By Michelle Coull

So you want to be an entrepreneur. And all the best ones made their millions by getting out there and learning through experience, right?

Think Alan Sugar selling car aerials out of the back of a van. Think Richard Branson flogging records mail order until he had accrued enough cash to open his first “Virgin” record store.

Stories like theirs promote the general belief that “experiential” methods are the most effective way of teaching entrepreneurial skills – and many universities have taken that on board with business degrees and similar courses which recognise the importance of work experience over traditional teaching.

But now a new study has challenged this assumption.

Research associate Inna Kozlinska at Aston University – who was jointly supervised in her PhD by the University of Turku in Finland and the University of Tartu in Estonia - has compared more than 500 graduates from Estonia and Latvia who studied entrepreneurship.

She found no important difference between those schools who favoured traditional learning over those who encouraged a more hands-on approach to becoming an entrepreneur.

These findings suggest higher education may have to reconsider the ongoing trend in favour of experiential learning.

And contrary to expectations, the research also discovered that the influence of newly acquired skills and knowledge on graduates was not significant. What had the most positive effect on their employability and entrepreneurial activity was their attitude.

She put her findings down to three possible reasons. Firstly students who have come from a traditional learning background don’t know how to adapt to the process of experiential education.

Secondly a lot of courses hired educators with either a strong entrepreneurial skills but little knowledge of teaching – or those with a strong teaching background but sadly limited business experience.

Thirdly a lot of courses did not run long enough to have a meaningful impact on the wannabe CEOs of the future.

Either way, Dr Kozlinska has warned universities it would be wrong to go too far into the experiential learning approach when weighing up the right combination of knowledge and experience to produce successful business leaders of the future.

She said: “Educators and students might not be ready for the shift. I think that’s quite a dangerous tactic to teach experientially to everyone, university-wide. We have to be very targeted. We have to select students on their prior motivation and readiness to embrace this sort of learning or, alternatively, teach them first how to learn experientially.”

So the next time someone tells you there’s no better way to learn than getting out of the classroom and just doing it – tell them they are wrong.