Experiential learning teaches MBAs how to continue acquiring new skills and knowledge throughout their careers, writes Stuart Robinson
To succeed in a world of rapid and turbulent change, MBA graduates need to have learned how to learn. In Business School classrooms, we present knowledge in packaged, and hopefully accessible, forms as part of a structured learning product; the MBA. On graduation, when students proceed to corporate, public sector or startup life, that structure of institutionally based education is largely lost.
The MBA graduate who wants to remain relevant in the workplace must find a way of continually learning and cannot rely on thoughtfully built slide packs, well-organised seminar discussions and integrated assessments. Experiential learning on an MBA programme has a big part to play.
In the 1980s, David Kolb described experiential learning as a process that brings education and personal development together with workplace experience. He expressed this as a cycle of experience, observation and reflection. Effective learners and managers may fulfil this process naturally as a part of their daily practice. However, others may need help to recognise the value of the interplay between different activities in the cycle, or to ensure they cover it all.
A key question for MBA programme designers is how they can structure experiential learning not only for the benefit of students’ immediate learning but also as a way of teaching them how to learn continually, building a skill that will serve them throughout their future careers. I believe there are five fundamental aspects that are key to successfully planning and delivering experiential learning in MBA-level education.
Any experiential learning must be real and relevant to MBA students and the challenges they face both during the programme and afterwards. This is part of the student’s process of learning to recognise significant learning opportunities in the future. We often seem to look back on our past experiences and recognise them as important learning milestones. Part of learning how to learn is getting to this recognition earlier, ideally as the experience is happening. In the slightly artificial environment of an MBA it is easy, but often overlooked, for a tutor to point out to students that they are in the midst of an important learning experience.
2. Integration throughout an MBA programme
Experiential learning events should be used to build a student’s ability to learn by complementing other sessions and modules, to encourage them to reflect repeatedly on the results of action and the development of appropriate responses. Careful integration can provide multiple and developing cycles of experience, reflection and experimentation.
Experiential learning focused on leadership, for example, can be set up as part of the overall pedagogical approach to core leadership topics in the curriculum. In planning the MBA programme at the University of Exeter Business School, we put in milestone events throughout the academic year where students come together around a specific challenge.
Examples include learning to work in teams on a full-day outdoor exercise, co-operating with others on innovative designs and a corporate challenge where students work together under time pressure to address a problem posed by a large organisation. Each event is integrated with the year-long leadership module.
Students’ individual achievements in these challenges are used as a basis for their personal learning about leadership. Surveys, questionnaires, videos, and photographs from the events provide the raw material for reflection and modification of approaches at an individual level.
3. Ensuring all students can take part
Experiential learning needs to be accessible and flexible enough to accommodate the learning needs of different MBA students. In some cases, experiential learning can be physically challenging or demanding as it takes students out of their comfort zones. This risks isolating those who will not or cannot take part. The design of learning must therefore take the varying needs and abilities of the whole cohort of students into account.
When we took a group of students on our first leadership expedition last year, the need for accessibility was very clear. We asked them to spend a week trekking across a high plateau in Norway with heavy packs, dried food and in weather conditions that were, at times, very challenging. Students came along with different levels of fitness and aptitude for the personal discomforts that come with a week in the wilderness. Although all ended well in our case, it was clear that personal physical capability should not be a barrier to gaining the educational value that an experience like this offers. Our plan for the future is to offer different ways of tackling the expedition; for example, using huts as an alternative to tents or adapting the targets for distance to be covered. These steps will broaden accessibility without affecting the opportunities for personal development that the experience brings.
4. Effective measurement
Experiential learning should be designed so the overall impact on the student and the performance of individual students can be analysed. Without effective measurement and reflection, experiential learning can sometimes be viewed as a gimmick or a bit of fun, and not a true part of the overall educational process.
Incorporating elements of reflective work into different modules and other learning activities across the MBA helps both students and staff to measure progress. This must be seen to be valuable by the student, however. Asking for deep and thoughtful reflection on different aspects of improvement (‘what would you do differently?’) and not simply a description of what happened is very important. For example, we ask students to describe themselves and their goals at the outset of the programme and then to reflect on the experience at the end, setting out specific next steps that they intend to follow.
Extending this from the individual to the wider group is also helpful. Much MBA work is group based, with the key aim of teaching students not only how to deal with the task at hand but also to practise the skills and behaviours needed to work and interact with others. This has much experiential value but can be overlooked when measuring results. Peer assessment can play a role, but is sometimes a blunt-edged tool if there is conflict in groups. If there is time, a more structured approach, using surveys to capture students’ thoughts and feelings at planned points in a group exercise, can provide a useful basis for productive group-based reflection and action planning.
Finally, effective experiential learning needs to be highly memorable. The learning experiences we create for students during an MBA should be remembered long after graduation. Memory of specific MBA experiences can form the basis of templates for action in the future. Students will recall some experiences more than others, reflecting their individual interests and the achievements they value. Building a rope bridge across a river, leading a team through a snowy wilderness, overcoming their own nerves to make a successful client presentation are all examples of the type of experience we try to create during our MBA. These form the basis of the good stories we want our alumni to tell, cementing their learning from the MBA and, in the end, enthusing others to embark upon it.
Effective experiential learning not only helps students to learn, it can bring renewed vigour and energy to an MBA programme, helping to build its reputation and that of the wider Business School.
Experiential learning at the University of Exeter Business School
Experiential learning runs across the Exeter MBA’s 12-month curriculum, developing from abstract through to real experiences and from a group focus to an individual one.
For example, in the first week, students are asked to work in teams to deliver a group result. This is not a classroom exercise – we ask them to build a bridge across a local river. Sometimes they get wet.
Afterwards, we ask them to reflect on the experience and integrate this with our more academic leadership module. The experience of working in a new and diverse team, the subsequent reflection, and the opportunities this gives us for the building of teams in term one of the MBA, helps establish an approach to effective teamwork with the students. This culminates in a term-two exercise in which students are asked to work in their now-established teams to prepare and deliver a proposal to a client. We work with large organisations (Unilever and Ikea are recent examples) which bring a problem to the class.
Students have a week to integrate their knowledge from the core MBA programme into a reasoned response and proposal. On the final day, they present their ideas to the organisation’s managers who are facing the problem in the real world. This simulates an authentic consultancy exercise calling for analytical rigour, creativity and persuasion skills.
The experience of this challenge is then taken forward into an individual consultancy exercise that the student carries out with a client. Building on skills they have developed or that have been pointed out to them through peer feedback, they must figure out and agree a project brief that will deliver client value when carried out. This is then implemented in the client’s organisation, forcing the student to overcome barriers, be creative, talk to and work with a range of professionals. The project is a memorable and authentic experience which rounds off the student’s MBA journey.
Stuart Robinson is MBA Director, University of Exeter Business School.