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Ohio State University Extension


Implementing "Learning by Doing" Strategies

4-H Youth Development
Jason A. Hedrick, Ohio State University Extension, Putnam County, 4-H Youth Development

How do youth development professionals and club advisors develop "learning by doing" opportunities for youth? The guiding principle of designing educational opportunities for youth should reflect both the philosophy of "learning by doing" and also focus on content based on proven facts (research-based). "Learning by doing" is active, hands-on, and engaging for 4-H members. The goal of this teaching approach is for learners to construct mental models that allow for "higher order" performance such as applied problem-solving and the transferring of information and skills (Churchill, 2003). Essentially, developing lesson plans should focus more on "making, producing, practicing, and observing" exercises rather than teacher-directed lecture. Follow the strategies outlined below to help you get started.

En‚Äčable Collaboration Among 4-H Members¬†

Collaborative learning is a method of teaching and learning in which youth explore a significant question or create a meaningful project together as a small group. An example of a collaborative activity is challenging a small group of club members to generate a list of skills that are needed to be a successful leader, or asking the small group to identify the best ways to generate funds for a club project. When facilitating a quality collaborative experience, two things occur. First, collaborative environments allow members to share their own experiences; this translates into teachable moments for others. Club members transition from learner to teacher within these small groups. Small group collaboration teaches club members to utilize and collectively benefit from the strengths of individual group members. Secondly, members begin to master the skills of group work. Team work, group communication, compromise, and listening are all enhanced by the experience.

Promote Self-Directed Exploration

In today's world of Internet and multimedia tools, it is easy to find large quantities of information quickly. Long gone are the days of library card catalogs and copying encyclopedia and journal pages for research projects. With the stroke of a few keys, tons of information is loaded onto the computer screen. The challenge for youth, with assistance from adults, becomes wading through information overload to identify what is fact and what is fiction. One key role an adult can play during this fact-finding process is to encourage youth to cross-check and confirm information on multiple websites. Promoting self-directed investigation and research impels learners to rely on evidence instead of upon authority (text, teacher, parent) (Haury and Rillero, 1994). Most students live in an authoritarian world with little or no opportunity to practice decision-making because nearly everyone tells students what to do and when to do it (Haury and Rillero, 1994). Learning how to navigate through information for the purpose of a group activity enhances competencies in fact-finding and independence. For example, adults may challenge students in a small group to explore what type of pet rabbit is best suited for a cold climate environment, or what is the best design for a rocket. Students learn to answer their own questions using valid research tools, and they gain skills in determining fact versus unreliable information.

Share the Results and Products of the Activity-Based Experience

A key component to a successful "learning by doing" approach is to provide the opportunity for students to share the results of their experiences and self-evaluate their performance as a group. After allowing students to summarize their experience or share the knowledge they acquired from an activity, it's valuable to ask the question, "if you could do the activity over, what would you differently?" or "what improvements would you make?" These types of reflective questions allow students to self-identify improvements and enhance visionary thinking. Adults can also use this sharing period to help students link what they learned to other life experiences. For example, adults may ask, "how is working in this group similar to being a teammate on a sports team?" or "what were some effective ways for communicating with your group, and how can they can be used when serving on student council?" Lastly, the sharing period of activity-based learning is important because it communicates the small group experiences to the larger learning group.


Remember the Chinese proverb: "Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand." That is the core of the 4-H philosophy, and it should be the guiding principle for how 4-H professionals and adult volunteers construct youth opportunities. The 4-H program is designed to teach youth by doing. Curriculum, programming, and club work guide youth to learn skills by actually doing the skills involved. The approach is much more involved than simply reading a textbook, listening to a lecture, or learning in a formal classroom. There is no better way for 4-H members to learn new skills than to actually put the skills into action.


  • Churchill, D. (2003). Effective design principles for activity based learning: The crucial role of "learning objectives" in science and engineering education. Singapore: Nanyang Technological University's National Institute of Education.
  • Haury, D., & Rillero, P. (1994). What are the benefits of hands-on learning? How do I justify a hands-on approach? In Perspectives of hands-on science teaching (chap. 2). Retrieved January 25, 2011, from
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Originally posted Mar 12, 2013.