Experiential Learning gets MBA Students out of Their Comfort Zones

Despite Covid, business schools have ramped up opportunities for students to apply academic theory in the real business world

For decades, the case study method of teaching, in which business students pore over a real corporate challenge, has been at the heart of the MBA experience across business schools globally. Increasingly, however, course administrators have placed a greater emphasis on experiential projects, in the belief that adults learn better by doing.

“Over the last few years, we have significantly increased experiential learning in our MBA program,” says Ewa Maciejewski, head of strategic projects, corporate relations and careers at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland. “We want to get our participants out of their comfort zones.”

The shift away from textbook and classical teaching cases towards real-life business cases, that are rooted in the local business context, is something that MBA students see value in, she says. “MBA participants already come with a wealth of experience; they therefore seek learning that builds on that experience.”

Stefanos Zarkos, associate dean of academic programs at Alba Graduate Business School in the Greek capital Athens, agrees that students are very interested in the relevance of theory to business practice. They always seek ways in which knowledge will help them to develop valuable skills that they will use in real life.

“Experiential learning is well appreciated by students and most courses we offer include games and simulations, real case studies and presentations and open discussions with industry experts,” he says.

NYU Stern School of Business, in New York City, was an early pioneer of the experiential method, launching two decades ago classes such as the Michael Price Student Investment Fund in 2000, a family of funds managed directly by MBA students.

There has been a 180 per cent increase in experiential experiences in the last four years with 650 participants taking such courses each year. One example is Stern Solutions, which is made up of projects where students tackle a business challenge with a professor, for brands such as Amazon, Estee Lauder and BMW.

Stern sees experimentation is a critical component of the MBA experience, and tells students to fail fearlessly, which is an important learning experience, especially at a time of rapid change in business and society.

“We know they will need to reskill multiple times over the course of their careers,” says Bryan Ramos, assistant dean for experiential and global education at NYU Stern. “Learning and reflecting through the experiential learning cycle helps students to build muscle they need to take into future learning environments.”

Experiential learning supports post-MBA career success

Experiential learning is more necessary than ever, says Eric Cornuel, president of the European Foundation for Management Development in Brussels.

“Many organizations are moving away from hierarchical structures to cross-functional networks of interconnected teams, all in an increasingly hybrid environment,” he says. “This shift requires an even greater mastery of the intricacies governing organizational culture and information flow, which experiential learning facilitates greatly.”

Experiential learning has always been a focus of the Georgetown MBA, dating back to nearly three decades ago when it launched the Global Business Experience consulting project.

In recent years, Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in Washington DC, has added numerous other experiential opportunities, including through its Venture Fellows Program, where students engage in a year-long apprenticeship at a local venture capital firm.

There’s also the Real Estate Clinic, where students work to underwrite live real estate investments being considered by commercial real estate firms.

“Experiential learning provides students with the opportunity to put into practice what they learn in the classroom, learn to work with peers in teams, reflect on successes and setbacks, and develop the instincts and muscle memory needed to successfully deliver on the types of projects they are likely to face in the workplace,” says Prashant Malaviya, senior associate dean for the MBA program at Georgetown.

Experiential learning can help with post-MBA jobs

Experiential learning can also help students become more marketable. “The more students engage in real-world learning, the better they are at showcasing their talents and skills to prospective employers,” he says.

This year, the Darden School of Business, at the University of Virginia, offered 13 Global Client Projects to its MBA and executive MBA students. These are electives that give small teams of students the opportunity to provide consulting services to an international company.

“The stakes are higher because those recommendations and actions will have real impact for the stakeholders the students are working with,” says Katherine Beach, executive director of Darden’s Center of Global Initiatives.

While onsite visits were paused last year and will be limited this year, due to coronavirus, technology has allowed students to conduct intensive workshops from a distance. “Moving to the virtual format during Covid has allowed us to offer projects with companies and organizations in locations that would be challenging or impossible for students to visit in person,” she says.

Florian Kraus, academic director of the MBA at Germany’s Mannheim Business School, agrees that despite the Covid crisis, the experiential learning elements in the MBA have actually increased rather than decreased.

But he stresses the enduring importance of academic theory. “Experiential learning opportunities are only effective if the individual training elements, for example lectures and case studies, are closely interlinked,” says Kraus. “Only in this way, MBA programs can guarantee optimal and long-lasting results.”

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