Ross School of Business in Michigan, Technologico de Monterrey in Mexico, IESE Business School in Spain, and other top universities around the world rely on institutionalized experiential learning units to prepare students for real-world business. They strive to bolster students’ experiences, build competency, foster professional efficacy, enhance industry engagement, and meet the ever-changing demands of today’s businesses.
Indeed, there are numerous benefits of experiential learning for students, professors, and business owners.
Action learning, which is the same as experiential learning, and open innovation are becoming more common in higher education classrooms to encourage industry intimacy and as strategies for business owners who want fresh ideas from creative thinkers.
Experiential learning equips professors with an authentic assessment tool, and it increases students’ employability, promising better jobs with higher salaries.
These reasons reflect why many major universities include a practical component in their curricula. But how much does experiential learning affect student attraction, and ultimately, student admission? When students are choosing where to study, does experiential learning factor in?
A Breakdown of Institutionalized Experiential Learning
Before we look at what influences student choice, let’s consider a few key points about experiential learning.
First, there are many ways to execute it. For example, we can regard case studies as experiential learning as students apply previously-learned concepts to simulated realities. The drawback is that contrived learning scenarios don’t have natural, uncertain outcomes. Organic business problems, on the contrary, guide students through a rewarding process of trial and error as they apply theories, test hypotheses, and rework assumptions in response to real feedback.
The second point is that some courses use practical learning as an add-on to the curriculum rather than a fully integrated course component. Which has a more valuable outcome?
Full immersion in a practical learning experience, in which they dissect real business problems over an uninterrupted period of time, rewards students with a greater sense of competence. They learn how to translate ideas and concepts into practical knowledge and working solutions.
An intermittent return to the traditional learning context during the course of practical application, can help clarify and refine their ideas and approach.
Both have advantages, and they form an unshakeable foundation that supports students’ successful entry into starting positions.
Industry Engagement: What Do Businesses Want?
There’s no doubt that students must have practical experience to be competitive and industry-ready. Business schools that integrate experiential learning into curricula attract not just more, but higher caliber students.
Because employers are more likely to recruit students that have demonstrated practical skills. A common industry complaint is that graduates lack adequate practical experience or knowledge.
Employers want to hire enthusiastic, self-motivated graduates who are ready to jump in with both feet, but who are also well-prepared. They want interns who aren’t afraid to tackle challenges, can approach problems critically, and have the soft skills that can only come with hands-on practice.
Considering the demand for this quality of graduate, we can reasonably assert that business schools have a responsibility to prepare students for real-world business. That is, to be competitive and professionally accountable, they must commit to integrating experiential learning into their programs.
But there’s more to it than that. Experiential learning contributes to a multi-dimensional, higher-quality education, and a reputation that both students and employers will recognize.
In fact, teaching quality is one of the single most important factors affecting student decision about which university to attend.
Student Attraction: How Students Choose Business Schools
Let’s consider the decision-making process that students face as they consider different universities. It’s analogous to choosing a new appliance or buying a car. You read consumer reviews, consider features, and assess how they will impact your life (though it goes without saying that, in most cases, a degree will more strongly influence your life than an espresso machine––that depends of course on where you study or how much you love your coffee!).
When students are selecting a business school, they look at attributes and assign more value to ones they deem most important. For example, in a 2014 Forbes survey, the top four features influencing student attraction were: prestige, teaching quality, starting salaries, and the number of attending students.
A school’s prestige is owed largely to its reputation, which derives from the quality of experience students have during their years of study and employer and industry recognition. What drives a student’s learning experience?
As the second most important factor––and naturally influencing the first––quality of teaching depends a lot on how a course and its learning objectives are structured. This is where experiential learning is so important.
Concrete indicators of quality include diverse learning tools to meet individual needs and learning styles, ease of access to learning content, opportunities for both individual and group study, integration of current research, professor knowledge and background, high expectations for student competency, and rigorous and varied assessment tools.
All those factors influence these more subtle but equally important indicators of quality: student enjoyment and engagement with the content, their level of professional efficacy, and their future job prospects.
See where we’re going?
Experiential learning meets all those hallmarks of quality education.
It’s a multi-dimensional teaching tool, but more than that, it’s a foundation for an authentic integration of knowledge that contributes to a student’s success.
So, if a school is dedicated to supporting student-business collaboration and open innovation, we can be confident that they’re delivering a diverse, industry-aware, student-centered curriculum within the context of higher-quality teaching.
Further, those schools will inevitably have a higher reputation than business schools that don’t include it or treat it merely as an add-on without true immersion. When students are judging schools, they’re inadvertently taking all those factors into account just by looking at prestige and quality of teaching––and experiential learning strongly influences each one.
Do Students Really Want Experiential Learning?
The short answer is yes! Not only do they want it, they also need it to develop a well-rounded skill set.
Institutionalized experiential learning has a significant impact on competency-building. It uses and develops different mental faculties and fosters different skills than independent study or classroom learning. While one is not better than the other, they’re qualitatively different. Each is a distinct but necessary learning tool that ultimately contributes to a diversified skill set.
Students report feeling more prepared for future work and have an easier time integrating concepts when they have an opportunity to practice them. They feel more career-ready when they’ve engaged hands-on with real businesses. While that’s the basis for internships, students may feel a greater sense of freedom and confidence to flex their ideas in the workplace while they’re still at the formal learning stage.
What Investment Will Your School Make?
The learning innovation return is huge––if schools invest wisely. Integrating practical experience into the course syllabus, or as a stand-alone degree requirement can benefit every stakeholder. It adds a unique and necessary dimension to student professional development. It prepares them for lifelong self-directed learning, and students want to attend universities that support their full development from classroom to boardroom. To any observer, experiential learning is an indicator of a reputable business school.