Learning by Doing and Persevering

“Education is a choice. We don’t become educated by watching television, and we don’t learn a whole lot having similar conversations with the same, safe people day after day. Our education comes from pushing up against boundaries, from taking risks that may seem at first to be overwhelming, and by persevering past the first disappointments or shortfalls until we reach a point at which actual learning takes place. Determination and perseverance are absolutely vital to developing a true education–rarely, if ever, do we learn the most valuable lessons in the first few steps of the journey.” — Tom Walsh

These words came to mind as UVA’s ACC tournament championship culminated in an exchange of emails between Kathryn Sharpe, Assistant Professor at Darden, and me. The subject: why do we play games as part of an educational experience? Our answers echo Tom Walsh.


Games are all around us. UVA topped the Atlantic Coast Conference in basketball this winter and is going into March Madness with elan. Recently, my wife and I  hosted a group of first-year students to our home for dinner and a game of Monopoly.  Everyone played earnestly and with a lot of humor.


In the picture, the students holding the bottles of bubbly had amassed the lion’s share of the assets when the clock ran out—and everyone (re)learned some lessons about liquidity, solvency, risk, and return.

Darden and its peer schools are doing more with games and simulations in courses as well.  We do this not because it is fun (yes it is) or because our students need to gain a winning mindset (they generally bring that already); rather, we use games and simulations as a device for learning from failure. To fail in the classroom is relatively safe and inexpensive. If students are able to let go of what they perceive to be the risk to their social capital, they will realize that they have paid their tuition so they may fail, learn, and avoid the mistakes in the future, where it counts.  If they do not take these risks here, they are not fully taking advantage of their time and tuition.  Failure is a powerful teacher.   Michael Jordan, perhaps the best basketball player in history, said, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”


As a junior faculty member, it occurred to me this year that academia involving research results, journal publications, and course evaluations is about 90% rejection (failure) with 10% success. These are rough odds.  I have begun contemplating, do I learn from my 90% failures to achieve the 10% success?  If I did, would my success rate inch up by a percent to 11%?  Am I fully benefiting from my mistakes?  As I urge students to embrace the risk of “failure,” these are all good questions to entrust to my own heart.

Our first year students are about to participate in the most comprehensive simulation experience that they have undertaken at Darden with every student team to compete with each other to win, as a virtual company, at a new car launch. It requires our students to integrate everything they have learned during their first year of coursework: accounting, operations, marketing, and strategy, and finance (their choices to launch a new car platform even impact their virtual company’s stock price in the simulation). As the students will be working with their peers, the learnings from the Leadership & Organization course are critical to winning, if not at this weeklong game, at life.  Historically, the students have loved this week long simulation and benefit from it greatly.  Although we learn from the “winners” (each student team debriefs its strategy at the end of the week to its peers), the class tremendously values the experience of the “losers.” The ability to “lose” graciously, laugh at oneself, and learn at the same time, is beautiful.

In addition to failure being such a great teacher so is illness. As I have contended with two serious health diagnoses over the last year, I realize that I am not super-human, that my body has limits, and that the people around me, including my colleagues and students, are supporting me. I have learned that my fellow team members will pick up the slack for me when I have fouled out, leave me room on the bench to catch my breath, and include me in their successes even though I have not done much to contribute to their win. The lesson that I am valued here beyond what I produce or how I am used would have come through no other way than through illness. Having just finished up a six month journey of medical treatment on Friday, I have the opportunity to get back in the game – leading my students through their weeklong simulation this Monday. I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to celebrate their successes and appreciate, on an even deeper level, their perceived failures.


We play games and simulations in order to carry our students well beyond mere knowledge acquisition. The world needs MBA graduates who can deal with ambiguity, take sensible risks, and interact with others professionally—even when the conditions are stressful. Games and simulations help to model the complexity that decision-makers face. Here one confronts the fact that it is not the greatest intellect or talent that succeeds, but rather, the person who perseveres. Tom Walsh got it right: “Determination and perseverance are absolutely vital to developing a true education.”

So it is with an illness. So much about recovery and wellness requires determination and a positive attitude. Kathryn, you’ve shown these qualities. Welcome back!

And welcome back to our students. A great conclusion to the academic year lies ahead. Give it the determination and perseverance it deserves.

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3 Responses to Learning by Doing and Persevering

  1. Bindo says:

    In the real-life, post MBA world, graduates are sometimes overwhelmed by trying to apply whatever they had learnt during the course to a problem at hand. This is not how it should be. Simulations and games make sure that they are being exposed to all the thrill, excitement and disappointments that occur in an actual business situation

  2. Jo Ann Hart (Gordon) says:

    Bob is right. It is not the person with the greatest intellect or talent that succeeds. Determination and perseverance are vital to success in the business world and in the volunteer world, once you retire. I entered Darden 25 years after I received my BS. To say I was scared and poorly prepared for such a challenge was an understatement. But I made it! And my life has been so much richer because that accomplishment freed me to pursue my future interests.

  3. Ray Todd - Class of '79 says:

    Dear Dean Bruner;

    I hope all is well with you.

    I have been following the recent news stories about Brandeis University revoking the honorary degree they had intended to confer to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. As you may know, she has been a victim of sexual discrimination and endured physical atrocities at the hands of Muslim extremists. An abridged version of the speech she intended to give was published in the Wall Street Journal today.

    In my mind, this woman is a powerful advocate of seeking the truth and of respect for all individuals.She is a person that, I believe, Thomas Jefferson would have admired and respected for her courage and determination as well as her cause. I strongly urge you to consider an honorary degree for this woman and to invite her to speak at Darden.

    Thank you,

    Ray Todd

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