Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

From aeroplanes to stoves: Using experiential learning in a management course

Cecil A. L. Pearson
Commerce Programme
and
Colin J. Beasley
Teaching and Learning Centre
Murdoch University
The increasing complexity and globalisation of contemporary tertiary systems is compelling universities to rethink their educational delivery practices. One consequence is the proliferation of large class sizes which, while offering the apparent financial advantages of economies of scale, create challenges for effective teaching and learning. This paper reports on the successful use of experiential learning in large workshop groups in a second year university management course. The workshops provided a stimulating opportunity to experience and learn about management functions, structural properties, leadership styles and other organisational principles and practices. This presentation details how the class participants were able to explore key curriculum elements while developing critical thinking, creativity and problem solving skills through simulations ranging from aeroplane to stove manufacture.

Introduction

Experiential learning is a broad term encompassing many differing perspectives and attracting many enthusiastic adherents. David Kolb in his influential book on experiential learning takes a developmental perspective, maintaining (as did Vygotsky) that "learning from experience is the process whereby human development occurs" (Kolb, 1984, p. xi). Kolb traces the current approaches to experiential learning to the "progressive" approach of John Dewey in higher education, the contributions of the social psychologist, Kurt Lewin to training and organization development, and the cognitive development work of Jean Piaget. Piaget's work has led to the use of concrete experiential materials and methods for exploring scientific and mathematical concepts for primary and secondary students.

Weil & McGill (1989) review the rich diversity in both theory and practice of the field of experiential learning delineating four broad areas of concern (or "villages"): firstly, the assessment and accreditation of prior experiential learning; secondly, experiential learning changing the practices, structures and purposes of post-secondary education; thirdly, experiential learning as a vehicle for social change; and fourthly, experiential learning for personal growth and development. These authors argue the necessity for a very broad interpretation of experiential learning not just for the sake of improving jobs and training but also because "our society needs skills that go beyond what are currently seen as educational or relevant for employment ..., [s]kills of cultural development and of social life and of challenging inequality ... [because] vocational or educational experts often have too narrow a perspective of the future and future production" (p. 2). Kolb (1984, p. 6) makes a similar point when he offers experiential learning as a constructive solution to the "marked trend to vocationalism in higher education, spurred on by ... employers who feel that the graduates they recruit into their organizations are woefully underprepared".

Boud, Cohen & Walker (1993, p. 6-7) discuss the notion of experience in the following manner:

... experience is a meaningful encounter. It is not just an observation, a passive undergoing of something, but an active engagement with the environment, of which the learner is an important part.
'Each learner forms part of the milieu, enriching it with his or her personal contribution and creating an interaction which becomes the individual as well as the shared learning experience' (Boud and Walker 1991: 18). This continuing, complex and meaningful interaction is central to our understanding of experience.

This paper describes how second year university students were exposed to an experiential learning programme which included simulations designed to improve their interactional skills as well as enhance their cognitive and conceptual skills by applying the core information of a management course. These simulations will be discussed in terms of their effect on both students and staff and the potential for further development.

Management course

The students were enrolled in a second year management course in the Commerce programme at the Murdoch University School of Business. Two significant features of the class in this decade have been increasing student numbers and an escalating proportion of international participants (1991, n = 200, 41% international; 1996, 325, 61.5%; 1997, 294, 58.5% respectively). Most of these international students were from Singapore with large contributions from Malaysia and Indonesia, and smaller student numbers from other neighbouring south east Asian communities. A further interesting trait, which had been developing since 1991, was the high class proportion of international women students, who had been recording substantially better course grades than the men students, after the introduction of curriculum and pedagogical changes (Pearson & Beasley, 1996a; 1996b). These changes were motivated by a desire to promote critical thinking and independent learning as well as improve communication skills. The course had become increasingly more participatory, involving a variety of individual and group activities such as student projects and tutorial presentations.

