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The Role of Faculty Mentorship in Project-Based Learning

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Written by Capsource

Most of our student consulting projects are well underway this semester (and so far, they’re going pretty well!). The students typically start off their engagements by learning more about their host company’s business model, product, and industry. Most of our projects are 13-weeks in length since we exclude the first and last week of the semester. After about 4-6 weeks, the students are getting into the weeds of the project and beginning to think strategically about helping their host company based on the intended outcomes…

Queue the faculty mentorship!

We took the time to catch-up with LD Metcalfe, a CapSource mentor running a similar program at William and Mary. We interviewed him about how he recommends managing these projects as a faculty mentor. We put together an overview of faculty expectations within the Project Based Learning environment so we can help them maximize the overall outcomes for all parties…

Project-Based Learning, or PBL, represents a shift in the learning environment from the four walls of the classroom to the boardroom. In a Project-Based Learning experience, participating students benefit from both academic and professional mentorships. Although students are responsible for interacting with their project clients, faculty members provide students with the necessary structure, guidance, and academic theories that can be used to approach real-world challenges they are facing throughout their consulting projects…

One such faculty member is LD Metcalfe, the Director of the Field Consulting Program at the Mason School of Business at William & Mary. Metcalfe says, “When you think of the faculty’s role in this context, you need to think ‘advisor’ or ‘trusted friend.’ It’s the faculty’s responsibility to advise, warn, recommend, inform, and encourage students throughout the project. The best project outcomes result from hardworking students and highly dedicated faculty advisors.”

While Project-Based Learning is often seen as a departure from traditional learning in higher education, this high impact educational practice provides the necessary experienced-based learning for educating future business leaders—and the educators themselves must remain a critical part of the learning process.

This is a brief overview of the integral role a faculty member should play in any Project Based Learning program:

Setting the Tone for the Engagement

Kicking off the engagement and setting the tone are two of the most critical aspects in successful client-based experiential learning engagements. In order for the project to run smoothly, the students, faculty, and companies need to be fully invested into achieving the project goals. Students are expected to maintain certain levels of quality and professionalism when representing themselves and their school while working in real-world consulting engagements.

LD Metcalfe says, “Failure is not an option. These are real projects taking place with real clients where the students are representing our school. In most cases, these companies are paying for the results of their project. Students need to take it very seriously and that starts with the faculty advisor.”

One recommendation for starting projects off on the right foot is to clearly explain how these engagements will be different from other courses. CapSource also recommends that faculty members clearly outline how the students are to be graded so they understand how this “course” is going to be a different learning experience.

CapSource encourages faculty to kick off the engagements by reviewing the project goals and the overall project road map to make sure students understand what the engagement entails. Students should feel prepared for their first meeting with their client, so explaining the project details and any high-level questions is a must!

Monitoring Communication

From the first client interaction all the way to the final presentations, students are expected to interact with their clients frequently. In most cases, participating students will not have prior consulting experience, so the faculty play a key role in guiding any client-facing communication. This is especially true during the earlier part of the engagement.

In addition to helping the students set a professional tone, CapSource encourages faculty to play an active role in reviewing client-facing communication with the project team. Faculty should also expect to check in with the project company contacts throughout the engagement to ensure the students are communicating effectively. For example, if students are including superfluous information or they’re engaging with the client too frequently/infrequently, it’s the role of the faculty advisor to step in and coach the students through improvements in their communication style.

Although it’s not usually required that faculty are involved in all (or even most) of the client interactions, it’s important that they have access to any regular communication channels and materials to ensure that students are using appropriate business etiquette. This transparency also allows faculty to intervene early if they notice projects are going off course.

Administering and Evaluating Feedback

A PBL experience should provide many opportunities for client, faculty, and peer evaluation (both qualitative – with written and oral feedback, in addition to quantitative – with survey instruments). By reviewing project evaluations, peer evaluations, and other feedback throughout the project, faculty can monitor individual performance and group dynamics. CapSource suggests keeping surveys quick and to-the-point, the resulting information is usually particularly useful in ensuring that the students are on-track to appropriately complete the project on time.

Faculty should aim to provide students with feedback that goes beyond the numbers and incorporates real, relevant, and career building constructive feedback that helps students grow as young professionals. It’s important to keep these goals in mind when crafting feedback instruments. Between reviewing communications, deliverables, and any feedback that’s collected, faculty advisors should have a sufficient understanding of whether or not the students will be able to complete the project as expected.

