Although students pursue MBA degrees to learn the tenets of business, these theories do not exist in a vacuum; they must eventually be applied to the real world situations. Thus, many MBA programs include experiential learning courses in their curricula to help students apply abstract concepts in real world settings and to prepare them to take action after graduation, crafting specific activities and courses that will encourage students to learn by doing.
Origin of Experiential Learning
The notion of experiential learning, with its emphasis on action and doing rather than rote memorization, did not originate in the 20th century, but the term “experiential learning” did. Educational theorist David A. Kolb chose the label in order to “emphasize the central role that experience plays in the learning process” and wrote about his learning model in the highly cited 1984 work Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Crucially, he insisted that the learning process required both abstract conceptualization and reflective observation, such as the pure theory often taught in the classroom, and concrete experience and active experimentation, which MBA programs aim to provide through experiential learning courses. While these programs do not rigidly adhere to Kolb’s theories, they nonetheless accept his conclusion that learning occurs best when there is a synthesis of concept and practice.
Experiential Learning in Business School
No MBA programs focus on experiential learning to the exclusion of theoretical classes. Instead, experiences supplement the concepts taught in class, fostering their application to the business world. Schools use these activities not just to provide hands-on experience, but also to help students develop real strategic plans and develop as executives. While actually working with businesses may be the obvious example of experiential learning, and does often happen, many schools use other activities to teach the same practical skills that are required in a boardroom. These include team challenges and competitions within a class, courses dedicated to experiential learning and field work, and extracurricular activities. Even when these activities take place not in the field but in a classroom, they often rely on the participation of real businesses and executives to keep theories and business simulations grounded in reality.
Examples of Experiential Learning
During team challenges, a student team must solve a business issue, either invented or real. The team works together to conduct analyses and develop the best possible resolution, and then presents their plan to a judge, who may be an instructor, other students or even the actual CEO of the company in question. These business simulations may even become reality, as some plans are implemented after the exercise in order to test their effectiveness. In some of these challenges, two or more teams of students may be pitted against one another, and each team will get to see their solution compared to their peers’ ideas, allowing them to learn from their rivals as well as their teammates.While business simulations like these may play an important role in an otherwise theoretical course, some courses are designed to be primarily experiential. These courses often send students into the field in teams, having them work with real companies and executives in consulting, analysis, product development and investments. Students learn by doing, taking real action in real business situations.
A variety of extracurricular activities also provide MBA candidates with hands-on business experience. Some activities impart leadership experience to students through leadership retreats, conferences, workshops and lecture serieses. Another popular business school extracurricular is essentially an extension of team challenges, in which a larger number of teams compete to come up with the best business solution. These business competitions can also pit individual students against one another.