Exec Ed That’s Anything But Old School

Strategies for reaching millennials and Generation Z students who seek executive education.

While traditional teaching methods work well with baby boomers and Gen X leaders, millennials and Gen Z learn in ways that are radically different—and members of those groups are enrolling in executive education programs in increasing numbers. These younger learners won’t sit still in musty old classrooms, working on cases or listening to slide-driven content. So, at the University of Arizona’s Eller Executive Education division, we have sought to disrupt the traditional model by bringing in new content and new delivery methodologies.

Our starting point was adult learning theory and, to some extent, the neuroscience of adult learning. We focused on three dimensions of change that required a new approach to executive learning:

1. Maintaining a higher level of learning arousal. Research shows that people learn better if they are in a state of physiological or mental arousal—that is, outside of their comfort zones or experiencing some level of stress. That means business schools can’t just deliver lectures; they must provide opportunities for active learning. And students must apply this learning immediately, either in the classroom or at work, both to heighten the learning experience and to keep up with the complexities of today’s turbulent business world.

2. Activating both affective and cognitive circuits during times of learning. Research has revealed that emotions are powerful drivers of decision making, and we believe they also drive learning. Therefore, business schools are most effective at both teaching factual information and promoting critical thinking when we create positive emotional reinforcements that foster learning.

3. Encouraging attention and retention in the digital age. While there is no evidence that the learner’s attention span is shrinking, a 2010 study of chemistry students found that active learning methods trump traditional ones. For example, students experience fewer attention lapses during demonstrations and question-and-answer periods than during lecture segments. Active learning methods seem to have dual benefits: They engage the learner’s attention throughout a class, and they refresh the learner’s attention right after a lecture component.

We have used these insights to transform the way in which we engage learners, particularly younger ones. Two ideas have been especially successful in our executive education programs:

Micro learning modules. Throughout the course of a program, we provide students with short bursts of learning that they immediately have a chance to apply. Such modules are particularly useful in helping both modern learners and those who are not native English speakers improve their retention and concentration. Because micro learning creates a greater connection between content and work, it is especially effective when we are addressing a specific business challenge or trying to progressively build and test interpersonal skills in our students.

Hackathons. One way to allow participants to rapidly test ideas in real-life situations is to pair executive education students with their peers at a global company that is tackling a substantive business challenge. We set up a hackathon format where learners act as consultants and disruptors as they consider new ways to address the hosting company’s challenges. As our learners iterate possible solutions through user-centered design principles, they develop cross-cultural awareness, business insights, and new relationships among the executives at participating companies. We feel a hackathon is a great alternative to the traditional company visit.

Our clients continue to test our ability to deliver learning impact, and we plan to explore the neuroscience of adult learning more deeply. We believe our clients will be willing to experiment, customize, and learn alongside us.

Joe Carella is assistant dean for Eller Executive Education at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management in Tucson.

For more information about today's changing executive education market, read "Executive Options."

This article originally appeared in BizEd's July/August 2018 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].