Common Challenges and Best Practices in Experiential Learning Projects Field Guide

by | Feb 29, 2024 | Written Posts

What are Client-based Experiential Projects?

A team of students working together, typically for course credit, on a project for a live client. These projects can be thought of as an evolution of the case study but differ in that the challenge to be solved is a current problem for which the client seeks a solution.

Experiential projects have been popular in undergraduate engineering programs for decades (typically known as Capstone or Senior Design) and more recently have grown in popularity with business programs, both undergraduate and graduate.

Below are challenges common to experiential projects and insights shared by EduSourced clients and from polling studies.

Options: the Tany Types of Project-based Programs

Curricular The engineering Capstone/Senior Design is by far the most common example of experiential learning in engineering curricula with this format being required in ABET accreditation.

Historically, experiential projects in business education meant an MBA capstone. That is changing with more programs than ever requiring project completion in undergraduate programs (like University of Illinois who presented on their ongoing move toward project requirement here) and programs like Babson leveraging MBAs as their project managers for undergraduate projects.

⚡ Program Snapshot Babson Undergraduate Management Consulting Field Experience

Key stats:

  • Curricular, Elective
  • 50 projects per year

Secret sauce: this program comprises two courses: one for undergraduates, Management Consulting Field Experience, and one for graduates titled Project Leadership Course. The graduate course ingenuously puts grad students to work project managing the teams of undergraduates.

In contrast to engineering programs, elective courses are the most popular format in business schools with only 28% of respondents in 2013 having a mandatory experiential program (E2 Webinar Registrant Survey). While interest in launching mandatory experiential courses grows, there remain key advantages to elective-only. Elective courses mean fewer projects to be sourced make it easier to maintain quality and allowing students to opt in, mitigating against complaints that experiential projects are too demanding.

Co-curricular Boutique experiential programs outside of the curriculum are often selective of participating students. This reduced student count (as opposed to a required course) coupled with opt-in participation from top students makes it an easier sell into employers for project sponsorship. These co-curricular initiatives command higher prices for project sponsorship and often work with world-class brands.

⚡ Program Snapshot: University of Illinois Gies Illinois Business Consulting

Key stats:

  • Co-curricular
  • 100 projects per year

Secret sauce: Highly selective. Over 800 Illinois students apply every year and only 20% are accepted. Students from all over the university participate in truly multidisciplinary projects.

Embedding experiential learning into the curriculum as a required course creates value in a few ways:

This “feature” becomes part of the institution’s identify and brand becaue every student will experience it. It sends a signal to prospective students and their parents that you are student-centric, that you recognize their need to gain experience and they can gain it at your institution and it gives students a story to tell recruiters, and further enhances your brand with employers.

Andrew Allen

Director of Experiential Learning, University of Illinois Gies College of Business

⚡ Program Snapshot: University of San Francisco Malloy Group for Organizational Science Consulting

Key stats:

  • Co-curricular, Boutique
  • 6-10 projects per year

Secret sauce: students completing the program receive a certificate of Design Thinking Consulting from the University of San Francisco.

Required project-based courses are a key element of an experiential-first curriculum. Required undergraduate capstones have been standard in engineering disciplines for decades and are growing in popularity with business education. Many MBAs have a required capstone, typically in the second year, but some, like Dartmouth Tuck, require project completion in year one of their two year MBA.

The best strategy for project sourcing is creating a good value proposition for your existing clients to become repeat clients and provide referrals. They invest their time so they want actionable results.

Dr. Thomas Maier

Associate Professor and Director of Malloy Group, University of San Francisco

⚡ Program Snapshot: Texas Christian University Neeley School of Business Neeley & Associates Consulting
View their EduSourced webinar here.

Key stats:

  • Hybrid program with curricular projects being offered alongside ad-hoc projects that are completed outside of the academic calendar per client needs.
  • 12 projects per year

Secret sauce: includes first and second year MBAs with second year students acting as leaders for the student teams. Students are paid for the ungraded ad-hoc projects and a professional consultant with industry experience provides assistance in both scoping and the ongoing output of the projects

⚡ Program Snapshot: UC Berkeley Engineering Fung Institute for Engineering Leadership

Key stats:

  • Curricular, required
  • 80 projects per year

Secret sauce: students select either a faculty-led project (usually related to existing faculty research) or an industry project with a live client. This capstone is deeply integrated with the larger curriculum, requiring students to draw on prior project management, technology, strategy and ethics lessons.