In 1997 further substantial changes were made to the mode of delivery of this management course. Prior to this time the course had been presented within the traditional format of two one-hourly lectures per week, and a one hour tutorial (each with about 15 students). In 1997, the workshop concept was introduced. The new format was one one-hourly lecture and a two hour workshop per week, each with about 30 students. For pragmatic reasons a maximum of 35 students was set. Thus, the traditional three hours of class contact per week, for the 13 week semester, has been maintained.

The operation of two hour workshops requires some specific resources, while offering several benefits compared to one hour tutorials. A bigger room, for example, is required. To engage a class of 30 students in simulation activities or as several small groups requires a room that can seat about 50 people, and a floor that is carpeted to acoustically soften the sound of many people interacting and talking. In addition, more small moveable tables and chairs are needed. The larger capacity room provides a greater student - instructor ratio, and hence a better economic outcome. More importantly, the longer learning time of each session permits students to engage in simulations such as The Sloan School of Management Brewery Activity (Senge, 1990), as well as to participate in a number of small group activities within a session.

The additional time allows students to engage in more complex problems and deal with them more comprehensively. For experiential learning activities to be successful, sufficient time is needed for both briefing the participants before the activity to ensure roles and aims are fully understood, and most importantly, debriefing after the experience to reflect on the lessons learnt and relate theoretical input from lectures and readings to the students' own experiences (Boud, Keogh & Walker, 1985). The duration of the workshop provides a context where students can develop social skills in terms of interdependence, communication networks, teamworking, powersharing, and organisational politicking. This climate has the potential to enhance cognitive and critical thinking competencies as students will find it essential that they integrate their social skills with self directed learning competencies such as independence, self determination, initiative and innovation.

At the first workshop the programme outline is discussed. It has four main types of activities. Three are short duration exercises, group oral presentations, and case studies, which usually require about 30 minutes and comprise 75% of the programme. Although these three types of activities should also be key elements in many comprehensive tutorial programmes, more can be undertaken and to a greater intensity in a workshop format. The greatest advantage of the workshop format is that it provides the necessary time and learning context for a fourth type of activity, simulations.

Simulations

The simulations are undertaken in the second half of the semester once students have developed both working relationships with other class members as well as acquired a certain "critical mass" of course content knowledge. Simulations provide a framework for students to learn and demonstrate the extent of their functional competence in a variety of ways. An example of a simulation designed to achieve these objectives is the focus of the following discussion.

The simulation described here was undertaken at the mid point of the workshop programme after such topics as organisational structures, total quality management, work processes and managerial control/co-ordination practices had been addressed in course lectures. This simulation involves the construction of either an origami boomerang aeroplane (it comes back), or the making of a miniature kitchen stove. The only limit to the type of products that could be manufactured is determined by one's imagination.

The idea for miniature stove manufacture simulations came from a conference presentation by Segon & Rose (1996) which described the manufacture of white goods in a management class. They claimed the activity provided students with a variety of learning experiences which included not only narrow work oriented management skills (e.g., accounting, project control, market economics), but also dimensions of leadership, critical thinking, and establishing climates for the exchange of facts and opinions. Hence, the concept was adapted, as explained below.

Procedure

At the beginning of the workshop session (for either simulation) every class member is given a four page typed handout. Class members are given 10 minutes to read this document which has two main parts. First, there is a brief description of a company with details of its organisational structure (See Figure 1) including the managerial positions and the shop floor employees, the monthly salary of each company member, and information of the company's $1 million loan from the bank to manufacture aeroplanes/stoves. The monthly loan repayment details (plus rent/power) are provided, plus information about wages to be paid to staff, some basic quality details about the product being manufactured (e.g., the aeroplane must return to the thrower, the stove door must open), the contract selling price to buyers, how to obtain materials and the relevant work conditions of all parties. The second part of the handout provides important details about other organisations that interact with the company.

Figure 1

Figure 1: The key microcosm elements and the monetary flows between them.

