The time-honoured method of experiential learning – learning through experience, by discovery, exploration, and reflection – has been given a modern twist by academics in North America.
Engineering management programme students from the W. Booth School of Engineering Practice & Technology at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, were invited to take part in a reality TV show format, namely the ‘M-Factor’ student competition. The aim was to provide a challenging but fun extracurricular activity which would enhance students’ business and management skills, particularly in communication, problem-solving, teamwork, and collaboration.
Professors Theomary Karamanis and Allan MacKenzie developed the competition in line with the theory of experiential learning advanced by the American educational theorist David Kolb. In the 1970s and 1980s, Kolb proposed a model of experiential learning that comprised concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation, and active experimentation. According to Kolb, the first part of an educational process is when the learner encounters a new experience. They then reflect on it and begin to form new ideas about it. The final stage is when they use and adapt the experience to other situations.
In using experiential learning theory to inform their M-Factor competition, Karamanis and MacKenzie had three central research questions. They wanted to find out how students felt about a real-life experience that took them out of their ‘safe’ academic environment. They also aimed to discover whether students valued learning gained from a competition involving non-technical skills, and to see how students’ perceptions of their own abilities compared with the evidence provided by the competition and the judges’ evaluation.
The extracurricular activity took students outside their comfort zone and greatly increased self-awareness of their business and management skills.
With cash prizes of $1,200, $800 and $500 on offer for the top three finalists, the M-Factor competition took place in 2015 and was open to all undergraduate engineering students. Held over two Saturdays, students faced two individual and group challenges each weekend. A total of 54 students registered for the event and 24 turned up for the auditions and took part. Most contestants were male (81%), and the largest proportion (43%) were fourth-year students.
The participants were divided into groups and asked to devise a construction that would allow an egg to be safely dropped from a substantial height.
In the first week, students’ communications skills were tested by asking them to give a five-minute professional presentation on a relevant subject of their choice. The judges – academics who included Karamanis and MacKenzie – assessed the presentations in real-time and either rejected contestants or gave them a ticket to the next round. The students were then interviewed on camera about their audition experience. Of the 24 who entered the competition, 18 passed to the next round.
The competitors were next presented with a group challenge to test their teamwork and collaboration skills. Divided into three groups, students had to devise a construction which would protect an egg and allow it to be safely dropped from a substantial height. Students believed they would be assessed based on the innovation of their construction. Much to their surprise, after the egg drop activity, they were asked to complete evaluation forms on their own and fellow students’ performance. Judges ultimately evaluated teams based on teamwork and interpersonal communication skills. The participants with the lowest scores on each team were voted out of the competition.
The next Saturday began with a group exercise to test the remaining 12 students’ analytical and problem-solving skills. Participants were again put into three groups and this time given a business case study which outlined a business problem. The group task was to work together to identify a solution and orally present it to the judges. The teams were then evaluated by the judges, who also held feedback sessions with participants. Contestants knew that either all members of their group would pass on to the final round, or none.
The eight remaining competitors took part in the final round of the competition, which was an individual challenge designed to assess participants’ time management, critical thinking, and oral communication skills. They were each put in the role of a media spokesperson for a fictitious company and, after 15 minutes’ preparation time, were asked to conduct a ‘press conference’ in front of the judges. The judges scored participants for their performance and the three students with the highest scores won the competition.
In addition to the competition, Karamanis’s and MacKenzie’s research design comprised pre- and post-competition surveys to find out more about participants’ backgrounds, why they took part, how they rated their management and business skills, and what their experience of the competition had been. The research also included analysis of the material gathered by the judges from the competition.
Results showed that before the competition, most participants had taken some business / management courses, with 19% having taken more than eight courses. The top reasons for wanting to take part in M-Factor were because ‘it would be a good learning experience’, ‘it sounds like fun’ or they felt that they had ‘the management factor’.
The majority of participants (85%) ‘strongly agreed’ that the M-Factor competition was a good learning experience.
Asked about their communication skills before the competition, 70% rated themselves as ‘very good or excellent’ and, regarding time management and collaboration, 80% rated themselves as ‘very good or excellent’ in both areas. The highest pre-competition confidence scores were in problem-solving, with nine out of ten students saying they had ‘very good or excellent’ skills in this area. Participants were less confident about winning, with a majority 71% estimating that they would pass the audition stage and 19% saying they were ‘very likely’ to win the overall competition.
All participants said they would recommend the competition to other students and would take part again if they had the chance.
Following the competition, participants were asked to describe their performance overall and most were far less optimistic than before. No one answered ‘excellent’, 36% responded ‘very good’, 14% ‘good’ and 36% ‘satisfactory’. Students’ assessments of their communication skills were also lower, with 25% rating themselves as ‘excellent’ in oral communication, 30% in written communication, 25% in time-management, and 40% in teamwork and collaboration.
Regarding their overall experience, 72% of students said the competition met or exceeded their expectations and 57% said it was more enjoyable and exciting than expected. 85% of competitors ‘strongly agreed’ that it was good learning experience, 62% ‘strongly agreed’ that it had given them a better understanding of their management skills, and 69% said their management skills had improved as a result of taking part. All participants said they would recommend it to other students and would take part again if they had the chance.
Developing professional skills in business and management alongside technical, academic capabilities is vital if students are to be able make a positive contribution to employers and help to solve the world’s problems from the beginning of their careers.
While demanding in terms of organisational resources, the M-Factor competition devised by Karamanis and MacKenzie successfully demonstrates the role that student competitions can play in encouraging engineering management programme students to see the value of soft and durable skills in communication, problem-solving, teamwork, and collaboration.
Although the sample size is small, Karamanis and MacKenzie argue that their research shows that the competition was a successful, innovative, and enjoyable experiential learning activity. The extracurricular activity took students outside their comfort zone, greatly increased self-awareness of their business and management skills, and helped them to understand where there was room for improvement.
The study also paves the way for further research. The researchers conclude: ‘Exploring further how students move from one stage of Kolb’s learning cycle to the next and when they close a full cycle after their “concrete experience” would advance our understanding of the long-term impact such experiential activities have.’
What surprised you most about students’ reactions to the competition?
MacKenzie: I was impressed by the students’ effort and determination during this extracurricular event in conjunction with all their other academic accountabilities. The energy throughout both days of the competition was inspiring to be around. I have to acknowledge the courage of all the student participants who stepped out of their comfort zones to reveal and expand their communication and interpersonal talents.
Karamanis: This was an absolutely fantastic experience for both our students and for us as faculty. I was so inspired by the results that I replicated the competition at Cornell University’s business school, transforming it into the C-Factor competition (measuring communication skills of business school students). I believe that this experiential learning activity is extremely promising and worthy of replication in different academic environments.