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From Experience to Theory (Part One)

By Haider Ali

In the first article of a series, we will look at one of the methods we have used with a course presented on the FutureLearn platform in order to address the twin challenges of making management education more relevant to practising managers while maintaining its academic rigour.

The material presented here is written on the basis that the teaching is for working managers with some years of experience, who have been educated to the highest school-leaving qualifications, but no more. They are also not expected to have had any prior management education.

A significant challenge facing business educators is the extent to which their instruction focuses on the use of ad hoc frameworks as opposed to models founded on theory. The former can have the superficial attraction of ‘face validity’ (Holden 2010), but there is a risk that the extent to which they have been subjected to any research or testing is very limited.

In this post we will explore the above challenge. Our direction of travel will be that the use of theory is possible from a very early stage in the coverage of any topic, and even at an early stage of an individual’s management education. There is an obvious risk that that students will be overwhelmed with abstract material, and the instruction will become an academic exercise in explaining concepts. This problem can be overcome with the use of quizzes as an important and initial form of instruction. This solution may seem counter-intuitive, but the following examples should help to clarify what is being proposed.

In online teaching, videos or articles substitute for what would have been lectures delivered by a teacher. Typically, quizzes are used as a means of assessment, whether as formative or summative (Wurdinger and Marlow 2005). However, quizzes can be used more substantively as a means of initial instruction, in this post we’ll see how this can be done. More importantly we will see how the use of quizzes can make the learning process more experiential (Kolb & Kolb 2009), they can introduce an element of gaming (Scott and Neustaedter 2013) and also better enable managers to share their perspectives with others.

The following examples illustrate the approach taken.

Question 1 

Question: A patient with atrial fibrillation goes to visit their GP (General Practitioner) for an annual medical appointment. The patient is not currently being treated with warfarin (blood thinning medication).

Which of these do you think would affect the GPs decision to prescribe warfarin?

Select all those answers that you think are correct.


  • Francis, J., Eccles, M.P., Johnston, M., Walker, A.E., Grimshaw, J.M., Foy, R., Kaner, E.F., Smith, L. and Bonetti, D., 2004. Constructing questionnaires based on the theory of planned behaviour: A manual for health services researchers.
    Answer text Answer feedback
Answer 1 Correct Whether, overall, the GP has a positive or negative attitude to prescribing warfarin for patients with atrial fibrillation. An individual’s attitude will affect their intention to perform a behaviour. In this instance if a GP has a positive attitude towards warfarin i.e., they think it will be effective in this instance, they will be more likely to prescribe it.
Answer 2 Correct The extent to which the GP perceives social pressure to prescribe or not. Such social pressure can come from colleagues, patients and the organisation that they work for. Such social pressure is referred to as ‘subjective norm’ (this is a term we will use more frequently from now on) and it may affect someone’s intention to perform an action. If the GP believes that there is strong social pressure on them to prescribe this medication, then they will be more likely to do so.
Answer 3 Correct Whether the GP finds it difficult to prescribe i.e. how difficult it is to actually undertake behaviour in the given context e.g. in terms of the procedures that the GP needs to follow in order to prescribe. What has been described in the question is also referred to perceived behavioural control element of the theory of planned behaviour and it refers to how easy or difficult it would be to carry out an action. Perceived behavioural control is a term we will be using more frequently from now on. The more difficult it is to undertake a behaviour the harder it would be to behave in a particular way, in this case prescribing that medication.

General Feedback

All of the options were correct. The GP’s intention to prescribe warfarin will depend on their having a positive attitude towards it, their belief that their colleagues would approve and the ability to prescribe.

At the outset, the student is presented with a problem that may arise in an organisational setting. As options for the answers, students are provided with alternatives which are presented with very limited use of theory specific jargon. It should be possible for most learners to be able to answer these questions based on experience and intuition. However, the feedback to the individual options that they could have chosen does introduce the jargon and provides explanations in the context of a specific theory.

This approach can be accretive. Now that students are familiar with the jargon, the next question makes use of the technical terms that was previously provided and places the theory in a different managerial context:

Question 2

Question: The technical advances in e-bikes could also have a huge impact for longer journeys in both cities and rural areas.

“Suddenly journeys that were not realistic because of length for most people are now very doable,” she said.

The arrival of e-bikes has led to a change in which of the following?


    Answer text Answer feedback
Answer 1 Incorrect Attitude Based on this extract we can surmise that people had a positive attitude towards cycling longer distances, but what had been holding them back was their physical ability to do so i.e. perceived behavioural control.
Answer 2 Incorrect Subjective norm There are no references in this extract to the subjective norms of other people – in fact there is nothing written about other people.
Answer 3 Correct Perceived behavioural control This refers to an individual’s perception of the control that they have over a behaviour. According to this text the level of control an individual has over their cycling has been increased as a result of the introduction of electric bikes which allow the cyclist to travel a longer distance than was previously possible.
Answer 4 Incorrect Intention As a result of a positive attitude, subjective norms and perceived behaviour control someone may well have the intention to perform a particular action, but the information presented in the extract does not focus on that.

General Feedback

This insight shows that there can be a number of instances where people who would have liked to have used bikes were only held back by the terrain and marketers of e-bikes may find ready customers in those locations.

In pedagogic approaches where learning is more passive, concepts are explained, and examples are provided to illustrate the concept. It should be evident that using this approach the example or illustration is serving a number of objectives. Not only are students being shown real-life applications of concepts, but they are being challenged regarding the application. This is a significantly more active approach to learning and places the learner in a problem-solving position at the outset.

This blog represents the views of the individual, not SCiLAB or the Open University.


  • Holden, R.R., 2010. Face validity. The corsini encyclopedia of psychology, pp.1-2.
  • Kolb, A.Y. and Kolb, D.A., 2009. Experiential learning theory: A dynamic, holistic approach to management learning, education and development. The SAGE handbook of management learning, education and development, 42, p.68.
  • Stott, A. and Neustaedter, C., 2013. Analysis of gamification in education. Surrey, BC, Canada, 8, p.36.
  • Wurdinger, S.D. and Marlow, L., 2005. Using experiential learning in the classroom: Practical ideas for all educators. R&L Education.
Haider Ali

Haider Ali

Haider Ali is a Lecturer in Strategic Marketing at the Open University.