There are four additional fundamental elements of this microcosm. Firstly, there is a bank, requiring at least one class member to record the financial details of the monthly debt repayments and to pursue the company if it defaults. Secondly, there is an international buyer who purchases the company products, and issues cheques either to the value of the contract price or negotiates a fee according to the product quality. Thirdly, there is a supplier of aeroplane/stove materials, which are sold to the company two weeks after payment by cheque, and accounted for by the budgeted operations of the supplying corporation. Lastly, there is a time keeper who times each working week at three minutes with a weekend of a half a minute. Not only do members have to vacate the worksite at weekends, but they have to redeem their monthly pay cheques at the bank during the appropriate week of remuneration.

After reading the handout the workshop tutor invites class members to choose a role. As the members are assigned a role they are given a typed role description, which can be as much as one and one half pages or as little as five lines. For example, the managing director role would have the longest job description while a shop floor employee or the time keeper would have the shortest job description. After all the roles have been assigned, a brief class discussion (no more than five minutes) is held to clarify the connections of the elements of the microcosm (See Figure 2). All class members are asked to enact their roles as defined, and the simulation begins.

Figure 2: Organisational structure.

Figure 2: Organisational structure.

During the assigning of the role descriptions some extra material is allocated. For instance, the accounting manager is given a number of blank company cheque forms, and the product buyer is also given similar documentation for the purchasing corporation. The works manager is provided with plans for the product to be manufactured (as well as being able to view the completed item). The supplier is issued with product kits (for aeroplanes, 15cm x 15cm light weight origami paper; for stoves, a half an A4 sheet of 210gm hardboard, a piece of perspex for the viewing door and four 1cm adhesive coloured discs for the hot plates). The time keeper has an overhead transparency displaying the 16 weeks, the start and finish time of the working period as well as the weekend start and finish. This overhead is marked and kept visible to the class throughout the simulation.

The workshop tutor observes, but may also intervene if necessary. To provide an additional element of complexity the tutor can subtly remove a participant by issuing a medical form. These forms contain one of the following two statements: "You are sick - take a week off" or "You have had an accident - take a week off". As the form is validated by the signature of a medical practitioner it legitimises the company employee's action to vacate the worksite after presenting the form to his/her superior or the personnel manager.

A vital segment of the simulation is the review session. On completion of "16 weeks" a period of 30 minutes is devoted to focussing on the reflections of the participants on what they have learnt from the exercise. Specifically, we are interested in whether deep learning and critical thinking have been stimulated. Deep learning occurs when the learning experience leads to an understanding of the underlying principles and concepts involved and is related to previous knowledge and personal experience, whereas surface learning is limited more to processes of memorisation and rote learning of facts. Critical thinking, on the other hand, is likely to at least begin in a review session when students have time to reflect, listen and ask questions. These review sessions are vital and stimulating for the interest of the students as well as the tutor.

Discussion

Simulations of aeroplane and stove manufacture can be used to evaluate a variety of management and organisational concepts including job design, organisational task coordination, cognitive dissonance, reinforcement theory. While understanding of learning processes is intellectually compelling and emotionally satisfying in itself, learning is manifestly heightened when the process involves participation and reflection on the theoretical issues and concepts in simulated "real life" practical situations.

An important feature of simulations is the rich diversity of participant interactions and the opportunity they give for students to learn more. Although it has been claimed (Senge, 1990) that particular simulations (e.g., the Brewery Activity) always demonstrate similar fundamental concepts, workshop leaders must be alert to the variety and intensity of participant behaviours. For instance, some participants become so engrossed in their roles that they mimic dramas of real life and such volatile interpersonal dynamics have to be circumvented or controlled. While it might be anticipated that the switch to a relatively fast changing learning environment will alter dependency and aggression dynamics for the participants, their specific actions cannot be forecast. This is the powerful benefit of simulations. The uniqueness of each session is that it provides but a small example of countless possible situations, and hence interest and learning opportunities are boundless.

