The first year of the MBA program at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business has long been known as one of the more intense learning experiences in business education. Back in the 1980s, it was common for MBA students to pile up 65 to 80 hours of study per week through the entire core, finishing up in a frenzy of exhaustion and burn-out.
Over the years, the school has lightened the load, making it far less grueling than it once was, though Darden MBAs still must read, dissect and absorb more than 500 cases at the most famous case study business school outside of Harvard. Now, after a review of the MBA program, the school is adding a new required course in the core curriculum as well as a novel weekly period to discuss contemporary issues that will slightly lower the amount of case study learning.
It’s an attempt to make mandatory an experiential experience and to introduce a weekly faculty-guided session on topical issues and prep work for the experiential course called “Innovation, Design and Entrepreneurship In Action” (IDEA). Students will be organized in teams and work on challenges sponsored by corporations, government agencies or nonprofit organizations in the fourth and final quarter of their first year.
DARDEN WILL MAKE EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING REQUIRED FOR THIS YEAR’S INCOMING MBAS
Though many schools have put such experiential courses in their MBA programs, Darden’s approach will be somewhat different. Instead of having different projects for all of the student teams, Darden will assign five or six teams the same challenge, effectively putting them in competition with each other. All told, the school expects to sign up 10 to 15 organizations for the global projects that will be undertaken next year.
The school has long had experiential courses and excursions, of course, but they have been voluntary. This is the first time Darden is making such an experience a required part of its core curriculum. The new IDEA course, to be taught by five dedicated faculty, will replace an elective in the program.
“Like lots of schools, we appreciate how much value you can only get through an experiential type of program,” says Peter Rodriguez, senior associate dean for degree programs. “We have done this for a lot of our students in the past, but through elective courses or for pay. Some folks felt they couldn’t get the best part of the experience as a result. So we decided it was important to build it into the program.”
IDEA WILL BRING CASE STUDY LEARNING DOWN FIVE PERCENTAGE POINTS TO ABOUT 70% OF THE MBA
The new requirement, says Rodriguez, will increase the amount of experiential learning at Darden to about 20% from an average of 15% currently. Case study learning will fall to 70% from 75% of the Darden program as a result. “In the past, someone might have zero experiential because it was voluntary,” says Rodriguez. “Now no one will have that going forward.”
The school, which is currently ranked 13th best by Poets&Quants in the U.S. for its MBA program, decided on a mandatory and more competitive approach after studying experiential learning modules at the University of Michigan’s Ross School, which has long made the biggest commitment to experiential coursework of any major MBA program, Harvard Business School, and Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. “We looked at HBS FIELD (Field Immersion Experiences in Leadership Development) which is a much bigger animal than this will be and also Michigan and Tuck,” confirms Rodriguez. “This will be a little bit different. All of them are distinctive in some particular way. Michigan’s program has many, many projects. They don’t have the competitive team aspect that ours will have. And ours will be taken at one time, boxed in a single quarter. It will be compulsory and good for everybody. We would normally teach more leadership and organizational behavior and this will fill the gap for that for the moment. “
To make room for the new seven-week course, the school has had to rearrange its academic calendar, pulling back to four terms from five to provide slightly more time to do an outside project. Rodriguez offered a couple of examples of what a project might entail: “It could be Best Buy trying to find a way to recycle batteries or Spotify attempting to compete with Apple. We want it to be a live project for the firm and we can do in a fixed period of time. The students will work in groups and have presentations to the faculty and leadership of the companies.”
IMPETUS FOR CHANGE COMES FROM STUDENTS AND DARDEN’S CORPORATE ADVISORY BOARD
The first-year students will be divided into 60 to 65 teams of five to six students each for the projects. These IDEA teams, to be chosen across Darden’s five first year sections, will differ from the traditional learning teams that exist throughout the first-year core.
The impetus for the changes came from both students and the school’s corporate advisory board. “The board said that MBA students in general tend to be technically competent but when it comes to organizing an effort and seeing it through to completion, many people stumble. We felt the experiential learning piece is important enough to require and it gives students a chance to do something that in a case study environment isn’t otherwise available. It gives them the opportunity to fail. We wanted something of this nature and we thought this the way to go.”
“Part of the challenge is to set them up to succeed and let them know a few things they won’t know in advance,” adds Rodriguez. “We are going to prep them on the amount of time they will need to do it and the expected challenges. One of the things we want to provide is incomplete data and the need to source their own information. In a case study curriculum, that is one of the knocks. You generally get all the data you need. We will give them some training in project management and leadership and a continuation of learning on how good teams work together through common problems. The rest is a finger-crossing moment because they will have to learn things the hard way, from how to get data that’s not readily available to how to meet a project deadline.”