ICYMI: Enhancing the Student Experience

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Monday, April 22, 2024
By Sharon Shinn
Photo by iStock/javi_indy
Articles from the AACSB Insights archives explore how business schools can craft learning opportunities that are stimulating, engaging, and memorable.
  • Students get hands-on experience solving real-world problems when they run venture capital funds and participate in school outreach efforts.
  • Courses that incorporate theater, improv, creativity exercises, and business simulations teach students how to think fast and react to unpredictable situations.
  • More schools are providing mental health support through mindfulness workshops and extracurricular activities aimed at student well-being.

As universities face increased competition from alternative education providers, how can business schools make sure their programs remain the most attractive options? How can they enhance the learning experience in ways that other providers can’t match?

The answers can be complex, but a few things seem clear: School-based programs should offer students opportunities they would find nowhere else, provide learning experiences that are enjoyable—and focus on each student as a whole person, not just a learner. Here, in case you missed them, we revisit recent articles from AACSB Insights that explore just how schools can achieve these goals.

Get Students Involved

Some of the most powerful learning opportunities are experiential. When students have a chance to participate in research or make an active difference in a community, they’ll learn lessons they’ll never forget.

One example is the student-run Peachtree Minority Venture Fund created in 2021 by MBA candidates at Emory University and funded by 1 million USD allocated by the Goizueta Business School. Students receive training in a course that’s focused on the fund, then they begin vetting potential investment opportunities from among hundreds of companies run or proposed by entrepreneurs from underrepresented groups. Read about the program in “A Fund for Underrepresented Entrepreneurs.”

Another example is the University of Pittsburgh’s annual Super Analytics Challenge, a hackathon-style event where students design solutions to social problems. In the first iteration of the event, students devised solutions to the problem of homelessness in the Pittsburgh community, from providing homeless individuals with academic resources to improving access to suitable housing.

The pandemic showed us “that our students are anxious to make an impact outside of the classroom,” writes Pittsburgh’s Sara B. Moeller in “Challenging Students to Improve the World.” “And it underscored the importance of our school’s mission to prepare students to be catalysts for change.”

Similarly, business students at Fordham University have an opportunity to participate in the outreach efforts of the Gabelli School of Business. In “Pipeline to Academic Diversity,” Clarence Bell describes the Corporate Communications High School Pipeline Program (CCP), which exposes high school students from the Bronx and Harlem to the field of business.

Not only is the semesterlong CCP curriculum taught by sophomores in the business school, but Gabelli students actually lead the program, oversee its instructors and mentors, and work directly with corporate sponsors. At the same time, Gabelli’s DEI Student Advisory Board organizes cultural events and other initiatives. Through these activities, says Bell, students receive thorough training in “implicit bias, color blindness, social justice frameworks, and corporate strategies on environmental, social, and governance issues.”

Make Learning Fun, Part I

While business courses frequently address serious topics, the learning process itself can contain light-hearted moments. Many educators are creating memorable lessons by introducing elements of humor and improvisation into the classroom.

For instance, in “Using Improv to Inspire Inclusion,” Kyle Emich, Anne Libera, and Wendy Smith outline a number of improvisational and interactive exercises they use to “help students warm up to class material and quickly feel more present and included.”

Many educators are creating memorable lessons by introducing elements of humor and improvisation into the classroom.

In Pass the Clap, students sit in a circle try to synchronize their clapping pattern with the people next to them. In improvisation exercises based off the Yes, And approach, students discuss their diametrically opposed opinions on specific topics, but listen “with gratitude” to another person’s point of view. “The unscripted nature of improvisation creates unexpected opportunities for students to build connections, boost learning, and feel a sense of belonging,” write Emich, Libera, and Smith.

Improv, theater, and dance also can help leaders learn how to manage unpredictable situations, says Ralf Wetzel in “Teaching Adaptability Through the Performing Arts.” In one MBA class exercise, he chooses five random students to act as a new board of directors giving a presentation about their company—without knowing the industry, the core product, or the nature of the most recent crisis. Before mastering improv techniques, students flounder during the presentation; afterward, they thrive.

“In improvisational theater, performers don’t know what’s going to happen next; they must adapt quickly to changing circumstances, make rapid decisions, and trust their fellow actors to help them through the scene,” Wetzel points out. “When we incorporate the performing arts into our business classrooms, students learn to access their emotions, understand their bodily cues, and help those around them feel psychologically safe.”

Humor is another technique that can help professors convey even the most complicated concepts, says David Stolin in “Using Comedy to Teach Serious Business.” He worked with comedian Sammy Obeid to create more than a dozen videos for the TBS Inspiring Guest project at Toulouse Business School. Each video was a funny but informative look at topics such as finance, international trade, marketing, and data science.

“By producing short educational comedies—or ‘edcoms,’ as I call them—we create synergy between ‘haha’ and ‘aha’ moments. We turn humor into a weapon of mass instruction,” writes Stolin.

Make Learning Fun, Part II

Even professors who aren’t prepared to crack jokes and oversee improv exercises can make learning enjoyable, particularly through simulations and serious games.

“One of the best ways for students to gain practice is through simulations that allow them to apply and refine their knowledge,” asserts Ernie Cadotte in “Simulations Spark Engagement and Real Learning.” As a designer of serious games, Cadotte believes simulations are most effective when they include seven elements: teamwork, leadership development, executive briefings, business plans, stockholder reports, assessment metrics, and instructors who act as coaches.

