Many MBA applicants make the same wrong assumption: No matter which top business school you attend, its teaching style will be more or less the same.
While there are similarities across the top-tier programs, each school has a different teaching style. There's the case method approach; lecture-based instruction; and the experiential learning and team-based focus approach. Some schools concentrate almost entirely on one style, while others employ a mixture.
Finding a fit in teaching style is important, and I advise clients to seek out a program where they can thrive and feel comfortable. However, I find that this piece of the puzzle is often pushed aside, with more weight placed on factors like rankings, career center offerings, location and culture.
In fact, teaching style is often one of the last things applicants focus on. Although there are many different aspects of a program to consider as you select your target schools, I believe this one should have more weight, as it not only directly affects your enjoyment of your two-year investment, but the quality of knowledge that you walk away with.
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• Case method: The case method approach was established by Harvard Business School more than a century ago and is still widely used at top MBA programs worldwide. With this method, students analyze and debate authentic management scenarios to create recommendations that the firm in question should employ in the future.
Harvard relies on case studies for approximately 80 percent of its instruction, and students at University of Virginia's Darden School of Business are exposed to more than 500 cases in a variety of industries and functions during their two-year program.
Considered by many to be the gold standard in management education, the case method relies on lively class discussions with myriad points of view. A good case analysis requires a lot of preparation from students, who must feel at ease sharing their ideas in front of large groups.
Gregarious personalities will thrive in this environment, while shy individuals may cringe at the thought of showing up to class. This is not the learning environment for those uncomfortable speaking in front of strangers or those who fear they might say something embarrassing.
"Ask yourself if you find this method of learning intriguing and exciting," Dee Leopold, the director of admissions at Harvard Business School, advised applicants last fall.
• Lecture: All top MBA programs include courses taught using a lecture format, though some schools stand out for their significant use of this traditional pedagogic technique. According to the MBA-focused website Poets & Quants, Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business tops the list with approximately 50 percent lecture-based instruction, while the lecture format at University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business comes in as a close second at 48 percent.
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Fans of the lecture method believe this is the best way to concretely teach students the business concepts and theories they will need once they're back in the work force. This environment may also be more comfortable for introverted students, as well as those who enjoy absorbing the wisdom of a seasoned professor.
In some instances, the lecture approach is simply the most expeditious way to get the information across. Columbia Business School devotes about 40 percent of class time to lecture and 40 percent to case studies.
Vice Dean Amir Ziv tells MBA Channel, "If you teach something really simple, cases are much too time-consuming. In the same time frame you can either cover two cases or six other things when lecturing."
• Experiential approach: In recent years, more and more schools have expanded the experiential components in their curricula, adding in more team challenges, simulations, field work and extracurricular activities. Poets & Quants reports that Vanderbilt's Owen tops the list at 30 percent of courses using experiential instruction. At Owen, students have access to industry-focused immersion experiences, conferences, career treks, case competitions, entrepreneurial opportunities and more.
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Another leader in this area of action-based learning is the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor's Ross School of Business, which has a seven-week, full-time consulting project known as the Multi-disciplinary Action Project. Ross connects first-year MBA students with corporate, entrepreneurial and nonprofit projects both in the U.S. and abroad that require thoughtful recommendations on organizational challenges.
Even Harvard got into the act in fall 2011, launching the yearlong Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development course for first-year students, which offers small-group learning experiences that are experiential, immersive and field-based.
This hands-on approach to learning benefits those with an entrepreneurial spirit, as well as generalists who enjoy working in groups and want to learn how to get things done. Unlike the lecture and case methods, which focus on theory, experiential learning encourages students to learn by doing.
There is significant variation in how material is presented in an MBA program. Take a close look at your personal preferences and learning style to find the business school that's best for you.