3 Ways to Use Experiential Learning to Boost Your Career

Most of us can conjure up an image of “the boring professor” droning on and on in front of dozing students. While the centuries-old lecture format can be an efficient way to transfer knowledge, it doesn’t necessarily further learning. In fact, studies have shown that students’ attention tends to drift after the first 10 minutes of a lecture.

On the other hand, students gain a lasting understanding when they’re asked to actively teach or use concepts, explains Harvard University’s Eric Mazur. Furthermore, when given the chance to practice what they’ve learned, students’ retention rate averages 75 percent, up from the average 20 percent retention rate achieved by lectures alone.

Think about the number of times you’ve said, “I’ll understand better once I try it myself.” Based on this premise, experiential learning can better prepare you for the career of your dreams and cultivate the entrepreneurial skills you need for any job.

The Value of ‘Doing’
Many graduates will tell you candidly that very little of their classroom knowledge directly applies to their work. When I was in school, for instance, I studied hard to memorize theories and then regurgitated that knowledge on a test to get an A. But after taking a management job after graduation, I realized the theories I learned in the classroom didn’t necessarily help me motivate my employees — and my career was dependent upon their success.

Later when I started my entrepreneurial journey, I realized that though I learned to write a business plan and make financial forecasts, I didn’t learn how to effect change, listen and act on concerns, or galvanize others to get behind my mission.

These are all important skills to possess, no matter what field you go into. A 2017 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that the three strengths employers look for most in early career applicants are strong teamwork, problem-solving, and written communication skills (verbal communication ranks fifth).

Beyond job-building skills, experiential learning helps students figure out what they love. For instance, an internship opportunity can help you decide whether you’d be most happy working for an established software company or an evolving startup.

Now, as I’ve helped develop an entrepreneur center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, I’ve seen firsthand how experiential learning can generate so many insights and such a deeper understanding that it propels students into an entrepreneurial mindset — an important mindset to have, even if you don’t want to start your own business. It can hold the key to the innovative ideas, both large and small, that distinguish your career from others.

I firmly believe that college and professional courses that only talk about entrepreneurship, yet don’t provide students with a way to be entrepreneurial, seem to miss the point entirely. Students must be able to ideate, prototype, learn, iterate, reflect, and fail.

From the Classroom to the Workplace
Here are three steps you can take to seek out career-boosting experiential learning opportunities:

1. Be intentional when selecting courses.
Spend some time in lecture halls because learning theory is critical, and seek out courses that prioritize applied or experiential learning as well. Simulated experiences, hack-a-thons, accelerators, and applied training sessions are experiential learning best practices.

Experiential learning courses offer authentic experiences in which students can practice teamwork, resiliency, and tenacity in the face of problems. They create a safe environment to make mistakes and learn from them, and they result in deeper learning where you can transfer what you’ve learned from one context to another.

You’ll find a good experiential learning course offers a personal journey using three approaches: classroom rigor, examples from real-world practitioners and peers, and a learning ecosystem. These three approaches — but especially the third — make you an active player in defining how your education improves your future.

At UMSL, for example, we help our students establish a theoretical and practical foundation for entrepreneurship. Our Entrepreneurship Certificate course requires 18 hours of classes — some of which are dedicated to learning the theories underpinning innovation and entrepreneurship. Our capstone course has students build an minimum viable product and business plan. Similarly, Rice University has built its Idea Lab to encourage entrepreneurship from academic fields across the university.

I know many students may never start their own businesses, but a grounding in the entrepreneurial mindset — taking risks, solving problems, and taking initiative — will distinguish them from the pack when they’re applying for jobs.

2. Get on-the-ground experience.
An internship makes you more likely to find employment because you’ve developed practical communication, self-discipline, and time-management skills. In fact, a 2016 report on Millennial hiring found that graduates who complete three or more internships are more likely to secure full-time employment.

An internship may also help refine your career aspirations. In the same report, more than 81 percent of graduates said that internships helped them shift their career direction either significantly (34.8 percent) or slightly (46.3 percent). So don’t feel boxed in when applying. Getting experience outside of your major, home state, and target industry is a great way to mold yourself into a well-rounded professional in an extremely competitive job market.

You’ll likely have to get out of your comfort zone, but how else do we grow and learn as humans? Who knows, you may even uncover a hidden talent or passion. Use personal contacts, reach out to local businesses, and search relevant websites to find internships that align with your goals.

3. Join organizations focused on your career goals.
Career-focused organizations give you access to like-minded individuals and enable you to take the knowledge you learn in the classroom and apply it to real-world situations. An organization with an entrepreneurial focus, for example, exposes you to people and experiences that amplify the innovation know-how.

One of the many benefits of joining a career-focused organization is that it gives you the chance to network. You’ll form valuable connections for job searching. You’re also likely to gain teamwork and leadership skills. And when choosing between two equally qualified candidates, employers are influenced by leadership and extracurricular activities more than anything other than the candidates’ majors.

Don’t feel like you have to abandon these valuable organizations after graduation, either. For me, experiential learning was lacking during my educational journey, so I decided to make up for lost time by joining Entrepreneurs’ Organization — a worldwide peer-to-peer learning group broken down into local communities. Once a month, I meet with 10–12 fellow entrepreneurs in an informal advisory board. Rather than simply give advice, we follow the Gestalt methodology: We share our experiences and explain how they shaped us in terms of establishing values, creating trust, and more.

Students must be active in the learning process rather than serving as passive receptacles for knowledge. Experiential learning allows you to master concepts without numbing creativity or innovation. It fosters tomorrow’s Zuckerbergs, Musks, and Wojcickis and engenders an entrepreneurial mindset that’s invaluable no matter what job you choose.