The Effect of Problem-Based, Experiential Learning on Undergraduate Business Students

Elizabeth Rich, Ph.D
Professor of Management Information Systems

Tina Sloan, Ed.D
Associate Professor of Elementary Education

Bryan Kennedy, Ed.D
Professor of Management

Athens State University


To introduce undergraduate business students to integrated business process concepts in an experiential and engaging way, a learning activity was created using Mr. Potato Head™. The exercise was included as a three-hour lab activity in a semester-long management class and allowed students to interact with one another in a simulated manufacturing environment. By building Mr. Potato Head™ to customer specifications, students learned about a basic production process through cooperation and problem solving. The purpose of this study was to investigate the effects of problem-based, experiential activities on students’ understanding and enjoyment of learning. In this paper, we outline the process through which we engaged the students, conducted the production process experiment, and confirmed our hypotheses using pre- and posttests, and qualitative analysis of student evaluations of this learning activity.


Learner-centered approaches have been linked to increased student learning, higher graduation rates, and enjoyment of course content (Kuh, 2001; Pollard & Duvall, 2006; Schmidt, Cohen-Schotanus, & Arends, 2009; Strobd & Van Barneveld, 2009). Thus, educators often advocate the use of cooperative, experiential, hands-on, problem-based, constructivist, and other learner-centered methods to ensure students’ active engagement in the learning process (Chickering & Gamson, 1987; Savin-Baden, 2000; Weimer, 2002). In spite of these research findings, many college professors primarily use traditional lecture-based techniques to disseminate information to students. Therefore, college classrooms often remain teacher-centered as opposed to learner-centered.

As a response to this issue, a number of research studies have investigated the pedagogy of learner-centered teaching within higher education. Pollard and Duvall (2006) reported cooperative learning, peer instruction, and team games led to a deeper understanding of course content among students enrolled in an undergraduate computer science class. Likewise, Reynolds and Hancock (2010) reported positive gains in problem-solving skills and achievement among university students enrolled in a problem-based learning environmental biotechnology course which emphasized finding solutions to real-world problems based on course content through cooperative learning structures. Similarly, college students participating in an experiential approach to learning Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) indicated, through a self- assessment, that hands-on techniques were positive and beneficial to their comprehension of business process integration (Rienzo & Han, 2010). Findings from Kirkham and Seymour (2005), utilizing a live ERP system, also supported previous research related to the role of hands-on experiences in problem-based settings and gains in students’ confidence and comprehension of business processes.

Other studies of instructional pedagogy within college settings have reported similar results; thus, the literature suggests support for a paradigm shift from a traditional teacher-centered system to a learner-centered paradigm (Saulnier, Landry, & Wagner, 2008). Sezer (2010) found shifting from teacher-centered to learner-centered instruction within a community college math class was instrumental in strengthening students’ conceptual understanding and appreciation for course content. Yadav, Subedi, Lundeberg, and Bunting (2011) also noted students’ problem-solving abilities and conceptual understanding of electrical engineering concepts were significantly enhanced with problem-based learning strategies as compared to passive methodology (traditional lectures) among students enrolled in an undergraduate engineering course.

Meta-analyses of the effects of problem-based learning have suggested that students participating in problem-based learning (PBL) environments excel in their application of knowledge and perform better on assessment measures which require students to link myriad concepts (Dochy, Segers, VandenBassche, and Gijbels, 2003). Research of undergraduate nursing students conducted by Gabr and Mohamed (2011) also reported a statistically significant difference with respect to gains in problem-solving skills and increased student motivation among students taught through PBL strategies as compared to their peers who were taught through lecture. Problem-based learning strategies have been shown to enhance additional cognitive measures such as long-term retention in contrast to traditional methods, which were most effective with measures requiring declarative knowledge or short-term memory (Gijbels, Dochy, Bossche, & Segers, 2005; Pollard & Duvall, 2006; Strobd & Van Barneveld, 2009).

In addition to cognitive gains, researchers have reported gains related to affective measures as a result of problem-based learning approaches (Pollard & Duvall, 2006; Reynolds & Hancock, 2010). Empirical evidence has demonstrated that students enrolled in university courses employing PBL strategies obtained more university course credits and reported higher levels of social and academic integration compared to students enrolled in lecture-based courses (Severin & Schmidt, 2009). Similarly, a study of 13,845 medical students indicated that students who participated in small group, problem-based learning settings needed less time to graduate and reported higher graduation rates than peers taught through traditional means (Schmidt, Cohen-Schotanus, & Arends, 2009). Delialioglu (2011) noted university students’ active engagement with academically meaningful activities within a computer networks course was significantly higher during the eight weeks portion of the semester dedicated to problem-based, learner-centered strategies as compared to the eight weeks of lecture-based, teacher-centered strategies. These findings support earlier research literature linking students’ levels of active engagement within learner-centered contexts to student satisfaction, application skills, and retention in academic settings (Ginns & Ellis, 2007; Kuh, 2001).

While several pedagogical studies of learner-centered approaches have been conducted within university settings, the current qualitative and quantitative study was designed to further add to the body of knowledge by investigating the effects of problem-based learning on undergraduate students’ comprehension and enjoyment of learning subject matter presented within an undergraduate business course (Gijbels, Dochy, Bossche, & Segers, 2005; Kuh, 2001; Pollard & Duvall, 2006; Schmidt, Cohen-Schotanus, & Arends, 2009; Strobd & Van Barneveld, 2009).