Review sessions consistently appear to have benefited the students and to have been enlightening to the tutor. Of particular value have been the interaction/negotiating elements for those students who have previously been less exposed to the operational dynamics of the workplace. The review sessions demonstrate that the class participants experience a great variety of opportunities, challenges and information about competencies vital for performance. For instance, although total quality management is a course topic, few people fully realised the meaning of "building in quality" until the simulation was conducted. Many of the "managers" made unjustified assumptions about their own roles and abilities as well as the capacities of others. Often the managers tried to do the work themselves, yet they could recite text book knowledge such as that "management is a process of getting others to do the tasks". Frequently, people did things without considering the consequences, yet the participants were aware of strategy and goal setting principles, but obviously these concepts had not been fully understood. All of the managerial members fully understood at the close of the simulation what Mintzberg meant when he wrote "managers work at an unrelenting pace". Feedback to the workshop tutors has encouraged an expansion of this type of workshop activity in the final weeks of the 1997 semester, as well as for an additional management course next year.

Some cursory evaluations have been made about the workshop mode. Ad hoc as well as formal independent evaluations have been undertaken recently to gauge student reactions to the new initiatives. The latter evaluations, by the university's Institutional Research and Evaluation Service, are incomplete at the time of writing, unfortunately. Hence, a random sample of students (17% of the course participants) was invited to complete a five item questionnaire comparing the workshop and tutorial modes in order to obtain an interim assessment of the impact of simulations. In addition, very brief open discussions were held in the workshops to ascertain general student perceptions about the new delivery mode.

Broadly, the simulations have been popularly endorsed by the students. They believe they learn more in these sessions, that this mode of teaching improves their participation and team problem solving, while allowing them to examine course topics to a greater level of complexity. Moreover, students without substantial prior experience of the workplace are able to perceive to some extent the problems that managers confront. If there is a possible downside to the workshop mode, the students affirm that they are required to do more work outside class contact hours than in the traditional lecture/tutorial system.

In conclusion, the simulations have added another dimension to teaching and learning in two management related courses at our university. Favourable reports from the students have been encouraging and the intention is to expand this mode of teaching not only for its popularity, but because of the intensity of participant contributions in both the activity phase as well as the debriefing session. Simulations provide the opportunity for students to apply concepts of the course content, and more importantly to test the relevance of this information through their class experiences. Simulations, when used appropriately, are a powerful learning mechanism that can be employed for improving the quality of tertiary teaching.

References

Boud, D., Cohen, R. & Walker, D. (eds.) (1993). Using experience for learning. Milton Keynes: SRHE and Open University Press.

Boud, D., Keogh, R. & Walker, D. (1985). Promoting reflection in learning: A model. In Boud, D., Keogh, R. and Walker, D. (eds.), Reflection: Turning experience into learning, (pp. 18-40). London: Kogan Page.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Pearson, C. A. L. & Beasley, C. J. (1996a). Reducing learning barriers amongst international students: A longitudinal developmental study. Australian Educational Researcher, 2: 79-96.

Pearson, C. A. L. and Beasley, C. J. (1996b). Facilitating the learning of international students: A collaborative approach. In S. Leong & D. Kirkpatrick (Eds.), Different approaches: Theory and practice in higher education (Proceedings of the 1996 HERDSA Annual Conference): Research and Development in Higher Education, Vol 19, pp. 650-658.

Segon, M. J. & Rose, M. (1996). Whitegoods: A management simulation to facilitate the development of management competencies. Proceedings of Academy of International Business South-East Asia Regional Conference, 17-20 June, Dunedin and Queenstown, New Zealand, 245-250.

Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organisation. London: Century Business.

Weil, S. W. & McGill, I. (eds.). (1989). Making sense of experiential learning: Diversity in theory and practice. Milton Keynes: SRHE and Open University Press.

Please cite as: Pearson, Cecil A. L. and Beasley, Colin J. (1998). From aeroplanes to stoves: Using experiential learning in a management course. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 248-254. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/pearson.html


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