Two Approaches to Experiential Learning

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Monday, April 17, 2023
By Eileen D. Weisenbach Keller, Rashmi Jain
Photo by iStock/insta_photos
Northern Kentucky University and Montclair State University prepare students for the job market through programs that give them hands-on experience.
  • Experiential learning simulates conditions students will face in the corporate world, where they will be in ambiguous and uncertain situations and must produce tangible deliverables.
  • At Northern Kentucky, a Director of Business Experience oversees experiential learning opportunities, connects faculty with industry, and provides coaching for students.
  • At Montclair State, students in the Business Analytics Capstone course use big data from client companies to analyze problems and suggest data-driven solutions.

The experiential philosophy of education has been around since the 1980s. However, in a 2005 article, Alice Kolb and David Kolb defined experiential learning more concretely, identifying six fundamental principles. The first three principles hold that learning is a process, not an outcome; all learning is relearning; and conflict resolution drives the learning process. The last three assert that learning is the functional integration of thinking, feeling, perceiving, and behaving; the learning process takes place in social and physical contexts; and learners actively construct their understanding and knowledge.

As more business schools make experiential learning a cornerstone of their programs, each school puts these principles into action in its own distinctive way. Here, we share details about the approaches to experiential learning taken at two institutions: the Haile College of Business (HCOB) at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) in Highland Heights and Montclair State University’s Feliciano School of Business in New Jersey.

A New Director Oversees Learning

Nearly six years ago, NKU launched the Center for Student Excellence at HCOB with the goal of helping each student find and pursue a career path. Center leadership chose to focus on experiential learning in part due to the insights offered in a 2015 Gallup poll in which graduates said they were better prepared for life if their college years included six types of college experiences. These consisted of receiving three kinds of support (from professors who made them excited about learning, professors who cared about them as individuals, and mentors who encouraged them to pursue their goals) and participating in three experiential elements (semesterlong projects, internships, and extracurricular activities).

At HCOB, programs are considered experiential only if five pillars are in place:

  • The program includes ambiguity and uncertainty.
  • External partners beyond the professor/student dyad are involved.
  • The external parties provide personalized feedback to students on specific outputs.
  • The school tracks the number of contact hours students have with the project.
  • Students participate in guided self-reflection.

These elements are designed to replicate what students will face when they are thrust into difficult, uncomfortable situations in the corporate environment and must produce tangible deliverables. Through experiential learning, students not only develop useful skills, but also discover more about themselves and the jobs they might want to pursue.

To ensure that HCOB offers business students meaningful experiential learning opportunities, CSE has created a new position, the Director of Business Experience (DBE), which was funded by an alumnus donor. The director manages the infrastructure that is essential for taking experiential learning from concept to strategic implementation. In particular, the director has three main responsibilities:

Teaching the required Business Professionalism course. Students are encouraged to take this three-credit-hour, 16-week course when they have earned between 45 and 75 credit hours—usually late in their sophomore years or during their junior years. They first work on self-discovery, analyzing their personal strengths, likes, and dislikes. They map these attributes to majors and career possibilities.

In this course, they also work on career management skills such as designing their résumés, setting up their LinkedIn profiles, networking, interviewing remotely and face-to-face, and maintaining professionalism. In addition, they undertake client-based projects that are structured to teach problem-solving, teamwork, and communication abilities.

Experiential learning elements replicate what students will face when they are thrust into difficult, uncomfortable situations in the corporate environment and must produce tangible deliverables.

Acting as a broker between faculty and employers. The DBE draws on industry contacts to help faculty find clients for class projects. As these clients discover the benefits of being affiliated with the school, some become employers of NKU’s graduates and some become donors who fund projects within the business school.

Overseeing personalized student coaching. More than half of NKU’s students are first-generation college learners who need polish and development. Through coaching, the DBE helps students gain the competence and confidence they need to pursue internships and jobs. But since one person can’t interact with 1,700 business students, the school also trains a group of students to become career coaches who help peers navigate career paths and develop necessary management skills.

Micro Internships Provide Experience

HCOB peer coaches are part of what is known as the Micro Internship program. Micro Interns are students who are paid to work with faculty members on small projects which, if grouped together, would constitute full internships. As they work one-on-one with faculty, students develop connections and undertake experiences that help them discover their proclivities, preferences, and strengths. All students are eligible for Micro Internships, but underrepresented minorities, first-generation learners, and international students are given first priority and fill nearly half of the available positions.

Two very different examples illustrate the range of the Micro Internship program. The first is a project created by a member of the marketing faculty, who employed students to review short-form video advertising on social media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. The students collected and coded 1,000 ads for both design and sound and then determined which factors affected consumers’ engagement with the ads. For instance, they noted if videos were designed to include elements such as human faces, emotions, or captions. They also noted what kind of music was used and whether the sound included the advertiser’s voice or a platform-generated voice.

