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A case study in experiential learning for entrepreneurship students at Babson College found they built resiliency after encountering critical incidents if they were supported by pedagogical scaffolding.

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While many pieces of research have confirmed the importance of learning by doing, a new study finds value in the challenges of designing experiential learning to help budding business leaders.

The study—authored by three Babson College faculty members and one from the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business—emphasizes the importance of “critical incidents” (events that challenge one’s mindset or worldview) in an experiential entrepreneurship course.  

Researchers believe, with the appropriate pedological structures in place, that these critical incidents promote student learning and their development as entrepreneurs.

The background: Past and present entrepreneurs reveal moments in their work when they experienced negative emotions and questioned their worldview and self-understanding. These critical incidents could include product failures, negative market feedback or conflicts among team members.

However, these situations and how an entrepreneur responds to them are key in advancing the individual’s ventures, their own development and the economy as a whole. It then becomes important to expose budding entrepreneurs to critical incidents to help them develop resiliency and navigate these challenges. But this is a pedological challenge, because such incidents can diminish students’ confidence and self-efficacy.

The study: Researchers followed 40 undergraduate students in a yearlong course focused on venture development and launch to understand how experiential learning can teach students to respond to critical incidents. Longitudinal data were collected through semistructured interviews with course participants.

In the course, students pitch ideas, create a team of peers, request financing from the institution and then operate the business. Students can apply for up to $3,000 in forgivable loans. The venture ends with the academic year and profits in excess of the loan are donated to a nonprofit of the team’s choosing.

The class is organized into eight groups for the pitch round, and then groups are cut to five for feasibility and three teams eventually launch businesses. Students who belonged to eliminated groups join one of the continuing teams, and they can switch between ventures if something else interests them more later. Students receive coaching from instructors throughout the year, with course design including reflection opportunities to connect lived experiences to learned concepts.

Other Ways to Reveal Critical Incidents

Past research offers recommendations and tools for instructors looking to expose their students to critical incidents in ways other than experiential work:

  • Inviting guest speakers to discuss entrepreneurial failure.
  • Using case studies to evaluate failed businesses.
  • Creating reflection exercises for students to evaluate their own grief-recovery experiences.

The outcomes: As anticipated, critical incidents activated students’ negative emotions and their sense-making abilities. Students looked to the experiential learning environment, their faculty members, the conceptual framework and their own experiences. This process continued throughout the course as they encountered critical incidents, ultimately producing an entrepreneurial mindset and resiliency.

The most common incidents were:

  • Venture process issues. Not every idea became a reality, and venture eliminations created discomfort and frustration for participants as they disbanded and joined new teams. Some external operations, like working with outside developers, created process challenges for students as well.
  • Interpersonal dynamics issues. The nature of the class also created interpersonal challenges for students around communication, decision-making, norms and expectations or varying levels of engagement of team members.

Pedagogical scaffolding, including faculty coaching and conceptual framing, helped transition students’ experiences and negative emotions into productive sense making and learning. Frameworks gave students the language to identify their feelings and experiences, and faculty coaching provided a different angle on the venture process.

Small wins also helped students rebound from critical incidents, whether that was negotiating a price reduction, securing sales, building momentum with the team or making a profit. In addition, students came to see themselves as entrepreneurs, building their confidence and motivation to overcome hardships.

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