How Darden Hit No. 1 in Student Satisfaction

From the start, Bruner concluded that the greatest opportunity to enhance student satisfaction was not in a big overhaul of the curriculum, but in smaller incremental changes. “Big redesign efforts are well known and get a lot of press, but they are difficult to pull off and sustain,” he says. “All of the research on how the best organizations do innovation is through a process of small change–prototypes and projects.”

And Liedtka also felt that the greatest opportunities were not with the mainstream MBAs because by and large they were very satisfied with the Darden experience. Even going back to the very first student satisfaction survey in 1988, Darden students were more satisfied with the quality of teaching at the school than any other. The school also scored extremely well on most other satisfaction attributes measured by the survey. Even Darden’s 14th place finish in 2008 failed to show widespread disaffection. “You weren’t going to move the needle on the mainstream,” says Liedtka. “We had to find the most unhappy ones and then set expectations so they don’t come in the first place or tweak it so that is the key to helping the other group of students become more satisfied with their experience. We are constantly generalizing to the mean when it’s the outliers where a lot of fruitful innovation lives.”

Among the key goals of the project:

“Take faculty and staff on an empathic journey through the current student experience, supported with data.

“Provide a compelling description of unmet needs of current MBAs.

“Identify key opportunity areas of improvement.

“Find some easy wins.”

Darden brought in Tim Ogilvie, CEO of consultants Peer Insight, who taught an MBA class on service innovation. Nine students then were drafted to do the study on 16 second-year MBAs representing a cross-section of age, gender, nationality, marital status and educational backgrounds. After a couple of training workshops, the student researchers spent hours with their classmates, taking each through 11 key steps in the MBA journey. They started with the moment each decided to get an MBA until his or her graduation two years later. The interviews were done in the last quarter of their second year, between March and May of 2009, and reported to the faculty just before graduation in May.

What they found surprised Bruner, Liedtka and much of the Darden faculty. The school had long assumed that all of its students had the same experience going through the Darden program. After all, it was a lockstep, cohort driven program, heavy on case study teaching, close student-faculty contact, teamwork and collaboration. In fact, different types of students were having significantly different experiences that altered their highs and their lows.


The research team identified four different types, or personas, of students, each with his or her own issues (see matrix on next page). There were “Mainstream MBAs” who were using the degree to switch careers into typical MBA jobs; “Happy Wanderers,” who were using the degree to find a new direction in life; “Mature Ticket-Punchers,” who sought the MBA to enhance their career mobility, and finally “Map Makers,” the most likely group to be dissatisfied. Unlike the “Happy Wanderers,” they’re more likely to be angst ridden about not knowing what they will do when they enter the program. They’re still trying to make sense of their careers. Some of them go into social entrepreneurship after getting their MBAs. They’re also far more interested in the program’s intellectual content. “We have been so busy designing for the mainstream that we haven’t recognized this group existed in the past,” says Robert Carraway, senior associate dean for degree programs. “But we have some very talented folks in this group.”


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.