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Q & A

Five Questions About Experiential Education for … David Chang

Experiential education─in which educators engage students in learning by doing and focused reflection─has long been used by business schools to make their programs relevant. “The opportunity for students to analyze a strategic problem and transfer their MBA knowledge in addressing real issues in real organizations is what makes experiential education so important to the business school pedagogy,” said David C. Chang, associate director of the Applied Management Research Program at UCLA Anderson School of Management. Chang is also founding chair of the annual International Conference on Experiential Education—also known as E2—where business schools share best practices in field study education. This year’s conference will be hosted June 26-28, 2011, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In a brief interview, David shared some thoughts about the current state of experiential education.

David Chang
Photo credit: UCLA Photography

Q. Could you frame the current landscape in experiential learning in business schools?

A. Experiential education is project-based learning in which students work with external clients on a strategic project and then offer analyses and recommendations. To ensure quality, the students’ work is supervised by an academic advisor or a faculty member. Over the last few years we have seen tremendous growth in terms of academic institutions, both in the United States and abroad, that want to provide students with that kind of learning experience and strategic engagement. Experiential education can have a significant impact on learning. At UCLA Anderson, for example, we view academic programming in an MBA student’s first year as a critical foundation for the experiential education they will engage in during their second year. There's a powerful synergy in that students can apply the skills and theories that they have learned in the classroom to enrich their experience in the field. It’s important to make sure that this kind of knowledge transfer—for students pre-MBA to post-MBA—is occurring.


Q. How do you measure what students learn and how effectively they have applied their academic skills? What metrics do you use beyond the success of the project?

A. At UCLA, for example, we continuously assess the structure, primary research, analysis, insights, presentation and impact of every project. In the team's final written report and presentation, students must utilize academic theories and knowledge to their experiential education project.

Before a project begins, students are required to complete a norming sheet to discuss their personal and team goals for the project. The norming sheet is completed at both the individual and team level, and faculty advisors receive a copy. Students are reassessed at both midway through and at the end of a project. Three faculty members are required to sign off on the final product in order for students to complete the program. The faculty members and the faculty advisor discuss the application of their academic skills to the project.

At the end of the project, faculty input, partner organization input, student peer assessments and personal assessments are conducted to measure the learning outcome. Students learn much more than just the hard skills in any experiential education program. Soft skills such as interpersonal relationships amongst team members, faculty members, and partner organizations are just as critical to academic and personal success. Alumni often return to discuss the importance of soft skills to their professional careers.

Q. Say a bit more about new developments in the field.

A. Over the past year or so I have seen more schools integrate experiential education as part of their core curriculum. This past year, for example, the University of California-Berkeley made experiential education part of their core program as part of an overall curricular restructuring.

Another development has to do with the fact that many experiential education engagements are sponsored by alumni of business schools. That’s a great way for alumni to give back, and many host companies come back year after year. That tells you that something’s going right in the engagement area. Alumni are finding value and gaining new perspectives from student recommendations. Thus, experiential education provides an important channel for a university to tie-in with corporations and foundations. At UCLA Anderson we engage some 80 companies every year through experiential education—those connections provide good visibility for the business school and the university as a whole.

Q. From a practical standpoint, what are some of the pitfalls of experiential education?

A. Accountability is critical. Every school handles this a little differently. In order to graduate from UCLA Anderson, for example, students must complete a field service experience. To ensure accountability here, three campus officials—a faculty advisor, a faculty program director, and a senior associate dean—sign off on the papers that students produce as part of their experience.

Quality is another critical criterion. Engagement in experiential education means that students are often working in the field for the first time, with no formalized structure. Some students find it hard to adapt to such an unstructured environment, especially in the context of their more structured academic studies. That’s something that business schools need to be aware of.

Q. Where is the practice of experiential education headed?

A. Foremost, we’re seeing a shift in pedagogy. The theory and analytics of classroom learning are obviously of critical importance. But the real challenge comes in applying that knowledge in a real-world situation with real personalities. That’s where experiential education has really helped students master the skills they learn in the classroom. Interestingly, we often hear from alumni of our program that the experiential education component at UCLA Anderson was the most important part of their experience here, precisely because they found that their field experiences enabled them to apply their classroom knowledge in the real world.

For more information about the conference, email Chang at david.chang@anderson.ucla.edu.

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