Preparing Students for The Real World Through Experiential Learning
Experiential learning is a broad category that encompasses a range of learning activities from internships to consulting projects to student-run ventures. It is considered more holistic than classroom-only instruction and helps bridge the gap between what the students learn passively and the actual job expectations that students encounter when they enter the working world.
Student team consulting is a valuable form of experiential learning suited for undergraduate and graduate students at or near the completion of their academic careers. Experiential student team consulting (known as field work) is faculty-guided and involves an actual client and a real issue/situation (versus a hypothetical case). Much like a professional consultant, the student team needs to understand the issues facing the client, devise a contract with the client, and then execute the contract. From the client perspective, the company essentially follows the same process that they would use when hiring an outside consultant, except that the consultants are students.
Specifically, the methodology used in experiential student team consulting is called problem-based learning (PBL).[i] What better way to prepare students for the “real world” than to have them engaged in a consulting process? As noted by Peterson, when discussing PBL (p. 632):
…in the workplace, problems are ill structured, ambiguous, messy, complex, and most often do not have one correct answer that can be found at the end of the book in the answer key…. These types of problems provide a powerful learning opportunity…. This new learning paradigm also makes the learning process messy…. No longer is the path to success clear. This paradigm requires that the students first identify what the real problem is, next identify what they know and need to know, and then identify viable solutions through both creative and critical thinking.[ii]
Further, in consulting projects, students often discover that their client’s business decisions are not always made on a rational basis and instead, find an emotional justification. Part of the reason is that the client may rely on “gut instincts” to make decisions. While it is true that some business decisions get made with limited analysis and, at times, these decisions can turn out to be fine. However, the opposite is also true and then the student may find it very difficult to track the process in which a decision was made. This can cause an information gap due to incomplete or inaccurate reporting by the client. This can be a common problem in management, and the student team consulting process gives a good introduction to this issue, and practice in dealing with it once the students leave academia for the workforce.
While conducting fieldwork, the students learn how to operate under a certain level of ambiguity. Since fieldwork involves an actual client and a real-life experience, the situation will likely be fluid and information may change over the course of the consulting assignment. Therefore, fieldwork requires an integrated, holistic approach that examines the issues from different business perspectives, as well as from different functional disciplines. Students learn that there can be multiple solutions, and understand when to change their mindset from one of inquiry, i.e., questioning the pros and cons of multiple approaches, to one of advocacy, i.e., picking one approach from the range of alternatives and then making a strong case for that choice.
Students will be challenged to not only discover information about a particular issue but in many cases, they need to determine if this issue is important at all. Because of this inherent need to ask good questions, students’ research should include synthesizing materials from a wide variety of sources. Through the learning techniques utilized in the student consulting process, students learn important business concepts, how companies function, and how methods of inquiry help clarify complex business situations.[iii] Stepping into an unknown situation and, in a short period of time, be able to analyze it and make solid, documented recommendations is a valuable skill.
The educational process should be much more than memorizing a set of facts and figures. It is about lifelong learning, and equipping the student with the skills to handle ambiguous situations. Fieldwork does just that. Student team consulting is simply one of the best ways to develop our future leaders.
[i] Brownell, J., & Jameson, D. A. (2004). Problem-based learning in graduate management education: An integrative model and interdisciplinary application. Journal of Management Education, 28(5), 558–577.
[ii] Peterson, T. O. (2004). So you’re thinking of trying problem-based learning?: Three critical success factors for implementation. Journal of Management Education, 28(5), 630–647.