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The Importance of Experiential Learning & Student Engagement

As we look hopefully and optimistically into the New Year, many of us in higher education continue to struggle with student engagement in a virtual environment. Students have grappled with unforeseen challenges that educators have been ill equipped or ill prepared to deal with. “Professor, I don’t have my camera on because I’m still wiping away the tear gas from my eyes.”, “Professor, my roommate just tested positive for COVID-19 and I’m not sure what to do.” One of the many things that I observed from decades of senior management positions is that training or professional development can be a wonderful morale booster during organizational change. I would cite articles of research that validate this observation as a scholar, but let us transition toward finding solutions to the challenges of student engagement.

It has been a wonderful experience to serve as Co-Academic Director of Experiential Learning for the Fox School of Business at Temple University. When I posted for the position, the school defined experiential learning as the act of bringing practitioner experience or the real world into the classroom. Common examples of experiential learning are cooperative education programs (Co-op programs) and/or internships. Through several interviews and group discussions with faculty and staff, we have created a much more inclusive definition of experiential learning. In order to assist with data collection and tracking, we decided to create definition tiers of experiential learning activities.

 

Student evaluations have been a useful tool to ascertain student engagement and their learning experience. I have to admit to experiencing some apprehension about reviewing my student evaluations after navigating the transition into an online environment. Upon reviewing my student evaluations, I realized a heightened appreciation for bringing experiential learning into the classroom. Students wrote with great enthusiasm and appreciation how stories from my practitioner experience were helpful. Those stories helped to illustrate how the ideas and concepts learned in the classroom were going to have application when they transition from student to employee.

The capstone class that I teach is typically the last class that they take before they graduate. For undergraduate students, we use case studies to provide foundational information and then challenge them to form evidence based and actionable strategies. They quickly learn that solutions to problems are rarely categorized as marketing, accounting, management, risk management, or operations management, but rather a combination with references to the financial and economic impacts of the proposed solution. Fox Management Consulting facilitates the capstone class for MBA students with live projects from paying customers. I have had the opportunity to work as a project executive and often draw parallels to the process consultants take to present a solution to a problem and their class activities. The students are placed into working groups that are without a formally designated leader and I typically bring in a guest speaker to discuss group dynamics and conflict resolution. Guest speakers are often used in classrooms as an experiential learning activity for our students, but transitioning this to an online environment has presented challenges and opportunities. It was truly magical to bring the former manager of the Bellagio in Las Vegas into my classroom to discuss how COVID-19 has affected the hospitality industry along with their individualized career path.

As we continue into the New Year with thoughts of student engagement forefront in our minds, I cannot help but to see value in bringing experiential learning into the classroom. Just as I saw how effective training and professional development opportunities boosted morale during significant organizational change from my corporate life, experiential learning can play the same role for students hungry and anxious to make an impact on our world. I see myself as I look into the blank eyes of students that are truly checked out and unengaged. I was never a model student, as I never understood the application of what we were learning. In graduate school, I was a changed person as I could clearly see how what we were learning could have impact. It did not matter whether the professor helped in demonstrating the application of our classroom activities because I had enough work experience to do that for myself.

We are all educators or teachers no matter what our formal title might be. How many times have we heard stories about how a coach used sports and athletics to teach real world lessons? As leaders, we serve our followers in helping them navigate changing times towards shared organizational objectives or goals. Educating followers on how their activities and contributions have impact is part of the definition of effective leadership. My most favorite managers from my past allowed me to make mistakes along the way so I could learn from that experience. Let’s continue to develop and implement new ideas and strategies around experiential learning so we can continue to have positive impact on our world.

 

Curtis J Gregory

Dr. Curtis Gregory is a community-conscious developer of human capital and enabler of access to capital for marginalized communities. He is an expert in leadership and organizational change, and a talented asset manager, powerful motivator and staff developer, as well as an excellent communicator. Since 2017, Dr. Gregory has been on the staff of the Fox School of Business, Temple University, where he has taught at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Currently, he is also the Academic Director of Experiential Learning. Additionally, he continues to serve as a Project Executive with the Fox Management Consulting Practice.

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