3 Ways to Use Experiential Learning to Boost Your Career

Article by Dan Lauer

Most of us have been in the room while a boring professor drones on and on in front of dozing students. While the centuries-old lecture format can be an efficient way to transfer knowledge, it doesn't necessarily further learning.

Instead, students are more likely to gain lasting understandings of new concepts when they're asked to teach or use those concepts, according to Harvard University's Eric Mazur. When given the chance to practice what they've learned, students retain 75 percent of that new information on average. Compare this to the 20 percent retention rate average seen in lecture environments.

Based on this premise, we can say that experiential learning will better prepare you for the career of your dreams and help you cultivate the entrepreneurial skills you'll need for any job.

Many graduates will candidly tell you that very little of their classroom knowledge directly applies to their work. When I was in school, for instance, I memorized theories and then regurgitated those memorizations on a test to get an A. Once I had graduated and taken a management job, however, I realized the theories I learned in the classroom didn't necessarily help me motivate my employees.

Later, when I started my entrepreneurial journey, I realized that though I had learned to write a business plan and make financial forecasts, I hadn't learned how to effect change, listen, act on my concerns, or galvanize others to get behind my mission.

These are all important skills to possess, no matter the field you enter. A 2017 survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that the three strengths employers look for most in early career applicants are teamwork, problem-solving, and written communication skills.

Beyond building these crucial career skills, experiential learning helps students figure out what they love. For instance, an internship opportunity can help you decide whether you'd be most happy working for an established software company or an evolving startup.

As I've helped develop an entrepreneur center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL), I've seen firsthand how experiential learning can generate the insights and deeper understandings that help students cultivate entrepreneurial mindsets, which are important even for those of us who don't want to start their own businesses. An entrepreneurial mindset can hold the key to the innovative ideas, both large and small, that distinguish your career from others'.

College and professional courses that only talk about entrepreneurship without providing students with ways to be entrepreneurial miss the point entirely. Students must be able to ideate, prototype, learn, iterate, reflect, and fail in order to truly develop entrepreneurial mindsets.

Here are three steps you can take to seek out career-boosting experiential learning opportunities:

1. Be Intentional When Selecting Courses

Theory is critical, so you should definitely spend time in lecture halls learning it. However, you should also seek out courses that prioritize applied and experiential learning. Simulated experiences, hackathons, accelerators, and applied training sessions are just a few great ways to participate in experiential learning.

Experiential learning courses offer authentic experiences during which students can practice teamwork, resiliency, and tenacity in the face of problems. They create safe environments where students can make mistakes and learn from them. These courses also teach students how to transfer what they've learned in one context to another.

A good experiential learning course prioritizes three things: classroom rigor, examples from real-world practitioners and peers, and the creation of a learning ecosystem. These three things — especially the third — help you become an active player in defining how your education improves your future.

At UMSL, for example, we help students establish a theoretical and practical foundation for entrepreneurship. Our Entrepreneurship Certificate course requires 18 hours of classes, some of which are dedicated to learning the theories underpinning innovation and entrepreneurship. Our capstone course requires students to build a minimum viable product and draft a business plan. Similarly, Rice University has built the Liu Idea Lab to encourage entrepreneurship in academic fields across the university.

I know many students may never start their own businesses, but the cultivation of an entrepreneurial mindset — a willingness to take risks, solve problems, and take initiative — will distinguish them from the pack when they're applying for jobs.

2. Get On-the-Ground Experience

Internships help people gain direct, real-world experience in their chosen fields. Interns often develop practical communication, self-discipline, and time-management skills — which make them more likely to secure full-time employment than those who do not take internships, according to an NACE report.

An internship may also help you refine your career aspirations. As cited in the NACE report, a 2016 survey from Looksharp found that 81.1 percent of graduates who held three or more internships reported the internships helped them adjust their career directions. The takeaway here is that you don't need to feel boxed in when applying to internships. Getting experience outside of your major, home state, and/or target industry is a great way to mold yourself into a well-rounded professional in a competitive job market.

There is no better way to grow as a person than to get outside of your comfort zone. Who knows — you may even uncover a hidden talent or passion. Use personal contacts, reach out to local businesses, and search relevant websites to find internships that align with your goals.

3. Join Organizations Attuned to Your Career Goals

Career-focused organizations help you meet like-minded individuals and enable you to apply your classroom knowledge to real-world situations. An organization with an entrepreneurial focus, for example, will expose you to people and experiences that amplify your innovative know-how.

One of the many benefits of joining a career-focused organization is that doing so gives you the chance to network. You'll form valuable connections that can pay off during your job hunt. You're also likely to gain teamwork and leadership skills — skills that, as we've established, make you much more impressive to employers.

You don't have to give up career-focused organizations upon graduation. Because my own education lacked experiential learning, I decided to make up for lost time by joining Entrepreneurs' Organization, a worldwide peer-to-peer learning group. Once a month, I meet with 10-12 fellow entrepreneurs in an informal advisory board. We share our experiences and talk about how they shape us.

Students must be active in the learning process rather than serving as passive receptacles for knowledge. Experiential learning allows you to master concepts without numbing your creativity or innovation. It fosters tomorrow's Zuckerbergs, Musks, and Wojcickis, and it engenders an entrepreneurial mindset that's invaluable no matter what job a person chooses.

A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.

Dan Lauer is the founding executive director of UMSL Accelerate, an initiative that fosters innovation and entrepreneurship in- and outside the classroom and helps bring concepts from mind to market. Dan is a long-standing, successful entrepreneur who has founded multiple companies, including Lauer Toys Inc., best known for the Waterbabies line, which has enjoyed 26 years of continuous distribution and 23 million units sold. Through UMSL Accelerate, he serves as a catalyst for developing a vibrant ecosystem of students, faculty, and community to inspire innovation and advocate for entrepreneurship.