Theory Practice Learning @ Emory




What is TPL?

     Theory Practice Learning is dedicated to forwarding experiential education at Emory. Our name says it all: take a THEORY you learned in a classroom, put it into PRACTICE in the local community, and after a period of reflection and analysis, a deeper LEARNING will be the result.      

     Concrete experience is a powerful pedagogical tool, allowing students to internalize theories and concepts by trying them out for themselves. A select and growing number of faculty members at Emory are incorporating this pedagogy into their courses in Emory College, Oxford College, and the professional schools. Some courses include fieldtrips, ethnography, tutoring, or other community-based experiences as complements to the traditional lecture, reading, and writing components of coursework. Other courses are completely based in practice, such as science laboratory courses that meet only in the laboratory setting, or internship courses that enable students to work directly with community organizations. The methods of Theory Practice Learning are diverse, but the purpose is always the same: to foster reflection about the connection between ideas and experience.


 Theory Practice Learning first began as grassroots movement among faculty members who advocated "public scholarship" and better resourcing of internship classes. Now TPL is a program within the Emory College Center for Teaching and Curriculum and serves as an integral resource to the College's curriculum.      When Black Studies (later African American and African Studies and now two separate units--Program of African American Studies and Institute for African Studies) was inaugurated in the college in 1971 integrating "town with gown" was a directive from the College faculty. This initiative set by the college for Black Studies led to the establishment of emory's first internship program in 1972 within the Atlanta community which at the time was overwhelmingly compromised of African Americans and White Americans. As our Program in African American Studies celebrates its 30th Anniversary, it is a delight to observe that it stands as a model for so programs such as TPL.
Delores P. Aldridge,Ph.D.

Why does TPL work?      

     TPL is a holistic approach to learning. Students need a strong theoretical and factual grounding as well as time to evaluate and analyze what they have learned. Through concrete experience, students test what they have been taught and then synthesize their own ideas. The following model is an adaptation of the learning cycle of theory developed by David Kolb, a scholar in the area of organizational education and management.

Concrete Experience - Provides opportunity for rigorous engagement with questions and issues. These activities allow students to meet academic objectives of the course by gathering data through interactive class activities, field trips, internships, journals, etc. At the same time, students are actively participating in their own learning and can absorb material through direct sensory experience rather than just books.

Reflective Observation - Provides specific, structured exercises that teach students how to form the experiential data they have gathered into something more logical and meaningful. These skills and methods of analysis not only clarify experiences but also raise questions about ethics and other factors effecting the emerging data. Abstract Conceptualization - Challenges students to arduously consider the data in the light of theories being pursued in the course. Students also learn to recognize how theory helps organize, direct and implement its application. They are asked to look further into theory to determine its descriptive and explanatory effectiveness as well as its deficiencies. Designed to address the multidisciplinary dimensions of questions, this component helps students discover additional theoretical and analytical aspects that will require further pursuit.

Active Experimentation - Allows students, who now have achieved some critical insight, to transform their theoretical knowledge into new hypotheses which require further testing and evaluation. These experiments encourage students to build, refine, and test theory further. Simultaneously, students begin to form deeper senses of their own responsibilities as researchers and practitioners. Active experimentation also acquaints students with the ancillary skills required for effective academic performance including teamwork, communication, site selection, and time management.

"I was telling one of my friends about my job at TPL. He asked me what TPL was for, and I told him that we were trying to help more professors at Emory to use experience-based learning in their classes, and that we think students learn more when they have the opportunity to try things out and test what they learn. After I explained the point of TPL, he said, 'Isn't that common sense?' "
-Sarah Richards, TPL staff and Emory Alumni


What type of components do TPL classes entail?

     Courses that use Theory Practice Learning to take traditional classroom-based education out into the world are marked with the TPL symbol in the course atlas. A Theory Practice Learning course could involve any of the following:

  • internships
  • community service
  • field trips and site visits
  • action research
  • laboratory work
  • conflict resolution through the arts
  • tutoring
  • and more!

    To learn more about Theory Practice Learning at Emory, visit our home, or pick up a “Classrooms to Communities” brochure in the Emory College Center for Teaching and Curriculum in the Candler Library.