Most Popular Disciplines for Experiential Projects

Client-based experiential projects are not evenly distributed across disciplines. The top three engineering disciplines, as counted by volume of projects completed in EduSourced, are: Mechanical Engineering (40% of all engineering projects), Electrical Engineering (13%) and Civil Engineering (10%). The top business subjects for experiential projects are: Strategy (25% of all business projects), Marketing Strategy (16%), Market Research (13%), Operations (9%) and Finance (9%) per a research study done LEPE. This study likely has a selection bias issue, however, as LEPE emphasizes graduate business education.

Judging from conversations across both business and engineering programs, it seems schools are (slowly) moving toward handling project sourcing at the college level. Schools are leveraging Career Services, Alumni Relations and dedicated staff members alongside faculty, rather than relying on faculty alone to source an ever growing number of projects.

🎯 Best Practice
Provide a central online form for employers to submit project proposals across your college to supplement faculty sourced projects and to better message your experiential project capacity to your employer and community partners.

Career Development Offices and Alumni Relations communicate regularly with people who are ideal targets for project sponsorship, but two barriers commonly keep them from referring projects:

  • Lack of awareness of academic projects their value for employers
  • Confusion as to where to send employer-sourced experiential projects. Which faculty do projects in which disciplines and have capacity for additional clients?

University of Colorado Leeds operates experiential project-based learning from their Career Development Offices. Their in-depth post on the topic is posted here.

The solution at University of Maryland Smith School of Business is a single EduSourced clearinghouse for all their experiential projects that they then make available to faculty in need of additional projects. This creates a single touch point for employers to interface with many faculty and builds records of all completed projects and their outcomes.

In the past three years, the Office of Transformational Learning (OTL) at the Robert H. Smith School of Business has grown to support several initiatives, including project-based learning. In our capacity as partners to both the faculty and external businesses, we serve a unique function in the matching process.

Traditionally, faculty personally reach out to contacts to set up consulting projects with external partners. This process works reasonably well for individual courses but scaling such engagements to a school-wide strategy is difficult.

The Office of Transformational Learning helps by:

-Serving as a central clearinghouse for projects with all partners completing an application in EduSourced

-Curating a list of partners for faculty to ensure the best connections are made between partners and courses

-Offering pedagogical support to both the project partners and faculty in the form of instructional design to ensure the engagement is intentional and grounded in good practice, including a robust reflection component and continual connection to the course curriculum

-Supporting the recruitment, vetting, and proposal development of potential projects so faculty can focus on selecting the most relevant projects instead of the most viable

Jonathan Southgate

Program Manager, Experiential Learning, University of Maryland

Experiential Learning How To: Common Challenges and Pitfalls

Overseeing Students in Experiential Projects

With projects sourced, there is a long list of action items and considerations that are manageable with manual process at a small scale. As programs grow, project overhead can quickly overwhelm and best practices fall by the wayside for practical and immediate considerations for programs without the right tools (or a large staff to absorb inefficiency).

“I didn’t know there was a problem with the team until it was too late”

The above is often heard in discussions with prospective EduSourced clients. It’s often the reason schools start looking at EduSourced to begin with. The two most common issues with teams that have been identified by EduSourced:

  • Strained team dynamics
  • Client issues (including MIA clients)

Optimizing Team Dynamics

For undergraduate programs, this could be students’ first time working in a team for an entire semester (or longer). Part of the learning experience is the managed chaos of teamwork but sometimes this chaos pushes students beyond their breaking point and the team’s effectiveness is compromised.

The EduSourced 360 team evaluation can help educators identify issues in a team when things do not go well but also chart student progress when things go great. Fortunately, judging by EduSourced user data, things go well much more often than not.