Project Guidance & Problem Solving

When students come to a fork in the road, faculty advisors act as a guide in helping them recognize the available options. While ultimately urging students to make their own decisions as in the real world, the faculty should be a resource for the students as they work through their unique challenges throughout their projects.

LD Metcalfe says, “Faculty are not there to solve problems or provide expert consulting mentorship. Faculty should focus on asking the right questions and adding structure where needed. In order for this to be a true learning experience for students, they need to struggle and they need to fail a little bit.”

Metcalfe makes a good point here: there’s a fine line between providing students with too much guidance and not enough. Students should navigate through decisions as they would in the real world, with real guidance from supervisors and mentors. Ultimately, however, they should be left to make their own decisions and learn from any resulting outcomes. Metcalfe and his impressive faculty and staff are trained to guide the students so that they can ultimately make the best decisions possible on their own.

In most client-based experiential learning projects, faculty advisors should expect to use their own personal experiences in addition to any expertise they have in their field to best guide students through their challenges. When students are overwhelmed or unsure in their engagement, the faculty advisors should be available to help them better understand the situation so they can refine their approach and achieve the best results.

Resolving Issues and Conflicts

One of the key benefits of PBL is that students can work on understanding the intricacies of interpersonal professional relationships in a more controlled environment. PBL requires students to make real decisions and resolve real issues throughout their projects in order for them to succeed. Faculty also play a pivotal role in helping the students manage any team issues or conflicts that arise, so that they do not escalate to the company’s project leadership.

The benefit here is two-fold: (1) faculty can use these issues as a basis for teaching so that students can learn how to resolve similar issues in the future, and (2) this ensures that only the critical project issues are escalated to the company contacts. The hands-on, realistic nature of PBL provides faculty with many opportunities to develop the student’s business nuance and job readiness. Conflicts and issues come up in all real-world situations, and it’s up to the faculty to help students develop their toolkit when it comes to resolving them.

CapSource recommends that faculty approach conflict or issues without bias and with an open mind. In most cases, faculty should listen to the arguments and help students understand how they can best decide on the course of action. CapSource also recommends that faculty incorporate readings and discussions surrounding conflict resolution, teamwork, and problem solving to drive certain points home when necessary.

Grading and Measuring Learning Outcomes

When integrating PBL into the academic curriculum of any business program, it should be done with learning outcomes in mind. CapSource includes learning outcomes unique to every Project Charter so that students can select projects that center around topics that interest them. Ultimately, it’s up to the faculty to ensure that these learning objectives are appropriate and that they are met by the conclusion of the project.

Of course, since PBL is vastly different from traditional coursework, students are graded differently. Project-based learning incorporates the use and development of business theory, soft skills, critical thinking, and problem solving. Grading rubrics should be clear to the students before their engagement begins. In some cases, being successful in a project does not necessarily lead to earning the best grade for the course (and vice versa). It should be clear to students how their grade is calculated so that there are no surprises at the end of the term.

CapSource recommends incorporating at least the following areas into any grading rubric for client-based experiential learning:

  • Did the group complete the project and satisfy their client’s needs?
  • Did the student work cohesively with his/her peers?
  • Did the student complete the work assigned of him/her in a timely manner?
  • Did the student’s quality of work meet or exceed the standard?
  • Did the student use appropriate team, business, and individual etiquette and show professionalism?

Faculty as an Integral Component

Project-Based Learning is not about the faculty member giving up control of the student’s learning. Instead, it’s about helping the students by providing them with an academic foundation and the professional scaffolding necessary to facilitate the process of learning. Faculty members can ensure that their curriculum is up to date by allowing the business world and the PBL experiences to inform their teaching. Through this, business schools are able to graduate job-ready students who have been trained simultaneously in both academic and business spheres.


About LD Metcalfe and the Field Consulting Program at William & Mary

LD Metcalfe, Director of the Mason School of Business at William & Mary, coordinates three project-based experiential learning programs. Each revolves around a unique academic discipline (entrepreneurship, corporate field consulting, and investing) where students are challenged with real industry challenges at real companies. Students work for a total of 7 months on their projects (two consecutive semesters – September through mid-March); companies pay a fee to participate. Most of the companies are local, but as of Spring 2017, Metcalfe has coordinated distance project-based learning engagements that are both domestic and international. In addition to the faculty, Students are paired with Executive Partners that coach them throughout their project.

Email: [email protected]
Phone: (757) 221-2963
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