Learning velocity is a measure of effective learning
“ Learning velocity ” might sound like just the sort of jargon academia’s already leaden lexicon could well do without. It deserves a hearing, though, not just because it actually means something but because it encapsulates an outcome that is desirable yet too often unattained and which ultimately has a bearing on the students business schools send out into the “real world”.
Generally, the term refers to the pace at which students learn and the outcomes, good or bad, to which learning leads. It might usefully be reframed as a question: how rapidly do our students approach the point at which they possess the skills needed for life after graduation?
In many cases, the answer is that both rapidity and direction are not what they could or should be. Although it is impossible, we should strive for perfection; and yet too often we get nowhere near.
I know this from my own experience. Many years ago, when much of my teaching revolved around finance, I felt my students never came close to feeling even remotely immersed in the process of providing funding to small, entrepreneurial firms.
It was only when my own focus switched to radical innovation and creative problem-solving that I began to make sense of what was wrong. Particularly in redesigning the entrepreneurship module at Nottingham University Business School, I finally started to develop an idea of how to close the gap between what students are taught and what they discover for themselves when they embark on their careers.
Reliance on short-term thinking
Imagine trying to explain World War Two without reference to causes and consequences. The notion is risible since students would be left with only the most limited understanding of the issues involved. Yet it is actually quite commonplace for modules to concentrate solely on the during while totally excluding the before and after.
Business schools too frequently forget they have the luxury of being able to analyse change over a long time horizon. Moreover, they have a duty to communicate their considered findings to students and the wider world. Unlike businesses, they can afford to adopt a longer-term view – one that places short-term developments in a different and clearer context and so ensures learning velocity is not diminished.
Use of misguided metrics
Gauging utility has always been hard, but the innate difficulty of the task is no excuse for relentlessly resorting to tissue-thin metrics that seldom extend past narrow conceptualisations of wealth and growth. Such an unflinching obsession with the bottom line is both unhealthy and potentially counterproductive.
Business schools need to be much more imaginative in assessing outcomes for students and in their presentation and interpretation of supporting empirical evidence. Measuring almost everything in terms of price, cost or income restricts learning velocity by severely constraining the available directions of travel.
Favouring abstraction over immersion
Even today one of the best gauges of learning is to identify what sticks in the mind from the distant past. The reason I still remember beginning to think in German while staying with a family in Hamburg is that the lesson was experienced rather than learned in abstract isolation.
This was the essence we tried to capture in redesigning our entrepreneurship module. We delivered a course that required students to conceive, fund and market their own ideas. We wanted their learning to be hugely experiential. I believe learning velocity improved for all concerned.
The learning velocity produced by a curriculum whose every component readies students for their careers would be one. The learning velocity of a curriculum that completely fails to close the gap between what students learn and what subsequently confronts them in the “real world” would be zero.
As previously acknowledged, the first of the above is very likely beyond our grasp. Yet that should not discourage us from aiming for it, not least when the second – or, worse still, a negative learning velocity – is so easily achieved. However unpleasant the realisations that may result, every business school has a duty to students and employers alike to consider where on the scale its own curriculum sits.
Martin Binks is the former dean of Nottingham University Business School and a Professor of Entrepreneurial Development at its Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.