Shaping the Future of Action Learning

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Leaders in the field share best practices and ideas at Ross conference

Business educators increasingly value practical experiences, or action learning, for students.

The benefits of action learning aren’t in question. But how best to deliver it — and measure its effectiveness — is certainly up for discussion.

That’s why Michigan Ross hosted Action Learning in Business Education in early June, a conference that brought together faculty and staff leaders from across the country to share best practices and make action learning more effective.

Some of the biggest challenges include ways to help students retain lessons from their experiences, measure effectiveness, select faculty and business partners, and design projects for different degree programs. Panel sessions, workshops, and activities sparked discussion and new ideas.

“It is a wild ride implementing action learning,” said Valerie Suslow, senior associate dean for MBA programs at Ross and conference co-host. “But despite all that it’s also transformational for our students, and that’s most important.”

The hope from this highly-engaging conference is that faculty and staff members take ideas home with them, apply them to their programs, and continue to collaborate with colleagues to enhance the action-learning student experience.

"The Action-Learning Conference at the University of Michigan is one of the best that I have attended,” said Paul Friga, clinical associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship and director of STAR Program at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. “The sessions were carefully designed to afford deep theoretical discussions combined with significant best practice sharing.”

One of the challenges in making action learning more effective is that the knowledge students gain from a project or class doesn’t always happen in real time, said Anjali Sastry, senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, the opening keynote. Having a method of collecting what students are learning during the class or project is important, but so is following up after the experience.

Having students reflect helps make learning more effective and allows the schools to collect information on how well action-learning experiences work.

“We can make a big difference, and we are making a big difference, but there’s more to be done,” Sastry said.

Paul Danos, dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, said business education is changing rapidly and action-learning experts are on the cutting edge of that important evolution. Danos is a former Ross associate dean and one of the lead architects of the school’s signature Multidisciplinary Action Projects.

The lecture-test model is an efficient way to teach, but it has to be buttressed by practical experience. In the future, more of the learning covered in lectures and reading will be available online and students will be spending less time on campus and more time applying their knowledge.

The trick is tying the practical experiences back to the curriculum, which should always be developed by research faculty. That’s a challenge, because how people learn isn’t studied as rigorously as it should be.

“Everything that can be flipped is going to be flipped,” Danos said about the future of business education. “Be the resource for action learning. Know more about it than anyone else.”

A session led by Melissa Peet, director of integrative learning and knowledge management at Ross, aimed to identify how people learn. Specifically, how can we help students retain those “aha” moments in their action learning?

Traditional education is based on disembodied learning, she said. But action learning isn’t static and isn’t based on the “think then act” model. Asking somebody, “What did you learn?” won’t help the student connect the experience to the goals.

More probing questions about their experience will help students connect with lessons they can draw on later in life, she said.

Conference participants were also asked for some of their own “aha” moments. Among those shared:

  • “Action is not an event….it is a process.”
  • “Reflection is worth it.”
  • “Managing expectations of different stakeholders is critical.”
  • “ Don’t create a new reflective assignment. Add or integrate it into existing components.”
  • “While I am proud of my school’s action-learning program, I have new ideas from today’s session that I can use to further refine our program. For example, when I get back to campus, I will review and refine the course learning objectives.”
  • “Behavioral changes have to be measured.”

Much of the challenge in action learning is making the learning visible, both to the student and the faculty and staff who grade, evaluate, and design projects. A way to gain more visibility is turning around the design process, says Lori Breslow, director of MIT’s Teaching & Learning Laboratory and lecturer at the Sloan School.

Start with the intended learning outcome, then design the experience, and finally create the individual assignments. The assignments, such as journals or weekly reflections, can help faculty see the extent to which learning has taken place.

“It’s hard, but it’s not impossible,” she said.

Action-learning programs are critical for the future of business schools. Developing and improving them requires serious thought and study.

“We now have to be much more adaptable, as business schools, than we have in the past,” said Ross Dean Alison Davis-Blake. The conference was a chance to “stop, reflect, and recharge for the future.”

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