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May 6, 2020 2020-05 Accountancy Business Administration Finance Student

How does experiential learning lead to success after graduation?

Experiential learning is important because it helps students develop some of the top skills employers demand: problem solving and working with others. Often called soft skills, they are increasingly critical for both career and personal success across a variety of disciplines.

According to the latest survey from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), 87% of recruiters named problem solving as either the most or second most important quality for jobs they plan to fill with business school graduates. Working with others was second highest; it was listed as first or second most important on 81% of surveys. The Magelli Office of Experiential Learning at Gies College of Business takes this kind of survey feedback from employers seriously.

Michael Bednar (Square)How does experiential learning help students gain these skills in ways they can’t otherwise obtain? Most academic courses focus on a single subject. Students isolate themselves and study that subject deeply. This structure also makes it difficult to introduce students to real-world problems that are always multi-faceted and don’t happen in isolation.

Experiential learning forces interdisciplinary thinking and requires complex problem solving in a practical context, according to Professor Michael Bednar (right), the Magelli Office’s academic director. He says it is the perfect complement to traditional academic classwork because students can cross subject boundaries and put theory and concepts into action. It also shows them that there are no easy answers and often no single solution to most problems. 

Experiential learning also fosters a unique team-building environment. In traditional classes, team projects are often short and make up perhaps 10-20% of the total grade. Through experiential learning at Gies, students work with the same group all semester, so when there is a conflict they can’t simply wait it out like they can in a two-week project.

Bednar explains that students are forced to communicate, develop understanding with each other, and resolve issues. And because the students must make a final presentation to a real client, the stakes are higher to work in unison. Finally, because the focus of the curriculum is on the project, there is time during the semester to teach team-based skills and do activities such as peer evaluations.

“Combined, these factors create a much more complex and difficult team-working scenario, but also a more rewarding one as students gain and apply these skills in a safe and supportive setting,” said Bednar.

“This experience has been invaluable not only in terms of client interactions and all the complications that come with their expectations, but also in terms of working with a group of incredibly diverse people. It has made me a better team member, a better consultant but, more importantly, a more considerate, open-minded and patient person,” said Siddhant Batra (MBA ’21).

Experiential Learning_newsBusiness students at Gies have had the opportunity to learn by doing for more than 20 years. Each year, the Magelli Office of Experiential Learning supports 150+ client-based projects with more than 700 participating students, and that number is about to get much larger. As part of our recently revamped undergraduate core curriculum, we’re launching a new course called Business 301: Business in Action. It will be a required course for all juniors at Gies and will be the single largest experiential learning course in the nation.

The Magelli Office of Experiential Learning supports two distinct offerings: action learning and Illinois Business Consulting. Action learning is the curriculum-based, faculty-led component where teams of four to five students complete projects at no cost to the client. Illinois Business Consulting is the first and largest professionally managed student-run university consulting organization in the US. Teams of seven to 10 students devote 1,000 hours into each client project.

The results speak for themselves. Nine out of ten students who participated in semester-long client projects over the last two years say learning by doing improved their Gies experience, and 95% say they have a better story to tell recruiters.

“I’ve learned how to find synergy in a team as well as how to work with a client. Asking questions, creating presentations, and conducting research have all amounted to a wonderful story that I can use in interviews and in professional settings,” said Trenton Williams, a double-major in management and marketing (BA ’20).

Clients clearly see the benefit as well, rating their satisfaction with Gies experiential learning as 4.8 out of 5.0. Out of the clients who participated in a project with Gies students, 100% would recommend it to other companies.

Added KPMG’s Alex Glenn, “Our team really enjoyed working with this group of students. They were very receptive to our feedback throughout the course and it was reflected in the high-quality final presentation. We were also impressed with the primary research that they did. Instead of only settling for sources on the open web, they talked to actual IT professionals and translated their findings into valuable recommendations. Overall, we consider this project a huge success!”

At Gies, experiential learning is more than just a class. Its real-world scale and depth make our approach unique among business schools for both the students and companies that participate.