Bless This Mess

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Monday, September 12, 2022
By Kerry Laufer, Shannon McKeen, Michellana Jester
Photo by iStock/Love portrait and love the world
Project work inevitably sparks emotions in students. Here are practical tips instructors can use to help students cope with difficult situations.
  • When students understand the role of emotions in project-based learning, they can prepare themselves ahead of time to address issues that might arise.
  • Instructors can help students deal with their feelings by using cultural awareness tools and assessment tools that highlight the different ways that people interact.
  • “Pulse checks” and opportunities for reflection encourage students to identify how their emotions are impacting their attitudes and behaviors.

COVID-19 had one unexpected benefit for many experiential learning practitioners: It gave us a heightened understanding of the important role emotions play in the learning process. During the pandemic, the disruptions to content delivery and project-based travel caused MBA students to feel uncertainty, vulnerability, and fear—which led administrators to worry about the longer-term impact the disruptions would have on both student learning and student well-being.

Those of us involved in project-based learning know well that emotions and team-based projects go hand-in-hand. We’ve all been part of projects where a student’s very direct communication style disrupted team dynamics, where the ambiguity of the assignment itself created angst among team members, or where negative feedback from a company partner effectively paralyzed a team. We’ve also witnessed projects where the teammates liked each other so much that they spent the bulk of their time socializing.

For years, many of us have downplayed the true messiness of project work. We omit that topic from conversations that we have with the students who enroll in our courses, the companies that sign on to engage student teams, and the administrators who want to hear how satisfied students are with their projects and their high-priced MBA educations.

But the tide has turned. The topic of emotions has come up with more frequency at the conferences held by Leaders in Experiential Project-Based Education (LEPE), an informal group of U.S. business schools that meets annually to share best practices and research in experiential learning courses for MBA programs. In 2014, the three of us co-founded LEPE’s Assurance of Learning Subcommittee, and since that time the subcommittee has studied the trends, approaches, and challenges in project-based experiential learning courses.

At the group’s 2021 conference, hosted by the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas in Austin, attendees held a vibrant exchange of ideas on the topic of emotions in project-based learning, which provided the inspiration for this article.

During that exchange, Cindy Mazow, associate director of learning experience design at Stanford Graduate School of Business, explained why feelings are so important to acknowledge: “The emotions that students feel when completing projects are emotions they would feel when doing this work in real life, making it a great opportunity to discuss how we might address these emotions when we confront them in work contexts.”

The Role of Emotions in Learning

Emotions can cement learning outcomes because lessons coupled with emotion “stick.” When students are mindful of emotions, learning and productivity are enhanced. Even so, until recently, talking about emotions was taboo. A 2017 survey of LEPE conference participants revealed that less than a quarter of member schools included emotions as a topic in feedback, instruction, coaching, or reflection.

The three of us began investigating the reasons these schools cited for not having formal mechanisms to address student emotions during project work. Some respondents felt that their coaches and mentors didn’t have enough experience or expertise to address emotions head-on; some said that students were understandably reluctant to expose their weaknesses or the weaknesses of teammates; others simply felt that the scale of classes made such conversations too difficult. When our search efforts did find references to emotions, the topic was frequently couched in familiar terms like “emotional intelligence” or “soft skills.”

But for instructors who do want to address emotions in project work, today there are sophisticated frameworks, technology, and platforms at our disposal. The key is figuring out how to make it less daunting to have the conversations.

Emotions can cement learning outcomes because lessons coupled with emotion “stick.” When students are mindful of emotions, learning and productivity are enhanced.

It’s important to first understand how project learning is delivered. While each program has its own timing, deliverables, and nomenclature, most programs follow a general structure that maps well to the Tuckman model of team development, in which teams go through stages referred to as forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning. The MBA LEPE programs we analyzed generally included these three phases:

  • Early-stage activities where students form teams, get matched with external partners, kick off their projects, and prepare their team charters and scopes of work (forming and norming).
  • Mid-stage activities where students develop work plans, collect data, undertake analysis, and share findings (norming and storming).
  • Final-stage activities where students complete recommendations, give presentations, and wrap up the projects (performing and adjourning).

During the 2021 MBA LEPE conference, 30 schools shared tactics they use to harness emotions to catalyze learning. As we show below, their tactics generally can be organized by the three stages and complement what schools are already doing.

Planning at the Outset

In the early stage of project work, there are three specific ways schools can help students start learning from emotions:

Incorporate learning into existing activities. Most programs have orientation phases where they deliver content about effective teaming. At this stage, enthusiasm is generally high, so it is an ideal time to introduce student teams to the cycle of emotions in project work (see the graphic below).

Some LEPE schools devise premortem exercises that prompt students to think about past teams they have been part of or observed. Students are asked what went awry on those projects and what might go awry on this one. Such exercises create powerful and memorable frameworks that prepare students for what they inevitably will face during the project lifecycle. When emotional events are not a surprise, students are able to accept the bumps along the way as integral parts of the learning process.

The Emotional Cycle of Project Work

graph showing student emotions as they work on a group project, from optimism to despair to relief


Use assessment tools. Many core MBA classes, such as leadership and organizational behavior, include assessment tools. If individuals already have received such assessments, they can draw on these as they discuss the dynamics each student might bring to the team.

