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Developing Learners vs. Teaching Students

The proposed 2020 standards refer to business education consumers as "learners" rather than "students"—a deliberate shift that goes beyond just language.

AACSB’s 2020 business accreditation standards include four standards on learner success. These four standards cover the educational path from the time a learner is admitted to a business education program through graduation, and beyond. The first of these standards, Standard 4, addresses curriculum, directing schools to promote and foster innovation, experiential learning, a lifelong learning mindset, and societal impact. Standard 5 requires schools to use both direct and indirect measures in their assurance of learning processes. Standard 6 ensures that educational consumers are fairly admitted and provided with the support needed to achieve success and attain desired outcomes, whether for careers or further study. The last standard in this section, Standard 7, focuses on teaching quality and teaching impact on learner success.

Throughout these new standards, the word “student” has been replaced with “learner.” This is a trend throughout academe, and one basic rationale for the change is simple: students study and learners learn. The latter is more in keeping with the goals of high-quality business education. The best business schools develop knowledge, skills, abilities, and intellectual and behavioral capabilities in their learners to prepare them for success throughout their life endeavors. This entails developing a lifelong learning mindset, which emphasizes intellectual curiosity beyond formal educational strictures.

Looking at today’s business realities as an example, workers have needed to adapt quickly to sudden changes like online work, digital collaboration, and an uncertain future. Learners who are prepared to work within disruption will fare far better than those who aren’t; they will embrace the learning opportunities that come with change, rather than resist new norms. And as job loss has been an unavoidable consequence of the pandemic, those who have continued to develop their skills and abilities beyond graduation will likely have a better chance of regaining employment.

The shift in our perception of educational consumers also aligns with the more outcomes-focused approach of the 2020 standards. Learning promotes active participation by the individual being educated, while studying is a passive activity that may not result in desired outcomes. Learning is active and more likely to include collaboration with others, and therefore learners are not constrained to the acquisition of knowledge as a student might be. Learners are able to ask questions, find answers, think critically, and collaborate, and they are driven by their curiosity to never stop acquiring and developing competencies.

This open exploration of knowledge also enables learners to discover their strengths and passions without feeling encumbered by traditional educational boundaries. By being encouraged to investigate possibilities, learners can encounter new ideas and areas of interest, rather than simply finding an answer to a specific question. This ability will serve learners well when, later in their careers, they are able to arrive at unconventional solutions to conventional problems.

Another reason to recognize consumers of business education as learners versus students is that students are thought to acquire knowledge in a classroom setting. Business schools today reach far outside the classroom to provide educational experiences. For example, experiential learning includes studying abroad, engaging in internships, and working within communities.

Teaching learners versus students impacts educators as well as education consumers. Business school education is no longer just a one-way street with the teacher as lecturer and knowledge deliverer. Business school faculty are facilitators who collaborate with learners to achieve desired outcomes. Those they teach are encouraged to take some ownership for their learning. We want these learners to be curious and to share with us the journey in acquiring their desired competencies. This approach particularly makes sense when we consider the pace of change today. The teacher cannot be a source of all knowledge, and distributed access to information provides opportunities for the educator and the learner to collaborate.

This type of collaboration prepares learners to work on teams and across functional areas, which will be expected of them in the workplace. By learning that their contributions are valuable beyond their own acquired knowledge, they not only feel part of a greater purpose but begin to think about how their co-creation of knowledge can benefit others with different skillsets. Further, by developing an appreciation for shared input, learners are more likely to welcome diverse perspectives and avoid homogenous points of view. These are the types of abilities that are needed to create positive change in business today.

Substituting learners for students, conceptually, is an exciting opportunity for both teachers and those they educate. We are now in a partnership, each of us accountable for parts of the process, but on a shared journey. This change provides a challenge for educators because learners can learn without us. The new AACSB standard on teaching effectiveness requires educators to demonstrate their lifelong learning mindset and their teaching impact. Adapting to these new guidelines is well worth the effort if we recognize that we are breaking the confines of the traditional classroom and venturing out together with our learners.


Nancy Bagranoff, Dean and Professor, Accounting, Robins School of Business University of RichmondNancy Bagranoff is a professor and former dean of the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond. She recently co-chaired AACSB’s Business Accreditation Task Force, which developed the 2020 business accreditation standards.