The eight participants in this study consisted of undergraduate business students who were beginning their third year of collegiate study at a mid-sized, southeastern university. A pretest was administered to determine the students’ comprehension of what they had read in their textbook about the production process prior to the exercise. The pretest was comprised of 10 multiple-choice questions designed to identify what students understood about the triggers, data, activities, and documents in a simplified production cycle. Each question had a value of 10 points with four possible answers and only one correct answer. The pretest was scored from 0 to 100 with 0 being the lowest possible score and 100 the highest.

The same test was given to the students immediately following the learning activity. In this one group, pretest-posttest design, the posttest scores were compared to the pretest scores to determine whether there was a statistically significant difference in learning outcomes as a result of the experiential activity. If the subject’s score on the posttest was higher than the subject’s pretest score, he/she was considered to have learned from the exercise.

A satisfaction survey was administered after the posttest to identify students’ preference for learning experientially. The instrument included four multiple-choice questions with only one correct answer and three open-ended discussion questions. Results were used to gather qualitative data about the students’ perception of the usefulness of this type of learning activity in an undergraduate business class.


A dependent paired samples t-test was conducted to assess whether there was a significant difference among students’ pretest mean and posttest mean scores following an experiential learning activity. The results are shown in Tables 1 and 2. Overall pretest scores ranged from a low of 30 to a high of 80; posttest scores ranged from 50 to 90. Results from the one-tailed t-test indicated a statistically significant gain in achievement based on subjects’ pretest (M=52.50, SD= 12.46) and posttest (M=71.25, SD=18.32) scores, with t(7)=3.23, p<.01.

One hundred percent of the participants responded the hands-on exercise positively influenced their learning. When asked how the activity compared to traditional lectures, 75% replied the activity significantly reinforced concepts in the text. Finally, 100% responded they enjoyed the activity.

Open-ended comments from participants showed that they liked the interaction that occurred during the exercise and valued the practical, hands-on approach to learning. Many indicated their understanding was enhanced because of the problem-based method. Students least enjoyed the part of the exercise that required flow-charting to reinforce learning.

Several suggestions for improvement were made, 100% of them involving the supporting documentation that was provided. Students requested that all participants be given all job aids and worksheets so that they could see the roles, responsibilities, and data for the entire process.


Research question number one sought to determine if there was a significant difference among pre- and posttest scores of undergraduate business students as a result of participation in an experiential, hands-on learning activity. Quantitative results indicated there was a statistically significant difference among pre-and posttest scores.

Based on the mean increase of 18.75 points between the pretest and posttest scores, it seems reasonable to conclude that the experiential approach was an effective strategy with regard to increased student learning (p < .01). The results of the present study support previous findings of gains in comprehension as a result of learner-centered methodology within college settings (Kirkham & Seymour, 2005; Pollar & Duvall, 2006; Reynolds & Hancock, 2010; Rienzo & Han, 2010).

The second research question was qualitative in nature and captured information about business students’ enjoyment of learning the subject using an experiential activity. Results showed that all participants enjoyed the hands-on activity a great deal and felt it enhanced their learning.

While the results supported the hypotheses, the study was constrained by the small sample size. It is recommended that to generalize the findings, further studies be conducted with larger samples and participants from different populations such as graduate students and non-business majors.


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Table 1
Paired Samples Statistics

MeanNStd. DeviationStd. Error Mean

Table 2
Paired Samples t-Test

Paired Differences95% Confidence Interval of the Difference
MeanStd. DeviationStd. Error MeanLowerUpperTSig. (one-tailed)
Pair 1 Posttest-Pretest18.7516.425.815.0232.483.23.007


lisa-richLisa Logan Rich, Ph.D., joined the Athens State University faculty in 1992 after nearly ten years of work in software development and marketing brand management for major corporations such as AT&T and Dun & Bradstreet. At Athens State, she has developed many unique academic courses and programs of study that focus on the use of information systems to enhance the effectiveness of business operations. She is passionate about learning, teaching, and technology, and strives to develop high quality professionals who are prepared for careers in the virtual, collaborative 21st century workplace. She has served as Chair for the Department of Computer Science in the College of Arts & Sciences, and the Department for the Management of Technology in the College of Business. She was recognized for her teaching excellence with the Lorraine B. Pabst Commitment to Teaching Award.

Her activities outside of academia include mentoring small business owners, not for profit organizations, and corporations on how to creatively use technology to successfully market products, services, and events, and to develop talent through innovative training programs. She is active in a variety of civic and cultural organizations including the Trinity School Project, the Cornerstone Initiative, and Association for Talent Development. An important aspect of her life is her family – her husband, four children and loveable dog, Sadie.

tina-sloanDr. Tina Rye Sloan has served as a professor with Athens State University since 1998. She currently teaches mathematics methods courses to undergraduate preservice teachers in the College of Education. In 1999, she earned her Doctorate in Education from the University of Alabama and received the Excellence in Teaching Award from The University of Alabama Office of Research in 2012. Her research interests include mathematics anxiety, learning styles, effective teaching practices, and first-generation college students.

bryan-kennedyDr. Bryan Kennedy is a Professor of Human Resource Management at Athens State University. He holds a BS in Economics and Social Science from Middle Tennessee State University, MA Degree in Educational Administration with a minor in History from MTSU, MA in Public Administration from the University of Oklahoma, and Doctor of Education in Human Development and Counseling from Vanderbilt University. He has held various other jobs, including high school teacher and coach; supervisor of a division in the area of Human Resource Management with the Department of Army in Huntsville, AL; and arbitrator in the areas of labor/management. He serves on numerous state and national panels to include Tennessee Valley Authority – International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; the U. S. Postal Service – American Postal Workers Union; and Social Security Administration – American Federation of Government Employees. He also serves as a mediator and consultant for various organizations. In his spare time, Dr. Kennedy enjoys officiating at basketball games and spending time with his grandchildren.