to a variety of career possibilities, help them learn how to utilize their skills, and continue to grow them in productive ways.


  • Connect Political Science and International Relations alumni with current students
  • Develop students’ independent problem solving skills
  • Expose students to practical and real-life situations where they can utilize the academic skills and knowledge they have learned from course work


  • Level of Difficulty: High
  • Course: POLI 395 (previously “Public Policy: Professional Skills in Political Science”)
  • Number of Students: Small-medium lectures (up to 50 students)
  • Delivery: Synchronous (in-person or online)
  • Time: up to 1 full course length
  • Keywords: student engagement, peer learning, community building

Learning Activities

Practical Learning Sessions


Synchronous (online or in-person)

Prep Work

  • Identify willing alumni
  • Communicate with alumni to develop content and structure for weekly sessions, using the following questions as a guideline:
    • If you were a student now, what would you wish to get out of your Political Science degree that would have better prepared you for your profession?
    • If you were to hire Political Science grads, what quality/qualities would you like them to possess that they may not at the current time?
  • Brief students on the structure for the course


Every alumni facilitator conducted a three-hour session, and there was one such session every week to emulate a weekly workshop format. I work closely with the alumni to make sure that what they are delivering aligns well with the course objectives, as well as ensuring that there is good continuity and no overlap between the sessions. The alumni held the sessions with the practical learning objective of giving students practice with and better exposure to real-world situations within a three-hour session. As an example, one of the alumni works in community organizing and with organizations in the Vancouver Downtown Eastside. For this session, the students were walked through “design thinking”, and the process of designing something to work with a given community. This is co-designing with the people you are trying to help, testing your ideas, refining them, and then going back to implement the ideas.

Students study politics during their degree and develop good ideas to make things politically better, but they may not necessarily know how to translate that idea into a community, so that is the value added of our alumni introducing to students the “design thinking” approach. You may have a great idea, but it is going nowhere unless you have a good roadmap and understanding of how to implement ideas in collaboration with those you are trying to help.


For the most part it is the alumni who are doing the assessing, such as grading the strategic analysis report or assessing the policy proposal for Indigenous communities. The students were also assessed by the Teaching Assistant on other practical learning components, such as resume building. The students learnt more about resumes in a session with the UBC staff, and during their discussions with the alumni.

By the end of the course, we had students redo their resume and submit a reflection on what they learned and what they have incorporated/how they have improved it, which was assessed by the Teaching Assistant. They also built an ePortfolio with components from this course.

Discussion & Reflection

What activities did the students do to develop Practical Learning skills?

The students did a whole range of things: for example, the activity focusing on design thinking and the Downtown Eastside is just one example of translating good political ideas into ways in which they might actually be potentially effective in a given community. These are the kind of notions which are not part of traditional political science curricula and that we aim to exhibit though practical learning.

Students also did a collaborative design exercise thinking on an online collaboration whiteboard software. They were all working on it together in real time, and the alumnus was giving them feedback about what was working, what could use improvement, and so on.

We have another alumna who has worked for the Department of National Defense/NATO and does strategic analyses of crisis situations around them. She gave them the kind of background information they would typically have, for example, if a crisis just exploded in a certain region and a situational report would be required regarding said crisis. Each student was given an aspect of the sector, such as economic, communications, political, or financial, to work on, and then they collaborated and brought it together in a situational report that the alumnus assessed.

We also had a PhD student who has worked with and for Indigenous communities and organisations, who helped the students understand how to engage with Indigenous communities. We had the students come up with a policy proposal and write it as a memo, and then gave them real-time feedback about any missteps they might have made, what their strengths were, how to engage with someone, and so on. He gave very practical and helpful advice.

Another one of our alumni is in digital marketing, and she had the students design a digital marketing campaign. The students just had a blast, and I had a blast engaging with them as they did it.

There was also the capstone course, which is a three-week project of building and designing and ultimately presenting a presentation deck representing a stakeholder on a controversial issue. The two alumni who were behind this course from the beginning guided the students through that project as they produced these super professional presentations of the type that most students do not get the chance to do and practice. Not to mention, to get feedback to refine them by the people who have the professional experiences.

What did students share about their experience with the Practical Learning activities?

There were a variety of different forms of feedback, but just chatting with students or student evaluations are always a good source in courses like this. The feedback was incredibly positive, particularly in the sense that it revealed the course achieved exactly its objectives.

The course gave the students a sense of all the different professions which they might pursue, and they mentioned that it was a great experience to actually do a government memo with visual graphics under time-pressure and then receive feedback from somebody who has worked with the government. So now when they apply for a job, they can say that they have some practice at doing this, and they know what is required in the job.

What are some changes or improvements which you wish to include in the future?

We did a survey, and we found that for some sessions the students felt that there was not enough time to go through it all, or that it seemed a bit rushed towards the end. Time management is something which I have been working on and will continue to do so. Another aspect to keep in mind is that the alumni are not always available: they are eager to participate and sign up for the sessions, but there may be any number of reasons which prevent them from attending, so I try to ensure that we have some back up in such cases.

Additionally, even though they are all doing it because they want to, it is advisable to rotate which alumni hold the sessions to ensure that the same individuals do not feel burdened or obligated to participate every single time the course is taught.

Do you have any suggestions for instructors considering Practical Learning for their course?

I hope that anybody who does this will utilize the resources and the support staff available to them. I have had help from UBC with identifying and getting the alumni onboard, delivering the sessions with the alumni, and conducting other informative sessions for the students over other platforms, such as LinkedIn. Julie Walchli, Christine Lee, and others also helped me with the design of the course, and other staff even delivered some of the sessions themselves.

So, a big piece of advice from me would be not to try and do everything on your own. It takes a village to do this kind of project, and at the Faculty of Arts we have amazing resources and staff to help get everything done.

Do you wish to share anything further?

There are so many different things that the students did, and I was just very impressed with how quickly they could bridge the gaps that we had identified. There is a perception that Liberal Arts students come really well equipped, and are in high demand for a wide variety of professions.

Employers want smart people who know how to analyze and write, and Arts students, typically in those kinds of disciplines, come well equipped to do that – but students themselves do not know how to articulate those skills, so we’re trying to help the students by showing them they can do all these things. They just need the exposure and the chance to do it. By working with the alumni, I was amazed to see how quickly the gaps disappeared. You just give the students the opportunity, and they will deliver with enthusiasm.