Serious games offer four distinct benefits, write Marion Festing and Tobias Schumacher in “Playing to Learn: Serious Games in Higher Ed.” They make learning engaging, allow students to experience authentic situations, simplify complex tasks, and generate assessment opportunities.

At the same time, serious games teach a range of cognitive and behavioral competencies. According to the authors, who tracked outcomes for a game they created, “we could see that players not only acquired knowledge about intercultural management, but also improved their behavioral competence when they interacted with individuals from other countries.”

Serious games teach a range of cognitive and behavioral competencies. They also convey specific messages, such as the importance of sustainability.

Often, games are designed to teach specific messages, such as the importance of sustainability. For instance, the Fishbanks simulation provides students with a stark lesson about the dangers of overfishing the oceans, writes C.B. Bhattacharya in “In Business, Sustainability Starts With Purpose.” Even though participants understand they’re participating in a session about sustainability, the result is the same every time: The ocean runs out of fish.

“Once they have played the game, participants remember the key lessons for a long time,” says Bhattacharya. “For students in business programs, these lessons are just as essential as courses in accounting and management.”

Carmela Aprea and Laura Marie Edinger-Schons agree. They’ve developed an interactive class at the University of Mannheim where students spend part of their time learning about urgent societal issues such as climate change, species extinction, and water scarcity, and part of their time learning game design. Then students create games designed to teach the basic concepts of sustainability to others, particularly younger students.

“To truly empower students as changemakers,” write Aprea and Edinger-Schons in “Gamifying Sustainability,” “schools need to employ innovative learning methods that engage learners in ways that more traditional methods do not.”

Provide Unique Experiences

Some of those innovative learning methods consist of experiences that students are unlikely to get anywhere else.

For example, in a required course at Texas Christian University, students travel abroad to see firsthand how people around the world have addressed complex ethical challenges. During a 2023 trip to Sicily, students visited an orange grove run by a nonprofit land collective called Libera Terra. The organization takes real estate assets confiscated from the Italian Mafia and creates new enterprises that employ local farmers, immigrants, and prisoners.

“I want students to leave the course with an understanding of a different cultural context, a willingness to view ethical issues from multiple perspectives, and an ability to develop equitable solutions,” writes Laura Meade in “Global Immersions, Ethical Contexts.”

Similarly, students from Fundação Getulio Vargas’s São Paulo School of Business Administration (FGV EAESP) immerse themselves in unfamiliar settings to gain insights into crucial societal issues. In a course about sustainability, participants study the Amazon rainforest to learn about climate change and the importance of sustainable business practices.

Business schools can offer experiences that students are unlikely to get anywhere else. When students immerse themselves in unfamiliar settings, they gain insights into crucial societal issues.

During the pandemic, virtual online experiences brought the region to life, and conversations with Indigenous leaders and sustainability experts highlighted the complexity of humans’ relationship with the land. In other years, students have taken in-person excursions to places such as the Tapajós region in the Brazilian state of Pará.

Such trips encourage students to reflect on their assumptions about the world and “understand ‘the other’ as both human and nonhuman beings,’” write Fernanda Carreira, Daniela Gomes Pinto, and Marina Kuzuyabu in “Sustainable Leadership: The Rainforest Perspective.” “We want them to formulate new concepts of what it means to be a leader.”

Focus on the Whole Student

In addition to turning students’ attention to the outside world, schools increasingly are asking students to tend to their inner selves, particularly since the stresses of the pandemic put mental health front and center. Many institutions now offer workshops, seminars, and special activities built around mental well-being.

Hema Krishnan advocates the benefits of a sustained practice of mindfulness. This “not only reduces stress, anxiety, insomnia, and burnout, but also increases energy and vitality,” she writes in “Mindfulness: A Critical Skill for Future Leaders.” She adds that those who practice mindfulness “exhibit many of the traits that management and leadership scholars characterize as effective and transformational, such as emotional intelligence, clarity, focus, energy, empathy, and patience.” She recommends that schools familiarize students with tools and practices such as breath awareness, sitting meditation guided imagery, and mindful activities.

Many schools are finding other ways to enhance mental health. In 2020, the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business hired an embedded therapist who splits her time between offering individual therapy sessions and identifying environmental issues that might be damaging student health.

The school also began using social media channels to provide students with emotional support; formed an advisory board to assess student needs; partnered with student organizations to deliver programming on self-care, self-esteem, and stress management; embedded stress-reduction techniques into the required curriculum; and began training faculty in the best ways to respond to students who need assistance.

“We cannot be effective as educators if our students are not in the right headspace for learning,” writes Amy Kristof-Brown in “We Must Invest in our Students’ Mental Health.” “We must make mental wellness an essential part of our missions.”

Provide a Transformational Experience

Too many of today’s students have a “transactional” approach to education, says Howard Gardner in “The Prevailing Mindset for College Students Today.” That is, they are pursuing degrees simply because they want to get better jobs. If schools don’t provide transformational experiences, he warns, job-seeking students have little reason to come to campus. “Goldman Sachs and Google could recruit promising students right out of high school and train them,” he says.

But if schools give students opportunities to learn, grow, meet new people, indulge their curiosity, and develop a deeper understanding of the world, he says, those schools will “serve themselves and the broader society.”

Sharon Shinn
Editor, AACSB Insights
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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