One of the more commonly overlooked aspects by business school candidates during the school selection process is the mix of teaching methods at their target MBA programs. Given that business school is in fact “school” and students spend a lot of time in the classroom, this area should warrant a lot more attention than it typically receives. It is indeed very rare that a client compared business school teaching methods when discussing which schools to apply to. However, the MBA teaching methods are essential in ensuring your fit and in maximizing the benefits of your investment – of time and effort (and $$$) – in the MBA program. It would also help to recognize how the learnings from these business school teaching strategies would translate to your real-world experiences post-MBA.
MBA teaching methods at certain schools like Harvard Business School and UVA’s Darden School, where the case method dominates, are core to the entire MBA experience for students, so it is important to know what you may be opting into. Most schools do not take as homogenous of an approach to business school teaching strategies as these programs, so expect more of a mix from the majority of other schools.
The four types listed below are the most common business school teaching methods you will find in MBA programs.
Lectures are probably the most common teaching method found in business schools. With this format, students are typically greeted by slides via a PowerPoint presentation sprinkled in with some short video clips during the lecture and engage with content through this mechanism. Lectures tend to be more of a “lean back” or passive experience that is driven more by the professor. This teaching method will be the most natural to students as it is very similar to the way many undergraduate classes are structured.
Lectures do give a chance for students to actively participate sharing examples and clarifying points of discussion. Keenly observing the different styles of presenting and facilitating will also enrich your learning. For instance, seeing how a professor handles an overeager student pressing his point, or a confrontational one – how does the professor get the discussion moving along, striking the delicate balance of engaging the whole class, avoiding embarrassing the student, and maintaining her authority. This gives you insights on how to handle challenging situations in your future presentations, meetings and interactions. Programs with diverse faculty, such as INSEAD, provides the added dimension of seeing cultural influences play a part in this dynamic.
Similarly, observing how your classmates make their points and raise questions is a good way to see for yourself the do’s and don’ts’s through the reception of your faculty and peers. Thus, this is a good testing ground for you to practice and observe how to engage in workplace discussions and meetings.
The case study format involves a professor leading students through a historical analysis of a business situation. The “cases” are largely the product of Harvard Business School, which has pioneered the use of the case method. It is also the MBA teaching method most are curious about when they consider attending business school. In case studies, students are expected to come up with a solution to some of history’s toughest business problems. Cases are commonly used as the driver for interactive classroom discussions and there is an expectation of strong class participation from all students. An interesting mix of real-life newsmakers and well-known topics are usually involved in these discussions. These make for interesting discussions, and deepened learning experiences (and conversation pieces with your family!).
An important reminder with case studies once you apply it to your real-world business situations is that data is not always as available nor as accurate as it is laid out in the case study (and without the benefit of hindsight) when you are in the moment having to make decisions. A good professor emphasized this point – how you are able to drive critical decisions with all the ambiguity around you. Business cases in the real world are never purely finance, employee relations, marketing, or any specific area. It is a mix of carefully considering various critical variables. Yale School of Management has pioneered an MBA teaching method of “raw” case studies where data available could be scattered and even contradictory, with instructors highlighting the interrelationship of various organizational and social factors. This helps to better resemble the real dynamics in the business world. Whether “raw” or “cooked (completed cases with conclusion on how it ended), having empathy and immersing yourself in the situation will help prepare you for the real thing.
One of the more truly immersive teaching methods is experiential learning. This method allows students to operate within a specific topical area or industry of interest. Classes ending with the moniker “lab” fall into this bucket. Think your global lab, venture lab, asset management practicums, and many entrepreneurship classes. Also, many internship programs fall into this category. This method is all about learning while doing, a trend that continues to grow in many MBA programs.
It is common for coworkers of fresh MBA graduates to complain how disconnected the much hyped about new recruit is on what needs to be done on the ground, knowing all the big words and ideas but unable to get any actual work done. All of this while the MBA is having difficulty transitioning and adapting her expectations to the reality of her role in the workplace. How can this happen when most MBA’s had substantial actual work experience before the 1-2-year MBA program? It does happen frequently though, companies may oversell with how big of an impact the newly minted MBA graduates can make and how they will be able to put their newfound confidence and ideas into use right away.
Thus, this particular MBA teaching method should be an invaluable reminder of how things work in actual practice, factoring in the human elements always at play. Hopefully, easing the transition back to the workplace when the time comes.
Simulations are probably one of the least common, but still prevalent, business school teaching methods. This MBA teaching method primarily uses technology recreations of common business scenarios. One of the most popular is the “MarkStrat” simulation used in marketing strategy courses. As a business school teaching method, this is exciting and informative, with its competitive environment and instant feedback loop. Simulation teaching methods condenses years into minutes, and allows you to have an impact on all your firm’s key variables. For instance, simulation games such as MarkStrat allows your team to determine pricing, quantity and advertising channels, immediately getting the results on how this affected profitability for each simulated year or period.
Along with the excitement, you also learn about team dynamics and how your own temperament in a high-pressure environment. However, this MBA teaching method could raise false expectations. It is unrealistic to expect to replicate the same responsibilities when you enter most corporate world environments. Rarely would you be allowed to impact or decide each major business decision as a fresh MBA graduate. The simulation game’s instant feedback mechanism can also be a stark contrast to the endurance needed to work organizations’ bureaucracy and work through the hierarchy, while patiently waiting for the layers of approval, and for results to play out over years. As MBA peers from top management consulting firms warn, don’t expect to go in and change an airline’s strategy. Instead, you will do the grunt work requesting data from potentially hostile employees threatened with your mere presence, consolidating these resources through long hours, and taking direction from senior leadership.
Even as an entrepreneur, factors beyond your control can have a more significant impact on the fate of your business. Variability in the effectiveness of each input can also drastically tilt your odds of success and failure. As an example, employees with exactly the same qualifications and salary can deliver work productivity that are at the opposite ends of the spectrum.
Thus, don’t mistake success in these simulation games as sufficient indicators of how you will do with a real venture. Keep in mind why this is only one component of the suite of business school teaching strategies. Learning how to manage organizations and understand randomness, cultural fit, and complex social factors from the other MBA teaching methods will help your chances of success (and sanity!) with your own enterprise.
The business school teaching strategies at MBA programs are as diverse as the programs themselves, so do your research to make sure you are choosing the program that is right for you, your learning style, and your post-MBA goals. Be aware of the lessons to gain and a realistic expectation of how this will translate into the workplace and business environment. This will help guide your choice of MBA programs, career, and life going forward.