Business School Professor | Research Fellow | Corporate Speaker | Developer of High Potential Employees Hult International Business School
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Are large cohort sizes an issue when it comes to experiential learning?

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The general consensus has been that delivering experiential learning requires a low instructor-to-participant ratio. As a result, instructors typically assume that it will be impossible to deliver a high-quality programme with a large class size, particularly when participants are not physically present. But is this actually the case?

28th Apr 2021
Business School Professor | Research Fellow | Corporate Speaker | Developer of High Potential Employees Hult International Business School
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Before the global pandemic struck, causing the end of life as we knew it, pre-pandemic cohort sizes were limited by the size of the room. Without a room, companies are asking training providers to open their courses to employees around the world. 

Both in-house and external training professionals now need to teach varying sizes of diverse classes, made up of participants who are most likely not present in the room. This can feel like a fantastic opportunity to expand training opportunities and an almost insurmountable challenge simultaneously!

With that in mind, it is helpful to reflect on whether class size does actually matter when it comes to successful experiential learning. If it doesn’t, then what factors are critical to deliver high quality experiential learning as the instructor-to-participant ratio increases and the geographical dispersion spreads?

Learning by doing

All employers that seek to stay at the top of their game aim for continuous improvement and recognise they must do a better job of developing relevant skills in their employees. Trainers have the dual goals of actively engaging participants to ensure they enjoy their courses, as well as enabling them to develop skills in a noticeable or measurable manner. Experiential learning is key in this endeavour. Real management learning occurs not through exposure to theory, but through taking part in and reflection on challenging experiences to find improvement opportunities.

The general consensus has been that delivering experiential learning requires a low instructor-to-participant ratio so that instructors can lead exercises and also facilitate post-exercise reflection. As a result, instructors typically assume that it will be impossible to deliver a high-quality programme with a large class size, particularly when participants are not physically present. But is this actually the case?

To explore this question, we examined the outcomes of an 8-month skills-focused leadership development course taught simultaneously across Hult International Business School’s four global business school campuses. Although of course corporate training and MBA teaching have some clear differences, it is valid to draw on lessons from business education and apply these to the workplace.

Each setting involved vastly different class sizes, ranging from small (n = 25) to very large (n=130), and included a wide variety of nationalities and backgrounds. The course objective was to create leadership development through sustained behavioural change. Over the 8-month course, the programme included more than 50 hours of classroom and on-campus activities; more than 30 hours of business simulations and approximately 20 hours of giving and receiving peer-coaching in small groups. 

Learning from challenging experiences is arguably the most effective means for facilitating leadership development.

Big is not necessarily bad

Surprisingly, leadership competency scores increased incrementally for all class sizes over the 8-month period, and students were able to improve in specific leadership skills even in the very large class size. The different classes began the year at different levels of average capability and showed different trajectories across the period of the course. Nonetheless, they all ended the programme at around the same level.

This suggests that large class experiential learning can be an effective approach to developing leadership competencies. It is possible to achieve similar outcomes across classes of very different sizes with different starting points, provided sufficient time is dedicated to the process. Given that we effectively delivered this programme and achieved the required results across so many different nationalities, these insights can also help trainers who have had to move from live to virtual teaching. 

Practical implications

Although class size was not found to be a major factor in learning, outcomes were heavily dependent on the right approach being adopted. Here are some ways in which you can make large group experiential learning impactful, even when the majority of it is conducted virtually:

  • Take time to develop skills. Students as well as trainers need to expect that development will be gradual, or they may become disappointed because progress can be slow or even plateau for a period. 

  • Continuously measure progress. You can’t improve if you can’t continuously measure development, so you will need a system for measuring the current level of skill, which will need to be repeated to identify gradual progress. In our programme, we used peer ratings and feedback against criteria-defined leadership competencies.

  • Embrace self-reflection. Learning from challenging experiences is arguably the most effective means for facilitating leadership development. Established patterns of behaviour are difficult to overcome without conscious recognition and conscious effort towards change.

  • Embrace peer-coaching. Students gained valuable insights by reflecting on their personal experiences and then discussing their conclusions in peer-coaching teams of three (“triads”). They did not even have to discuss directly with the professor. The purpose of the triads was to provide coaching and motivation to continue with personal development plans, as well as a means to help each other find ways to overcome roadblocks they encountered. This same approach can be re-applied not only for large audiences that are not present, but for classes in which some learners are physically on campus and some are online.

  • Foster psychological safety. Participation, discussion and reflection are critical to experiential learning, yet some learners are uncomfortable speaking in front of a class. Students gave and received confidential feedback within their triads only, and they were first trained on models for giving and receiving feedback in a safe and positive manner.

  • Aim for improvement rather than perfection. If the goal is that everyone in the class will deliver a speech like Barack Obama, this is too distant and effectively meaningless. When learners apply a Growth Mindset and focus on incremental, ongoing steps, they are able to develop significantly over time and stay motivated, despite gradual improvement. 

As training professionals we should take encouragement that when the right skill development elements are included, students can develop in their skill levels even though the conditions might intuitively seem less than ideal.

In terms of limitations, is there a class size limit at which even the professor-to-team approach will not be sufficient? Undoubtedly. Our largest class numbered 130 in size. However, given that this situation precisely mimics the uncertainty and reality of the world of work right now, we must take that as our inspiration and expect to be successful.

This article was co-authored by Amanda Nimon-Peters, professor and research fellow at the Hult International Business School campus in Dubai and Nadine Page, professor at Hult’s Ashridge Executive Education campus in Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom.

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