Learning by ‘not doing’ may be just as effective, suggests study

Research raises questions about how to create tomorrow’s entrepreneurs

January 11, 2017
Man lays down while another works behind
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Relax, don’t do it: ‘it would be wrong and a waste of resources to go massively experiential’ in education, said one researcher

A new doctoral study has challenged the common assumption that “experiential” methods are the most effective ways of teaching entrepreneurship.

To reach her findings, Inna Kozlinska, research associate at Aston University, whose PhD was jointly supervised by the University of Turku in Finland and the University of Tartu in Estonia, compared more than 500 graduates from Estonia and Latvia who had studied entrepreneurship as part of business degrees.

Some, she explained, took “traditional” lecture-based courses “focused on education about entrepreneurship”. Others were taught using more experiential models, which stressed either “personality development, triggering entrepreneurial attitudes and making people want to become entrepreneurs” or “making students become entrepreneurs, either during the course or right after graduation”.

It was then possible to compare the “outcomes” for the two groups in terms of knowledge, skills, attitudes and career decisions. This enabled Dr Kozlinska to assess, for example, whether learning-by-doing helped students acquire knowledge of “developing new products and services, recognizing and evaluating business opportunities” or “how-to interpersonal skills” such as “leading a team, resolving conflicts and so on”.

The results – which have been published as Evaluation of the Outcomes of Entrepreneurship Education Revisited by Juvenes Print in Finland – were striking.

Despite “an ongoing shift towards experiential learning in business schools”, Dr Kozlinska noted that “there is little empirical evidence to suggest this approach has a better impact than traditional learning. [My] study has shown, contrary to our expectations, that ‘learning-by-doing’ approaches do not necessarily lead to better outcomes for students, and were even found to have adverse effects in some instances.”

In Latvia, she found no differences in entrepreneurial knowledge, skills or attitudes between graduates who had been taught traditionally and those who had learned experientially. In Estonia, only a single business school that focused on learning-by-doing produced graduates with a higher level of entrepreneurial skills and attitudes.

In seeking to explain her findings, Dr Kozlinska pointed to a number of factors – including students who have had a very textbook-heavy education in school and educators who have extensive experience in either teaching or industry, but generally not both – which may be specific to the Baltic region. Yet, as someone who had witnessed entrepreneurship education in action across a range of countries, she also believed that “the results can be generalised to other universities”.

“It would be wrong and a waste of resources to go massively experiential,” she argued. “Educators and students might not be ready for the shift. I think that’s quite a dangerous tactic to teach experientially to everyone, university-wide. We have to be very targeted. We have to select students on their prior motivation and readiness to embrace this sort of learning or, alternatively, teach them first how to learn experientially.”


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Reader's comments (2)

I'm not clear on the term "to go massively experiential". I think that several models of work-integrated learning that show 33% to 50% of time spent in workplace learning is quite successful. The argument about entrepreneurial work/learning is an interesting approach, but I have seen in launching such experiences that there is a great deal of preparation and vetting required of the experience and its design, for the student to be eminently successful. And this is different than a conventional "co-op" or internship role.
A key to success in the use of experiential learning lies in the final paragraph where it is clear that the author acknowledges that experiential learning may not suit every student and may not suit every university - no real surprises there as no one approach fits all, all of the time. The final sentence, in which the importance of the student's motivation and readiness or the institution's ability to teach how to learn experientially is stated, is important. One might also consider that students may simply vary in their ability to learn in this way. Finally, not all entreprenurship programmes aim to deliver the same 'learning outcomes' - different approaches to learning (including experiential leanring) may suit different learning outcomes.

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