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Experiential Learning

Experiential education put simply is learning by doing. The general idea is that experiences are more memorable than rote exercise or passive activities like listening to lectures or reading. Uncertainty and the fear of failure as well as the exhilaration of success makes it a much more emotional and engaging experience. Because of these aspects, it is a pretty universally regarded as a superior educational tool.

One difficulty though it that it’s difficult to integrate into classrooms. Common barriers to entry include student attitudes towards experiential learning, compatibility with course material, execution problems, and resource constraints. It suffers partly from the need to make a hard commitment to it. This is a problem for traditional school systems that necessitate most if not all education to be done in classrooms. When we’re able to sever our learning entirely from previous paradigms, such as when we conduct research projects, or study abroad, or do community service, we derive the most emotional and intellectual benefit.

I’d hypothesize that the reason for this is that the goal of activities are different. ‘Learning’, I’d argue, isn’t a great goal. Why are we learning in the first place? It is to make decisions, be able to digest complex literature, communicate at a high level, and perform specialized tasks. I once bought a graduate level immunology textbook to motivate myself to read and understand immunobiology (Laura Deming style). My mom, who has been doing cancer immunology research for over 20 years had to gently tell me that this was a naïve mistake. No one is memorizing a textbook to answer questions. We answer questions by reading textbooks and other literature.

There is an important distinction here. I am not saying that we need to learn how to make decisions by making more decisions, digest complex literature by reading complex literature. This is the wrong approach. Something like trying to kick through a brick wall. The way to do things is to think of what goes into solving the problem. If we’re learning to make complex decisions, we need to understand what makes the decision complex, who the different stakeholders are, how each will be affected by the decision, what the goals of the decision are. If we’re trying to digest complex literature, we need to understand at a basic level what all the words mean individually, and then how words relate to each other, and if there are any big picture concepts or frameworks that the authors are referencing. Doing this is very targeted, which makes it difficult. Problem solving skills are highly sought after in more prestigious positions which attracts talent that would be invaluable in improving schooling.


One of the places where students get to become their own educators is in college. A shot of independence and freedom is pretty revolutionary in a student’s life. The material is far more difficult comparatively than high school, yet the teachers are far less engaged and hands on. However, successful students are able to handle far more in far shorter amount of time while still cramming in extracurriculars. What I notice is a much greater emphasis on learning by doing. Acing tests by doing 20 pages worth of practice problems and skipping lecture and textbook readings is the norm. In a very limited sense, quantity over quality. I’d argue that our GPAs are more indicative of our mastery of learning than our mastery of material.



One final thought I promised I would cover in my last post. How do we value experiential learning from ‘fake’ startups? I use the word fake here not to be disparaging, only to differentiate those created by college students with minimal potential to commercialize whose primary motivation is curiosity or to signal.

There are a couple of things that I think this kind of entrepreneurship teaches very well. Marketing, opportunity definition, and product differentiation are pretty standard, and the initial excitement may drive one to watch some tutorials, read papers, and boost their standing on the Dunning-Kruger curve. But most importantly, it instills a sense of optimism and drive, and responsibility, that if this doesn’t work out, its your own fault.


At the same time, this responsibility to succeed eventually makes one shift the goalposts. No longer is the goal to serve end users, but more so to gain publicity and accomplish some resume compatible tasks that may not have any practical use. Some may even have negative value, wasting others’ time and money, for example by filing a patent that will never be commercialized.

When we convince ourselves to become entrepreneurs, we become independent and take on a survivor mindset. This shares a fine line with selfishness, and career driving motivations, especially when the stakes are low. The central question is whether you can balance your desire to be successful with your desire to help the world. No one is arguing that entrepreneurship is a bad thing, but it needs to be engaged with the right intentions. With so many other ways to make the world a better place, taking on a venture bears considerable opportunity cost. This cost is only worth bearing if the risk and subsequent learning rate is sky high. And for the large majority of college founders, who already have the drive to be independent, I’d rather you focus on improving yourself and contributing to existing efforts. You have all the time in the world, college should not be used to start a useless venture to be abandoned post graduation.

To all the VCs who require someone to have started a company in order to take them seriously, I think your head is in the right place. Boots on the ground as a college student however, I think you’re incentivizing the wrong type of behavior. Let’s create value, not accomplishments.

Published Apr 11, 2020

Harvard-MIT PhD Student