Course Correction: Recalibrating Experiential Learning in the MBA

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Wednesday, May 29, 2019
By Arun Pereira
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We must view experience-based curricula through a learning theory lens to realize the full potential of “learning by doing.”

Experiential learning is now part of a vast majority of full-time MBA programs. In fact over 90 percent of full-time MBA programs recently surveyed by the MBA Roundtable offer at least one project-based experiential learning course. Arguably, this is a curriculum change that is being universally accepted across MBA programs, and experiential learning is likely become an integral part of all full-time MBA programs, as well as an important mainstay in some.

However, we must recognize that experiential learning is more than simply organizing opportunities for students to work with external clients. In fact, experience by itself does not necessarily lead to learning; it is reflective inquiry on the experience that completes the learning. We must view any experience-based curricula through the lens of learning theory if we are to realize the full potential of “learning by doing.”

One possible reason we don’t see the structure of experiential learning curricula based on learning theory is that experiential learning in the MBA traditionally has been driven by market forces, and not by internal business school initiatives to improve student learning. There are exceptions, of course—most notably, schools like the MIT Sloan School of Management—that have practiced “action learning” for decades.

For most others, competition for the best students has required business schools to address student needs, and students demanded ways to enhance their resumes. This development was particularly relevant in one-year programs where there was no opportunity for internships. For example, students with work experience in a single industry wanted to show “experience” in another industry, and students with little or no experience wanted to be able to demonstrate some experience. The experiential learning course was a convenient answer.

As such, with increasing competition for students, and the trend toward shorter programs, experiential learning is becoming a necessity in full-time MBA programs. However, experiential learning is often an ad-hoc course, rather than a carefully structured curriculum based on learning theory.

Tomorrow’s Business School and Experiential Learning

Experiential learning in business school curricula is only going to expand, not just because of student demand but also because of two other factors—both of which are driven by the fact that we live in world of democratized information and ubiquitous knowledge.

First, in our information-laden world, learning by doing is often a better use of students’ (and teachers’) time than “learning by listening” in the classroom. Second, firms looking to hire MBA graduates are less concerned about students carrying a head full of knowledge and more concerned about whether the students have learned to learn; that is, have they developed the habit of continuous learning while on the job?

Given that experiential learning is growing in importance, and becoming an integral part of the MBA, we need to think carefully about curriculum structure and the various learning outcomes from learning by doing.

Some schools have already started in this direction; for example, the curriculum of the Asia School of Business (in collaboration with MIT Sloan) is far ahead in comprehensively leveraging the value of experiential learning. Their MBA curriculum carries 30 percent experiential learning, or action learning, with immersive work experiences, multiple required projects, and sequenced residencies, all guided by learning theory. The integration of learning theory ensures that distinct learning outcomes are achieved.

Immersive Experiences

The projects are immersive residencies (every term) in host organizations, where students spend three to four weeks at the organization, delving into a business problem and helping to solve it. Each immersive residency is rich with opportunity for reflective inquiry beyond the team project. Thus, each student’s learning is not limited to just the project; their reflections produce additional learning, from a professional and personal standpoint that will vary depending on the student’s interests, past experiences, and future career aspirations.

Multiple Projects

The curriculum requires students to complete multiple experiential learning projects across the MBA program. This approach provides more than just multiple occasions for learning by doing and collaborative teamwork; it affords the luxury of teaching students the habit of continuous learning, learning on the job, and the art of learning how to learn. A habit of reflective inquiry ensures that workplace learning is systematic, structured, and intentional, compared to workplace learning that is accidental or incidental.

  • Research/theory basis: “The Learning-by-Doing Principle,” by Hayne W. Reese, in Behavioral Development Bulletin 17, no. 1 (2011).
  • Learning outcome: Habit of continuous learning, learning to learn on the job

Sequenced Residencies

Students’ immersions at the host companies are sequenced in a non-continuous format: the three to four weeks spent at the organization are divided into three separate residencies. This means that students’ residencies at host organizations are interspersed with classroom work. Given that the immersive residencies are non-continuous, each time students return to the host company, they need to “retrieve” and continue from where they left off. Learning theories indicate that such “spaced” retrieval—as afforded by this non-continuous format of residencies—leads to deeper and longer-lasting learning than if the residencies were in a “blocked,” or continuous, format.

Experiential learning is here to stay, and is expected to expand beyond the traditional “one elective” course in MBA curricula. This trend is welcome, given that learning by doing is an effective way for long-term learning, and a way to help students learn how to learn on the job—an attribute that is increasingly valued by employers. However, it is important that the curriculum for experiential learning is not approached in an ad-hoc manner, but rather guided by learning theory, with a clear understanding of the learning outcomes desired.

Arun Pereira
Emeritus Faculty, Richard A. Chaifetz School of Business, Saint Louis University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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