By prompting students to rate their peers alongside a self and instructor evaluation in the configurable EduSourced 360 survey, educators identify teams that are rating each other poorly (suggesting an issue with either overall team performance or with the interpersonal dynamics between teammates). In reviewing the EduSourced 360 results, individual students reflect on their peers’ and instructor’s feedback alongside their self-analysis and can evaluate any discrepancies therein.

🎯 Best Practice
Do peer surveys throughout your projects and provide students with an anonymized view of their results so that they can learn from their received feedback as they would in a workplace setting. EduSourced has a powerful peer review system and click here for a live demo to see it in action.

Reviewing 360 peer review results directly with students can help them make sense of something that is novel to most students: directly receiving feedback from your peers and contrasting it to the student’s self-assessment. Helping students make sense on this reflection is suggested, particularly in undergraduate programs where students are least likely to have participated in 360 feedback previously.

Common Client Challenges and Solutions From the Field

⚡ Program Snapshot: UT Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering UTDesign

Key stats:

  • Curricular, Required
  • 50 projects per year

View their EduSourced webinar here

Secret sauce: dedicated, state-of-the-art facility ensures students have access to equipment needed to excel in their project. Multidisciplinary project focus and faculty expertise ensures students have an experience as close to being an industrial professional as possible.

Challenge: client availability


  • Clear messaging to the client early and often of a required team/client meeting schedule
  • Require students to file a weekly meeting summary so faculty can confirm the meetings are happening

Challenge: poorly defined projects


  • Require teams to create a project definition, to be approved by the client, ensuring mutual agreement on scope, requirements and deliverables
  • Expectations management via faculty to client meeting before the project begins to ensure the client has a realistic expectation of project scope
  • Preference accepting projects with a clearly-defined outcome rather than more open-ended project requests

Challenge: an overly involved client interfering with the team


  • Having a clear process for the teams and sharing that process with the client, explaining that individual teams cannot deviate from the process, for practical reasons (the program is too large for each project to be completely tailored to the client)
  • Clearly explaining what is and is not within the client’s role in the project (e.g. that the client should provide the team feedback but not assign tasks)
  • Screening clients by avoiding projects with clients that have an already completed design

 🎯 Best Practice
Survey clients halfway through the project to identify any issues before it is too late to course correct! EduSourced has a client survey feature that can automate this and a Project Health tool to identify issues before they become showstoppers. More info here.

Client surveys are most often issued only after a project is completed.

Best practice is to add a client-check-in survey halfway through the project. This allows the client to raise a red flag if they feel their team or project are moving in the wrong direction. The recommended questions used by most EduSourced schools:

a simple yes or no question: “Would you say your project is going well?”

An open-ended question: “Is there anything you would like to privately share with the instructor?”

Keeping this survey short increases your response rate. The survey itself acts as a release valve should the client become frustrated with their team’s progress or communication. In most cases, the project is going well and no action is needed but in the event that the client has an issue, this information is collected in time to course-correct.

Client-student communication is too often handled in systems not visible to the instructor. when projects go well this is a non-issue, but when there is a problem, a paper trail is useful to assess what went wrong.

EduSourced allows for students and clients to securely collaborate on documents and discussions in a way that respects project clients’ need for security and the students’ need for privacy. Students are quite sensitive to oversharing with their client and so only messages and documents explicitly published to the client is visible to them.

Client engagement after the project

“Closing the loop” is the eternal challenge of experiential learning. The aforementioned post-project client survey is helpful to gather some simple feedback on client satisfaction but this is limited by being so close to the project.

 🎯 Best Practice
In addition to a quick survey after the project, send a follow-up survey a few months later to identify if the client is ready for a new project and if they implemented the team’s deliverables or hired a student from the project.

The bottom of line of an experiential learning how-to is that there are almost endless challenges (and opportunities!). Every school has a different faculty, student and employer profile and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a perfect experiential learning program. Fortunately, perfect is not neccessary as experiential learning, with all its messiness, is fertile ground for learning and career readiness.

📊 Prefer a data view? Check out our 2023 Experiential Learning Benchmark Report here. And if you would like to learn more about EduSourced, the platform for experiential learning designed around EL best practices mentioned in this post, complete the form below!

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