Actions Speak Louder Than Words? Experiential Learning in the MBA

business schools like to send their MBA students into the field by providing them with experiential learning projects through which they can apply their MBA skillsets to real-world settings

Sarada Anne came to NYU Stern School of Business in New York City to advance a career that had largely been in real estate development. During her first year, however, she found herself immersed in an urbanization project in the southern Ethiopian city of Hawassa.

“It was a world away from building homes,” she says.

As part of her MBA, Anne was tasked with improving local infrastructure to support the city’s expansion, while protecting the local lake from environmental damage. Her team of five proposed creating a buffer zone to preserve Lake Hawassa and a boulevard to improve access to the city. “We had the opportunity to make a real difference to the community,” she says.

Classroom “doesn’t quite capture the complexity” says NYU Stern MBA

Getting her hands dirty outside the classroom gave Anne a unique learning opportunity. “We had to balance commercial development with urbanization and environmental policy,” she says. “A classroom environment doesn’t quite capture the complexity.”

Anne is not alone in her thinking; business schools are increasingly moving away from the lecture theatre. Experiential learning projects — in which MBA students plunge themselves into a ‘live’ business environment — have been around for a long time. But there has recently been an uptick in business schools partnering with companies and organizations to deliver learning experiences that are more collaborative and immersive, according to Dan LeClair, chief strategy and innovation officer at AACSB International, which accredits MBA programs.

MBA programs and real-world application

By submerging themselves in challenging and unfamiliar situations, MBA students can apply expertise acquired in the classroom to real business situations. “Often, the skills people learn on MBA programs are theoretical in nature and students can have a hard time applying them in the real world,” says Patrick Lamson-Hall, a research scholar at the NYU Stern Urbanization Project, part-sponsored by NYU’s Marron Institute of Urban Management and responsible for the Hawassa initiative. “We get our MBAs out of ‘student mode’ and encourage them to engage with business problems in a more active way.”

Experiential learning also helps develop the soft skills that are so prized by employers, according to Pranab Majumder, an associate professor at Duke Fuqua who codirects the Fuqua Client Consulting Practicum (FCCP), one of a range of action-learning opportunities available to its MBA students. “Project management and teamworking skills are both promoted through experiential learning projects,” he says.


Immersive projects help MBA students pursue impactful careers

The increase in immersive learning experiences at business schools comes as MBA students place greater importance on achieving ‘impact’ in their careers, and are more inclined to pursue non-traditional paths. Bain & Company, the management consultancy firm, surveyed 1,500 MBAs and found that more than 50% intended to prioritize impact over financial rewards in their future careers.

“Many of the things we take for granted in developed countries are absent in developing countries. With experiential learning projects overseas, students get the opportunity to see the tangible impact of their work,” says NYU Stern’s Lamson-Hall. “This can completely change the trajectory of their careers; it can push people to have more of a humanitarian focus.”

Projects also a “recruiting opportunity” says Michigan Ross professor

Business schools are also placing more value on experiential learning in response to growing employer demand for critical thinking and problem-solving skills, agrees Anocha Aribarg, associate professor and leader of Multidisciplinary Action Projects (MAP) at Michigan Ross.

“It’s a recruiting opportunity; a chance to find rising stars,” she says. “Our sponsors tell us they have implemented our students’ recommendations, which can be valuable and have a lasting impact on a company.”

At Michigan Ross, 400 full-time MBA students took part in MAP projects this year, across more than 20 countries. In London, a team of six MBAs partnered with online accommodation booking site, Hotels.com, to conduct consumer research and help the company gain a better understanding of its global customers. Their work was overseen by Mike Wolfe, Hotels.com’s senior director of brand marketing, who is also an MBA alumnus of Michigan Ross.


Amy Goldsmith is a first-year MBA student at Ross who took part in that project. She says: “It was a great opportunity to test out what we have been learning on the MBA program — international marketing and the global economy. The chance to travel and conduct primary research on-site — you can’t get that in a classroom.” 

Seb Murray
Written by Seb Murray

Seb is a journalist and consulting editor who has developed a successful track record writing about business, education and technology for the international press.

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