A Look into Project-Based Learning in Higher Education

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Written by Jordan Levy

The CapSource team is very excited that their Fall 2017 semester consulting projects are kicking off! In that spirit, we wanted to publish our inaugural blog post, which details what project-based experiential learning is all about…

Contemporary business education quality comes down to the stimulating blend of academic principles and practical application used to teach students. In today’s competitive higher ed environment, academic programs should compete to differentiate from one another by utilizing a unique blend of these two foundational requirements. The goal is to provide students with a competitive edge when looking for jobs post-graduation. Business programs within higher education offer students advanced academic and theoretical knowledge through an information-dissemination process, while experiential learning components of coursework, such as live cases and capstone projects, allow students to “test drive” what they have learned in real-world settings.

Experiential Learning has become an important part of higher education campuses all over the world as academia transforms to meet the dem ands of the workforce; it is no longer acceptable to emerge from undergraduate or graduate business programs with just a theoretical understanding of how the business world works. While there are various forms of experiential learning that can be brought into the business higher education setting, Project-Based Learning is one approach that blends knowledge and skills development to provide students with challenging and robust opportunities to enhance their business knowledge and experience.

A Look into Project-Based Learning
Project-Based Learning (or PBL) is a form of experiential learning that exposes students to real-world problems that requires a blend of skills and knowledge to tackle. PBL experiences are sourced and designed within companies and organizations that welcome the insights of students with discipline-specific knowledge.

Project-Based Learning is a student-centered approach, meaning that it is a learning approach that goes beyond the “one size fits all” style of learning and brings in formats that appeal to a variety of learning styles and learning needs. Within this model, it is the role of the teacher to help the student build a scaffolding of knowledge, but then it is up to the student to initiate a real and intentional application of the knowledge. Once they have been able to practically learn through this process, they bring what they have discovered back into the classroom and apply it back to their academic studies.

Project-Based Learning in Business Education
Project-Based Learning is particularly useful in business education due to the high degree of knowledge and skill transferability between jobs in the real world. Students in higher education business programs are equipped with a strong theoretical understanding on certain business areas such as Management, Accounting, Finance, and Marketing, and they can identify natural fits and applications for their knowledge and skill sets in clearly-defined, client-based, experiential learning projects.

In business education, Project-Based Learning works best when students are tackling open-ended, realistic, and complex challenges that require theoretical knowledge, business acumen, critical thinking skills, and personal experiences to succeed. Assessment of student learning is achieved by balancing feedback from the host company and formal assessment methods that allow students to demonstrate acquired knowledge and skills.

Research has shown that business students learn effectively through the case study method. Project-Based Learning goes beyond the case study method and takes the student’s experience with a problem one step further by placing the responsibility of solving the problem into the hands of that group of student consultants.

Benefits of Project-Based Learning for Students
Project-Based Learning represents a reciprocal relationship wherein the student benefits from getting real-world experience while the business hosting them benefits from the fresh eyes and discipline-specific knowledge of the student. It gives students an opportunity to see what they have learned in their classrooms come to life through real business processes.

Within this approach, students can apply the skills they already have, while acquiring new ones that will help them remain competitive in the job market. These are the skills that employers are looking to see demonstrated in their recruitment efforts, as indicated by the 2016 Recruiting Benchmarks Survey put out by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The respondents of this survey indicated that teamwork and collaboration are of the most important skills they look for in recruits, with critical thinking and problem-solving being a close second. These are all skills that Project-Based Learning helps students develop in meaningful ways. 

As another bonus, Project-Based Learning helps students define their career trajectory post-graduation. With the ability to “test drive” specific settings and careers, students can develop a better understanding of their own preferences when it comes to occupational requirements, work style, and culture.

Benefits of Project-Based Learning for Companies
Companies who host students from higher education business programs benefit in a variety of ways…

  • First, those who participate in Project-Based Learning will have the privilege of having a fresh set of eyes look at their work. In most cases, these engaged students ask the right questions, and can provide unique insights that drive real outcomes.
  • Second, they can preview the incoming cohort of new graduates and use project-based learning as a recruitment tool to find potential future hires.
  • Third, those who work with students in PBL settings can act as mentors, which represents a strong investment into their sector as well as an opportunity to further develop their own management skills through close work with younger associates.
  • Finally, companies benefit from having a dedicated team of highly motivated students required to put many hours into a defined project scope. Although these projects often end up dynamic throughout the process, the best outcomes in PBL come from carefully scoped projects with clearly defined goals and milestones.

Benefits of Project-Based Learning for Faculty
Faculty members who embrace Project-Based Learning in their classrooms report a higher level of engagement and an overall higher level of academic performance from their students. By recognizing opportunities to tie curriculum to real-world projects, faculty members can be an active part of bridging the gap between theory and practice.

We consider faculty mentors to be a crucial part of the PBL process, since it should be expected that their students are inexperienced at strategic consulting. PBL relies heavily on faculty monitoring to ensure smooth communication and professionalism. Often faculty are required to set the tone for the engagement, monitor student performance/group dynamics, and ensure projects objectives are met and learning outcomes are achieved.

Faculty who use PBL also enjoy the ability to forge connections within the business community, where new opportunities for PBL or future research opportunities can emerge for their own academic careers as well. By keeping a strong network in business communities and engaging students in that network, faculty members become an important part of ensuring post-graduation success for their students.

What Makes for a Positive Project-Based Learning Experience?
There are 5 main factors that can either make or break a Project-Based Learning experience for a student and their host company when undertaken in a business education setting…

  • First and foremost, the proposed outcomes of a PBL experience must be appropriate for the level of the student participating in the engagement.
  • Second, to achieve optimal engagement, it is important that the project is within the realm of the student’s desired expertise.
  • Third, it’s critical that projects are appropriate for the time frame that is provided.
  • Fourth, students should be given enough resources and support from the host company and their faculty to be able to successfully complete the project.
  • Finally, deliverables and project outcomes should be clearly defined so to ensure everyone is on the same page throughout the whole process.

Project-Based Learning must also contain a degree of rigor that is required of a business student in a higher-education setting. Outcomes must be demonstrable and referenceable during and after the engagement. Students should also be able to see how their work relates to a whole business and understand how their efforts in problem solving can impact a company or industry at large.

Embrace Project-Based Learning 
Project-Based Learning is an approach in business education that enhances the learning process by showing how important it is to blend academic knowledge with practical experiences. It not only gives students experiences for their resumes, but it involves the industry as a key player in developing the future workforce.

CapSource acts as an important part of the Project-Based Learning ecosystem by functioning as a liaison between business education programs and companies interested in hosting students. Through an advanced understanding of the learning outcomes of specific business courses, CapSource can work to make the most appropriate match between students and businesses that will bring discipline-specific knowledge to the project needs that have been defined by our project scoping experts.