How to run a successful experiential learning project

Here’s what one faculty member learned from helping students run a pop-up shop.
By Samiha Khanna

When Gianna Tinto read about completing an inventory in accounting textbooks, the steps seemed straightforward. Tinto, a senior accounting major at Manhattan College in New York, never thought that counting could be confusing until she reached the end of a work day at Fair Trade Fuel, a student-run shop on the Manhattan College campus, and realized the shop was missing a delectable bar of fair-trade chocolate.

Tinto counted and recounted, mulling over the missing snack.

“I don’t think I realized how difficult an inventory could be, especially because we have limited products, but it requires attention to detail,” she said, recounting her eureka moment. “Including keeping track of what you put out for samples.”

That day, other students had used a proven marketing strategy -- free nibbles -- to lure customers. The ploy was successful, but as the students learned, all aspects of a business are connected, and even simple changes need to be documented.

Learning from experience

Hands-on experience in the field adds an invaluable dimension to a student’s education, said Aileen Farrelly, an accounting faculty member and assistant dean for career development at the college’s School of Business.

“Instead of reading about other people doing it, students are understanding the process of accounting for a business, the journal entries, what actually happens when cash comes in and why controls are important,” Farrelly said. “Whether you go into business for yourself or somebody else, these things are important to know. This is practical experience that an employer will really value.”

Experiential learning is a well-researched learning model, noted Gwendolyn Tedeschi, Ph.D., associate professor of economics and finance at Manhattan College, who helped launch the pop-up-shop project. Its benefits, she noted, include increased retention of students from year to year, deeper understanding of the material, and greater self-esteem and empowerment.

A hands-on project such as the pop-up shop is especially useful for freshmen and sophomores who may not yet be able to get an internship, but want to start building their resumes, Farrelly said. Business students set up and run the pop-up shop a few times a year to gain hands-on experience in creating business plans, marketing, pricing, and other principles they’re learning in class.

The store, which offers products such as fair-trade chocolates and roses on Valentine’s Day and ornaments around Christmas, has provided hands-on training for about 40 business students since its inception in 2016. A few students, including Tinto, help with more intense accounting work, including working with Farrelly on the financial statements at the end of each sale and at the end of the school year.

How to pull it off

Running an experiential learning project can be a challenge, however. Farrelly, who developed the model for the shop and guided it through approvals from the college’s administrators, offered several tips for faculty interested in creating hands-on learning for their students:

Make time for due diligence. The student-run shop required a lot of vetting by administrators at the college before it could become a reality. Farrelly needed to be able to answer questions about how students would be supervised, whether they would directly handle cash, what to do with that revenue, and how inventory would be obtained, as well as legal questions about whether the shop would need a health department inspection if it, for example, served smoothies made with fair-trade pineapples and bananas.

Another important question to consider, Farrelly said, was whether the student project — designed primarily to be a learning experience — might inadvertently impact other local businesses or the university’s relationships with vendors.

“We had to make sure we weren’t going to compete with other interests at the university,” she said.

Start small. Faculty members and students are busy, and even though the shop is student-run, it requires direct supervision at all times, Farrelly said. So the shop runs just a few times a year as a pop-up in a temporary location, usually for one or two days at a time.

The shop offers a limited inventory, with a certain percentage of the merchandise designated as fair-trade. In the 2016-17 school year, students held three events with sales totaling just over $2,600 and business students volunteering 110 hours to run the shop, Farrelly said.

Enlist help. As a faculty member and assistant dean, Farrelly finds it difficult to make time for the roughly 20 hours of planning and purchasing of inventory, plus about 20 hours of supervision, it takes to run each sale.

“It can be exhausting,” Farrelly said. “And people will say, ‘I thought it was student-run,’ and it is student-run, but somebody has to oversee the process. The students come up with the plan, but it’s on me to help them and make sure all the proper controls are in place.”

To help things run smoothly, Farrelly enlists the help of a graduate assistant, who can dedicate about another 25 hours to each pop-up sale.

Undergraduate students who participate in running the shop don’t earn any wages or course credit for their work. They show up just to learn, Tinto said.

“You’re getting experience,” Tinto said. “It’s hard to put a price tag on that. At the end of the day, you know something the next person doesn’t, and that can give you a competitive edge when you get into your career.”

Samiha Khanna is a Durham, N.C.-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another one, email lead editor Courtney Vien.

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