Students shared their results at Kentucky Posters-at-the-Capitol, an annual event where undergraduates from eight state universities present their research to Kentucky legislators. The event is a skill- and network-building opportunity for participating students.

Another Micro Internship, which is ongoing, trains students in the research and peer review process. The project is connected to Nýsa, The NKU Journal of Student Research, which publishes the best research produced by NKU students. Interns in the editorship project encourage fellow students to submit research work, review those submissions, correspond with faculty reviewers and authors, and attend editorial review board meetings. In this way, interns relieve the faculty editorial board of some of the administrative burden of producing the journal while they simultaneously build skills in oral and written communication, time management, and project management.

Two Students Find Job Success

Based on recent data that HCOB has collected, students increase their confidence with each experiential learning opportunity they engage in. In one case, a young man shared that he “lived through” a client-based project in which the final exam for the course required him to sell the company’s product to its sales executives. A reserved young man who had never been interested in sales, he leveraged this experience into a position as a LinkedIn Enterprise Sales Consultant.

In another case, a young woman joined several classmates to complete a project for a client based in the Czech Republic. With her team, she spent eight weeks on campus in Kentucky developing the marketing project before they all flew to Prague to deliver results to the organization’s leaders. Postgraduation, this student remarked that employment interviews are experiential. She believed that working on domestic and international client projects enabled her to provide compelling, experience-based answers in interviews—and helped her land her dream job with a Fortune 100 company.

A Capstone Course Invites Analysis

Experiential learning is also a powerful tool at Montclair State University, where this approach to learning is deeply embedded in co-ops, internships, projects, and field trips. Most important, it is an essential element of capstone courses at the Feliciano School of Business.

For example, in the Business Analytics Capstone course, students are placed within companies to complete projects that address live business problems. Working individually or in teams, they use real-world data to analyze problems, then communicate their findings to interested stakeholders and receive detailed feedback in return. Through these applied projects, they come to appreciate the possibilities and limitations of the analytical techniques they have learned in class. They reap multiple additional benefits:

They have an opportunity to work directly with companies to organize and lead projects. Students must define the objectives, scope, and metrics of their projects; align stakeholders; and secure data and other resources. They also must write and win approval for a project charter.

As students use real-world data to analyze company problems, they come to appreciate the possibilities and limitations of analytical techniques they have learned in class.

They acquire hands-on familiarity with analytical tools. They extract and prepare information related to large data sets in the context of live business problems. They also acquire experience in choosing and using the appropriate software to solve data problems.

They learn to use visualization tools to communicate to business audiences. They share the results of their analysis and the implications—including the ethical implications—for all the different functions of the business.

They place the project within a larger business context. Students explain how their data strategy and governance process has relevance for the entire organization. They also recommend next steps for future analyses that will improve the company.

Students Create Useful Models

Two examples show the range of experiential projects at Montclair State. In one instance, students developed statistical models that will determine if weather conditions will affect a client company’s stock market price. The student models, which include quarterly forecasts of the impact of extreme weather, will predict stock prices at least one month ahead of the company’s earnings reports. With this advance knowledge, the company will be able to mitigate loss created by unavoidable circumstances created by bad weather. In addition to using MS Office to conduct their analysis, students employed Python, R, Azure, Tableau, Qlik, and other visualization tools.

In another project, students relied on data analytics to monitor water distribution and leakage problems for a client company responsible for managing thousands of miles of buried water transport networks. With such an early warning system, the company will be able to respond to problems more quickly, which will reduce the chance that leakages will impede traffic, impact businesses, and lead to water contamination.

In both of these projects, clients received real value from the students’ work. Just as important, students engaged in deep learning by using data to solve actual problems. They had a chance to experience the demands they will face on their jobs when they will leverage multiple statistical platforms to solve vexing business challenges.

Experiential Learning Benefits Everyone

In the business world, companies improve outcomes by creating and refining systems. Similarly, business schools can improve outcomes for their students by carefully constructing experiential learning infrastructures that prepare their graduates to succeed on the job.

When students have opportunities to solve actual business problems, they produce quantifiable, real-world results. When stakeholders see these results, they are more confident about investing in business education. Students are more likely to persist in their degree pursuits, and employers are more eager to partner with schools and hire their graduates.

It takes courage for students to make the transition from college to the workplace. Competence and confidence are the two components of courage—and experiential learning delivers on both.

Eileen D. Weisenbach Keller
Marketing Professor, Assistant Dean, and Director of the Center for Student Excellence, Haile College of Business, Northern Kentucky University
Rashmi Jain
Professor in the Department of Information Management and Business Analytics, Chair of the University Graduate Council, Feliciano School of Business, Montclair State University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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