Under the microscope: SMU’s experiential learning
Credit: Singapore Management University
SMU Office of Research & Tech Transfer – In 2015, Singapore Management University (SMU) introduced an innovative university-wide pedagogical experiential learning programme called SMU-X.
The programme expanded quickly.
From a pilot initiative with two courses offered by a small team of enthusiastic faculty and taken by 58 students, it grew to an extensive programme covering more than 50 courses and engaging over 3,600 students annually. Each year, SMU students complete more than 500 SMU-X projects with 150 different partner organisations.
The quality of SMU-X is recognised both locally and internationally. In 2016, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business lauded SMU-X as one of the “Innovations That Inspire.” That same year, SMU-X was conferred the QS Reimagine Education Bronze Award for transforming presence-based learning for a new generation of graduates. SMU-X was also cited by Singapore’s Minister for Education that year as an example of real-life learning that allows students to gain both depth and breadth in their skill sets.
The programme is also popular with SMU undergraduates; SMU-X courses are regularly over-subscribed.
Yes, but does it work?
However, the million-dollar question remains unanswered: Does the programme work? Does it actually foster graduates who are agile, resilient and effective in the workplace?
As SMU-X enters its seventh year, a team of SMU researchers decided that it is time to rigorously evaluate the programme’s accomplishments and the extent to which it has achieved its objectives.
Funded by the Ministry of Education’s Tertiary Education Research Fund, the team of seven SMU faculty members will commence their two-year investigation in June 2021.
Says Principal Investigator Yang Hwajin, Associate Professor of Psychology: “Despite the notable strengths of SMU-X, less is known about its impact and potential. It is important to study this subject further to assess its effectiveness through a rigorous scientific methodology.
“The findings of this evaluation will enable SMU to improve the implementation of SMU-X for undergraduates, expand the programme to graduate students, and document best practices to enable effective sharing of SMU-X’s large-scale programmatic approach with other Institutions of Higher Learning in Singapore and the broader Southeast Asian region.”
The project seeks answers to four questions:
- Whether SMU-X has achieved its principles and learning objectives;
- Whether SMU-X effectively cultivates a learning mindset;
- Whether SMU-X sharpens workforce skills and facilitates career-related advancements for SMU graduates; and
- What are the perception and expectations of corporate partners and stakeholders regarding SMU-X?
The question that most interests Professor Yang is whether SMU-X effectively cultivates a learning mindset. “A learning mindset is very foundational as it is likely to affect one’s lifelong outcomes including career and quality of life in general,” she notes. “If SMU-X successfully shows that it does indeed cultivate a learning mindset, I would argue that it has achieved its utmost important learning objective.”
In the study, current and past SMU-X instructors, current SMU students and SMU graduates and their corresponding control groups will be surveyed and interviewed to assess learning outcomes, and career-related outcomes, as well as stakeholders’ evaluation of the quality and effectiveness of SMU-X.
To precisely quantify the relation between SMU-X and various short-term learning outcomes and career-related outcomes, the team will employ rigorous statistical methods such as hierarchical linear modelling (HLM), text mining and content analysis. A wide range of potential covariates such as motivation for learning, self-efficacy and personality traits will be factored into the analysis.
The study will involve 180 undergraduates, 180 graduates and a total of 720 individuals in two control groups. Twenty corporate partners and external stakeholders will also be interviewed. The study will also measure the degree to which learning objectives were achieved in selected SMU-X courses, based on student data collected by SMU’s Centre for Teaching Excellence.
At the end of the study, a report will be submitted to SMU and MOE with recommendations for improving the SMU-X programme.
A unique programme
SMU stands out in the length and breadth of its experience learning programme.
SMU-X offers a huge portfolio of courses, is supported by committed partners and is available overseas. In addition, students work in teams where members come from six different disciplines. This ensures SMU-X teams tackle industry projects from inter-disciplinary viewpoints. Industry partners and faculty also actively mentor the teams.
SMU-X is designed to spark creativity and help students learn how to devise implementable solutions to complex real-world problems in the workspace. It also fosters adaptability and resilience in students via meta-learning, which refers to an ability to take control of one’s own learning and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of learning processes.
SMU Professor of Accounting, and SMU-X Academic Director, Gary Pan, evaluated SMU-X and found that the entire process of “unfreezing-changing-refreezing” occurs in SMU-X courses. This refers to the unfreezing of beliefs in previous ideas, the changing of previous beliefs, and the refreezing of new beliefs. Further, they found that students were positive on the effectiveness of the SMU-X pedagogy in developing cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies.
Sums up Professor Yang: “We do firmly believe that SMU-X has a critical impact on our students and we seek to investigate this through a very rigours scientific method. Additionally, we aim to identify what module-specific and individual characteristics drive such outcomes.”