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The Key to Effective Education is Experiential Learning

Andrew Tessmer, M.Ed, LPC, LMHC, QTAP Avatar
MBA Experiential Learning
How riding a bike and the Invited MBA rely on hands-on education

Do You Remember When You Learned How to Ride a Bike?

Think about that learning process. There are several different approaches the person who taught you how to ride a bicycle could have taken. Did they:

  • Focus on teaching you the mechanics of how a bicycle works? 
  • Explain the physics behind why you can maintain balance as you accelerate?
  • Demonstrate how they themselves ride a bicycle while you observed their actions?
  • Place you on the bicycle while holding onto you to ensure your safety?

More often than not, you learned how to ride a bike through practice. Regardless of what information came first, the skills required practice before muscle memory could kick in.

You may have fallen several times, become frustrated by your lack of balance, or even thought to yourself that you may never be able to ride effectively. However, you likely persisted, practiced, fell, got back up, and continued honing your cycling skills to become more capable. 

Flash forward to today, you may not even think about how you ride a bicycle. It has probably become something that feels automatic, habitual, and easy. Your present day experience and likely relative ease at cycling is due to the positive results of previous experiential learning. But what would have happened if you never actually gained direct exposure to riding a bicycle? What if you had only learned the physics behind the process of riding, or the mechanics of how a bicycle works? Do you feel you would have had the same ability to cycle today?  

Learning How to Ride a Bike Is an Incredible Example of the Power of Experiential Learning

Experiential learning can be defined as the practice of learning by doing or experiencing.  Often, this comes in the form of direct in-vivo exposure to the situation or event one hopes to practice for a particular skill or aspect of knowledge.  

David A. Kolb, a researcher and early advocate of the importance of experiential learning, stated, “There are two goals in the experiential learning process. One is to learn the specifics of a particular subject, and the other is to learn about one’s own learning process.”  

Kolb focuses on metacognition, or the awareness of one’s thought processes and an understanding of the patterns behind them.

While you may have a challenging time explaining to someone which muscles are being activated, how to balance or propel yourself forward, or why the speed in which you pedal impacts your control on a bike, it becomes intuition. You can feel and experience these things in your body, and your mind translates that awareness into muscle memory. Muscle memory is a critical piece of experiential learning and focuses on subconscious memories that involve consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition. What you learned while practicing on your bike applies to the way you learn business, finance, and communication skills today.

The Experiential Learning Process

Though you may not have ever given much thought to how that muscle memory works, it’s the reason why so many experiential learning activities, programs, and experiences also incorporate intentional reflection and discussion following the experience. The Invited MBA uses the same instruction, practice, reflection, and discussion process to create lasting lessons rather than just information. This encourages participants to understand the business theories, their applications, and how all of those things impact real-life decision making.

With a better understanding of the way you learn in different environments, situations, emotional states, cognitive states, and time constraints, you can increase your ability to avoid mistakes while learning and in your future performance in the workplace.

Simulated Time Constraints Create Better Real-Life Decision-Making

The Invited MBA also provides participants with group activities to strengthen decision making muscles – another key component of experiential learning. Often, when put under stress or in times of heightened emotions, it can be challenging to think back to theory or what you have learned in the past through a lecture. But, if during your learning experience, you practice skills in a safe space, with a variety of different scenarios, you are likely to respond appropriately and have a more effective outcome in the real world. A key component to effective learning lies in the experiential nature of practicing real-world problems without real-world consequences, a foundational aspect of the Invited MBA. The effectiveness comes from not only taking an action, but reflecting and processing that action. 

Experiential Learning Encourages Real-World Adaptation

Another benefit of experiential learning is the flexibility it provides for all types of learners. While not everyone has the ability to listen to a lecture and absorb information quickly or read a manual or textbook and attain the practical knowledge quickly, experiential learning engages learners in a more deliberate and active way. 

The Invited MBA relies on experiential learning to immerse participants in simulations that mirror real-world experiences. This method is effective for all types of learners due to the dynamic and complex nature of the experiences themselves. Thinking back to the bicycle scenario, there are dynamic interconnected sensory, cognitive, and emotional processes that take place each second as you are riding. This requires focus and concentration that incorporates elements of all the styles of learning. Regardless of how you learn, practicing business principles through hands-on simulations is effective in increasing your knowledge, skills, and abilities in ways that other approaches cannot.  

Experiential Learning Leaves Room for Failure, Builds Confidence

Additionally, in the Invited MBA’s experiential learning programs, participants have the opportunity to experience failure in a safe and mindful way which can help you avoid similar mistakes in the future workplace. Understanding your own reaction to failure in these scenarios can be extremely beneficial. Again, as Kolb stated, with experiential learning, one is not only learning about the “specifics of a particular subject” but also to gain greater clarity and understanding “about one’s own learning process.” Reflecting on why and how you made an incorrect decision in a virtual world prepares you for decision making in the real world later on.

An additional benefit to this trial and error nature is the confidence experiential learning naturally builds. Experiencing simulated consequences gives participants confidence in their ability to adapt and make different decisions later. 

While it can be helpful for you to picture yourself in a particular role or learning a new skill, without practical experience and exposure, it is hard to gain confidence in your ability to perform in that capacity. 

You Can’t Fly a Plane With Confidence Alone

Imagine yourself flying an airplane; you’ve likely been on a plane before, you’ve seen countless pieces of media showing what pilots do in a wide diversity of aircraft, and you may have even played video games where you had to fly a plane. However, do you have the confidence to fly a plane? Hopefully, for the safety of all those involved, you do not. This is because you know that without practical experience flying planes or doing complex flight simulations, you do not have confidence in your ability to do something that you have never done before. 

Alternatively, should you have had those direct experiences flying planes or with complex flight simulations, your confidence in your abilities becomes much stronger. If you have proven to yourself that you can do something through your own lived experience, you increase the likelihood that you will believe in your ability to continue to do so, which can lead towards enhanced self-efficacy and motivation. If you have opportunities to apply your knowledge in practical ways, you are less prone to self-limiting beliefs, insecurities, and anxieties which can negatively impact your decision making.

The Future of Learning (And the MBA) Is Experiential

While there have been movements trending towards greater hands-on learning across all levels of education, the future of learning must be experiential. 

Many advanced degrees rely on direct academic curriculum only, which is likely a key reason why so many individuals are seeking shorter-term, more focused practical and experimental educational options in lieu of or in addition to traditional educational pathways.  

An easy way to summarize the importance of experiential learning is through a Confucius quote, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”  

Often, it is through lived experiences that individuals truly begin to understand. Through tailored experiential learning opportunities, the Invited MBA engages learners in the pursuit of business skills in a more deliberate, consequential, and meaningful way compared to traditional styles of learning. 

About the Author

Andrew Tessmer is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Texas and a Licenced Mental Health Counselor in the State of Washington, with a Master’s in Counseling from the University of Houston and a Bachelor’s in Psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to offering career development presentations to Invited MBA alumni, he previously served as an Assistant Director of Career Development at Rice University for over 4 years, providing career counseling and creating professional development programming for undergraduates, graduates, post-docs, and alumni. Andrew also serves on the board of the Texas Career Development Association. You can connect with Andrew on LinkedIn.

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