Several instructors—including Shannon McKeen, one of the co-authors of this article—use cultural awareness tools such as GlobeSmart and CultureWizard to help facilitate conversations among diverse team members. The University of California Los Angeles uses WorkPlace Big Five at the beginning of all its programs. This assessment tool allows people to identify their five personality “supertraits,” which helps them understand how they interact with colleagues. As teams launch into their capstone projects, students work with team coaches to revisit their five traits.

Plan for emotions when creating team charters. As teams begin their projects together, individuals can work with coaches to identify their pet peeves and emotional hot buttons. When students know in advance what might set off their teammates, they can create team charters that specify how to respond when they must deal with issues such as personality conflicts, work style differences, or unfairly distributed workloads.

Tracking the Impact

Instructors can use three other tactics to incorporate emotions into the middle stages of project work:

Bring emotions to the forefront during feedback and coaching sessions. Don’t sweep emotions under the rug; encourage students to verbalize emotions and their impact. This helps de-escalate conflict and minimize future occurrences.

In addition, consider implementing formal or informal pulse checks—short, focused surveys that assess the mood of a group. Pulse checks provide an easy on-ramp for students and teams to start talking about their emotions and for mentors to learn about issues while there’s still time to address them. Remote and asynchronous course delivery formats heighten the need to use alternative means to monitor team performance because direct observation is hampered.

Gather a different kind of feedback. Historically, 360-degree feedback has been used to evaluate individual contributions to projects, but students tend to provide generic feedback that won’t harm their teammates’ grades. As an alternative, some LEPE schools ask students to assess the quality of feedback their team members offered during the project. This encourages students to provide more candid feedback—which might sting in the moment, but also could be more valuable, actionable, and memorable.

Because humans make assumptions and apply core beliefs to situations, their conclusions are often shaded by emotion.

Provide students with useful frameworks. These tools help students make sense of emotions or provide them with language they can use to address emotional issues. Some examples:

  • The Leadership Center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology uses Chris Argyris’ Ladder of Inference, which describes how humans go through a series of mental processes to form opinions about data points. Because humans make assumptions and apply core beliefs to situations, their conclusions are often shaded by emotion. For instance, if Mary fails to acknowledge Jane’s greeting in the dining hall, Jane might decide Mary is indicating animosity, when in reality Mary is merely distracted. Furthermore, Jane’s conclusion might vary depending on her mood in the moment.
  • Loredana Padurean, a LEPE colleague from the Asia School of Business, focuses on teaching and talking about “smart skills” such as emotional maturity, the biochemistry of stress, and other “mushy” things, because they truly affect the performance of teams.
  • The Master of Science in Business Analytics at the Wake Forest School of Business uses a three-legged-stool framework to talk about the three domains of project performance—IQ (intelligence quotient), EQ (emotional intelligence), and DQ (delivery quotient). In meetings with advisors, teams are asked to update the status of their projects from three standpoints. From a cognitive standpoint, or IQ, they present data analyses and recommendations. From an interpersonal standpoint, or EQ, they discuss team dynamics and client relations. And from a procedural standpoint, or DQ, ––they talk about work plans and project management. The teams that struggle usually need to work through more interpersonal EQ issues.

Making Time for Reflection

During the final stages of team projects, instructors can employ three additional tactics to help students learn from their emotions:

Use short, relatable, and (when possible) funny videos to frame team debriefs. Co-author Kerry Laufer has used this strategy when students at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business are winding up their consulting projects. After showing the videos, Laufer asks students to reflect on their projects and objectively evaluate their performance. Students participate in group reflection sessions before they write their final individual reflection papers.

A short clip about blame from researcher Brené Brown is one of the more popular videos in Laufer’s classes. The video is a small but effective way to counter students’ tendencies to blame lack of time, other teammates, and especially clients for what went wrong during a project. Assigning blame can become a barrier to learning.

Encourage reflection that goes beyond learning. Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business requires students in its Fuqua Client Consulting Practicum to respond to prompts such as, “What positive emotions did you experience across the project (such as joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, amusement, inspiration, friendship), and what experiences appeared to generate these feelings? What negative emotions (such as stress, anxiety, anger, fear, hatred, jealousy, impatience, doubt) did you experience across the project, and what experiences seemed to generate these feelings? How did you respond to the emotions you experienced, and what did you learn about yourself that can help you improve?”

Celebrate! The end of an experiential learning project is often a time of heightened positive emotions, including relief and pride. The First-Year Project at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business requires teams to have a meeting with advisors after their final presentations. These meetings have multiple purposes, but ensure that student teams have an opportunity to celebrate their accomplishments.

Emotions at Work

Incorporating the role of emotions in experiential learning can help assure learning. While doing so is not easy, small steps can be a good start. Instructors can incorporate strategies within the three major stages of project learning to help students realize that emotions will be part of any work they perform—in the classroom or on the job.

Kerry Laufer
Deputy Director of the Dartmouth-American University of Kuwait Program, Dartmouth College
Shannon McKeen
Professor of the Practice, Executive Director for the Center for Analytics, Wake Forest School of Business, Wake Forest University
Michellana Jester
Lecturer and Course Faculty Lead in the Global Economics and Management Group at MIT Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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