Experiential learning is one of the richest, most effective learning tools. While many training executives encourage their managers to incorporate more experience-based learning into the daily office tasks of their teams, executives are also turning to higher education for help.

Recently, my consulting firm interviewed leaders at top universities to better understand how they’ve modified the design and structure of some courses to offer a more experience-based approach to learning. Here are two examples of higher education institutions that corporations have noticed and partnered with because of the integration of experiential learning. 

Customization Solves Challenges
At Penn State, faculty will customize programs or courses for corporate partners, taking learning tools beyond video, lectures, or textbooks to offer learners the chance to fully engage with the material. 

Through facilitated, small-group discussions, Pennsylvania State University’s faculty guide learners through the knowledge and techniques they need to solve a relevant problem identified within the organization. 

“At Penn State, our faculty guide internal teams of pre-selected people through the learning process,” explains Jeff Spearly, senior director of learning and development for Penn State Executive Programs and a senior instructor at the Smeal College of Business. “This approach isn’t about classroom teaching or faculty giving answers to students, it’s about faculty leading, directing, and coaching the group to find the answers themselves, and then to apply them. This type of learning drives real, lasting change in the workplace.”

This type of experiential learning and custom course design gives every learner the chance to own the material in a more thoroughly engaged way. It also allows them to fully absorb the lessons for lasting success and professional development. Simultaneously, the corporation solves a challenge through the use of its own internal brain power, instead of hiring outside consultants.

Learn by Doing
“In today’s information age, the information is out there for anyone to access, but learners have to know how to ask the right questions, and how to solve problems as a team,” says Brian Greenwood, associate professor and chair of the Learn by Doing Conference at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly). 

Cal Poly places a strong emphasis on learning through experience, or what they call Learn by Doing. This is an engaged approach to learning that takes students away from the traditional lecture model, and places them at the center of the action to problem solve and troubleshoot situations designed to mimic what they’d see in the corporate world.

In his classes, Greenwood uses a blended approach of online and face-to-face classroom, small-group learning. Before class, students will read the material on their own time. When they come to class, they take a quick quiz at the beginning to ensure they’ve prepared by reading the pre-class materials, and then the students form small groups to begin collaborative problem-solving exercises.

In these small groups, Greenwood poses a challenge to his students—sometimes, the challenge even comes directly from one of the college’s corporate partners, like Lockheed Martin. The students must then solve the problem, with Greenwood helping to guide and coach them to the answers.

Organizations have taken notice of the Cal Poly Learn by Doing approach. Cal Poly boasts an impressive 97 percent employment rate with some of the nation’s top companies, including Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Cisco Systems, and Philips 66. Greenwood says corporations that host interns and recent graduates have told him that Cal Poly students tend to be better prepared to enter the professional world and are years ahead of their peers from other institutes.

Although the Learn by Doing model at Cal Poly is more closely associated with its undergraduate program, this model has application for learners of all ages, regardless of the position they hold in a company. The approach demonstrates the power that experiential learning has to develop skill sets and talent at all stages of a learners’ journey.

Training executives know that forming partnerships with higher education is one of the best strategies to advance their programs and elevate learners. Already a wide range of organizations have partnered with higher education institutions to create unique, customized programs for their learners. Prominent organizations such as General Motors have partnered with Macomb Community College, Starwood Hotels with Cornell University, Oppenheimer Funds with Duke University, Cisco with Vanderbilt University, Bank of New York Mellon with Cass Business School, and Tucson Medical Center with the University of Arizona.

As training executives face increasing pressure to demonstrate the investment of their programs, it’s likely they’ll look for programs and courses structured around real, business-world experiences. For those higher education institutions that can offer this approach to training executives, their opportunities to tap into the corporate market could be unlimited.