Taking Measure of Experiential Learning

Experiential learning is a fixture in most b-school curricula, yet many schools struggle to measure outcomes in project-based courses. A recent survey highlights strategies that can help students reach new levels of learning.
Taking Measure of Experiential Learning

WHETHER THROUGH CONSULTING projects or action learning courses, business schools around the world are showing dramatic growth in the project-based learning initiatives they offer students. Such programs allow students not only to apply their knowledge through direct experience, but also to gain critical management competencies in “soft skills,” such as managing ambiguity, managing clients, collaborating, and communicating. Some schools are going even further, by setting experiential learning requirements that students can fulfill by choosing from a menu of options.

But while business educators have gotten good at assessing compliance and completion in experiential courses, they have found that assessing students’ learning and mastery of the material is a trickier proposition. With AACSB’s assurance of learning (AoL) mandate, assessing learning in project-based courses becomes an even bigger practical challenge for business schools.

To meet this challenge, the three of us founded a subcommittee within MBA Leaders in Project-Based Education (LEPE), a professional networking group of experiential learning scholars and practitioners from U.S. business schools. Since its founding in 2014, the subcommittee has been studying trends, approaches, and challenges in project-based courses. In April 2016, our group surveyed more than 100 U.S. business schools offering project-based experiential learning courses for degree credit. Then, in June 2016, at LEPE’s annual conference, representatives from about 30 business schools discussed the survey results, sharing their experiences and insights.

Ninety-two percent of full-time MBA programs surveyed by the MBA Roundtable in 2016 offer at least one client-based experiential learning course.

Most recently, the subcommittee conducted a follow-up survey and reviewed existing standards and guidelines put forth by organizations such as the National Society for Experiential Education. We want to share six AoL standards that our survey has identified as common to successful project-based courses, as well as provide real-world examples of ways some business schools are putting these recommendations to work. We hope that business schools can use these standards as a guide to evaluate their own project-based experiential learning courses.

What strategies do business schools adopt to deliver project-based, experiential courses with the best learning outcomes? According to our survey, educators at responding schools do one or more of the following:

Eighty percent of programs surveyed by LEPE specify learning objectives in the descriptions of their project-based courses. But fewer than 25% require students to prioritize and commit to personal objectives.

Measures of ExperienceTailor learning outcomes to the individual. Measures of ExperienceTo determine what a student should learn from a project-based course, business schools should follow a two-part process. First, a program should identify a clear set of learning objectives for all participants; second, each individual student should set at least two personal goals, which he or she communicates to program coordinators and the rest of the project team at the outset.

Most programs listed more than ten learning objectives for their project-based courses. However, many of the business educators we talked to believed that if students are not intentional about setting personal objectives, their learning will be suboptimal and accidental at best.

Eighty-four percent of courses surveyed provide midcourse feedback, but only 64% note that they provide individual feedback. Just 48% tie individual feedback to individual goals.

Measures of ExperienceMeasures of ExperienceProvide feedback early and often to teams and individuals. Timely and specific feedback allows a team and its members to self-assess and change course as necessary to achieve a better final outcome.

More than half of the courses surveyed by LEPE span a full semester, providing ample time for instructors to give feedback along the way, not just at the end. All courses should aim to conduct at least one formal mid-course assessment, with individual and team feedback tied to both course-level and individual learning goals.

Seventy percent of courses surveyed report assigning an individual reflection project.

Measures of ExperienceCreate opportunities for reflection. Measures of ExperienceEducation scholars emphasize that learning cannot happen without reflection, particularly in project-based learning. Common examples include final reflection papers, a 360-degree instrument for peer assessment, a self-assessment, team debriefing sessions, individual debriefing sessions, or some combination of these approaches.

While any exercise in which students are asked to reflect on their experiences will improve learning outcomes, the nature and quality of the reflection also matters. Too frequently reflection in project-based courses tends to focus on team results and client satisfaction at the expense of individual learning. For that reason, assessing course learning outcomes should follow the two-step process described above. That is, a course can use a 360-degree instrument to measure learning outcomes that are the same for all students. Then, students can each complete a reflection assignment focused on individual learning outcomes, which can be assessed critically by a faculty coach or mentor. All course directors, faculty coaches, and mentors must be trained to design and facilitate reflection exercises.

Measures of ExperienceEvaluate student learning in three domains: cognitive, affective, and behavioral.Measures of Experience Experiential learning is an iterative process with multiple feedback loops for learning. The multidisciplinary aspect of this type of learning engagement requires the evaluation of student performance across the cognitive domain, which takes into account learning and adaptation over time; the affective domain, which encompasses areas such as student satisfaction and commitment; and the behavioral domain, which refers to the quality and quantity of performance on tasks as well as contextual performance. Each evaluation also should be delivered individually and qualitatively, if possible.

Measures of ExperienceMeasures of ExperienceAcknowledge and incorporate the role of emotions. Emotions can facilitate or impede learning. Unlike those in traditional course lectures, student experiences in project-based courses are, to a large extent, rooted in emotions. When students have to function in new and different environments, they must move outside of their comfort zones.

For example, when team members hold different views on how to proceed with a project, it frequently leads to conflict and results in frustration, anger, and resentment. Left unaddressed, negative emotions can become barriers to, and distortions of, individual learning, narrowing the field of further experience and becoming obstacles to team success.

However, when these same emotions are acknowledged and incorporated into the team’s process, they can catalyze learning, leading to a shift in mindsets and beliefs. Effective feedback and coaching that recognizes emotions and encourages teams to verbalize them can help de-escalate conflict, minimize future occurrences, and enhance understanding of team dynamics and each student’s role in shaping them.

Eighty-four percent of programs surveyed report that they regularly collect assessment data on how to improve teaching and learning, but only 56% report using assessment data to make changes to their programs.

Measures of ExperienceClose the loop.Measures of Experience Closing the loop in AoL represents one of our greatest opportunities as educators to learn from our experiences and translate that learning into course improvements. And, yet, it doesn’t happen nearly enough. It is important to assign clear and specific accountability for AoL in experiential courses and to consider the longitudinal benefits of the learning that arises from these courses.


LEPE's assurance of learning subcommittee will continue to research this important topic, and LEPE member schools are reviewing these recommendations and tailoring them to their overall AoL processes. As a next step, the committee plans to conduct a longitudinal study looking at the impact of the experiential learning outcomes on students one, three, and five years beyond graduation.

While these six approaches do not represent an exhaustive list, we believe they offer business schools a clear direction for further inquiry. After all, real-world projects provide some of the best opportunities for students to develop the competencies that employers want and need most in the 21st century. If project-based experiential learning is to grow and thrive as a respected instructional method, business schools must be able to better demonstrate how and why this learning occurs.

This article originally appeared in January/February 2018 print issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected]

Kerry Laufer is the director of OnSite Global Consulting, a second-year elective experiential learning course at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Shannon McKeen is an adjunct professor at the Kenan-Flagler School of Business at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Michellana Jester is a lecturer and faculty course manager in the Global Economics and Management Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Massachusetts.