What is Experiential Learning, and Why is it Beneficial for MBA Students?

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Global study is one of many ways for graduate students to participate in experiential learning.

Experiential education opportunities complement traditional learning tactics by allowing students to apply their knowledge and enhance their skills in hands-on, real-world situations. The opportunity to put the theory into practice before graduating can prepare students to handle future professional experiences with a deeper understanding and greater confidence.

Here’s an overview of experiential learning, and a look at how valuable it can be for business professionals enrolled in Master of Business Administration programs.

Defining experiential learning

Originally proposed by psychologist David Kolb, experiential learning is “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.” It encourages students to put their skills to the test, and involves hands-on experiences that enhance traditional forms of learning.

This type of learning is based on the idea that people tend to absorb information more effectively when they actively participate in concepts and build upon those interactions with thoughtful reflection and lively discussions. ThoughtCo noted that while experiential education involves learning by doing, it goes deeper than simply practicing a skill. The purpose of experiential learning is to think critically about the concept or skill, reflect on the experience, determine ways to improve performance and ultimately complete future actions with reference to the original learning experiences.

Experiential learning bridges the gap from the classroom to life, granting students the real-world experiences that prepare them to apply the concepts they learn to various contexts. The process can solidify a commitment to continuous learning and critical application of knowledge.

The Association for Experiential Education (AEE) highlighted the following disciplines and settings for this type of learning:

  • Outdoor and adventure education
  • Informal education
  • Place-based education
  • Project-based learning
  • Service-learning
  • Cooperative learning
  • Global education
  • Expeditionary learning
  • Environmental education
  • Student-centered learning
  • Active learning

As such, there are many ways MBA students can participate in experiential learning, including capstone projects, campus immersion sessions, internships, community service initiatives and volunteer and study abroad programs. These experiences complement course curriculums or build upon classroom discussions. However, experiential learning can also occur in the classroom, engaging students with discussions of real-world examples and projects that mimic professional applications of the concepts covered.

Understanding the benefits of experiential learning

Hands-on learning opportunities allow students to dive deeper into the concepts that interest them, guiding them to discover their strengths, weaknesses and perspectives in specific areas of the business world. By adding relevant context to the ideas and skills discussed in the classroom, experiential learning opportunities can help students develop a much deeper understanding of the subject matter than would come from solely studying the concepts.

According to the AEE, experiential learning encourages students to take initiative and then hold themselves accountable for the outcomes of the decisions they made. There are equal chances of success and failure, which means students have to take risks and begin to grasp the unpredictability of the business world.

The reflection component of experiential learning can increase critical thinking skills, as well as the ability to apply knowledge to different types of situations, encounters and problems.

Additionally, reflecting on these experiences helps students have intelligent discussions about their skills and knowledge base, drawing on genuine examples of how they applied them in various contexts. The ability to do so grants them an upper hand when interviewing with potential employers. These advanced skills and nuanced understanding can further make the transition from the classroom to professional environments more seamless.

Discussing learning experiences with peers also compels students to recognize other perspectives, which they can later consider when dealing with similar situations or challenges. Feedback gained from these experiences can highlight strengths, as well as call out where improvements are needed.

Using the experiential learning model at Maryland Smith

Designed with a keen focus on experiential learning, the Online MBA program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business offers students an engaging, hands-on curriculum that draws directly from real-world business situations.

The Smith online classroom engages students with audio and video messaging, integrated multimedia and online workspaces that create easy opportunities for collaborative reflections and discussions.

One of the program’s graduation requirements, the Action Learning Project, gives Online MBA candidates the opportunity to apply their knowledge and skills to address real-world corporate challenges. Students can focus on a company of their choice, and the Smith School of Business can even connect them with the organization’s leaders to arrange a formal presentation of the project.

Anthony Botos, OMBA ’17 described his ALP experience: “The Smith MBA program gave my team and me the skills needed to sift through a lot of data and make connections between the information and the company’s strategy.”

As director of distribution for Save-A-Lot at the time of the project, Botos chose to focus on the company that was already close to home. The project paid off, as the supermarket chain asked Botos to be the director of customer experience following the presentation. The opportunity was the ideal way for Botos to pursue his interest in marketing, and apply the new knowledge and skills gained through his Smith experience.

The Smith Online MBA program also has a global study component, which allows students to take business courses in select countries. Current offerings include exploring business growth opportunities in Brazil, learning how to do business in South Africa and experiencing project management in the United Arab Emirates. These experiences afford students first-hand exposure to the international business concepts they learn in class.

If you’re ready to advance your career with education enhanced by experiential learning opportunities, reach out to an advisor to learn more about the online MBA program at Maryland Smith.


Recommended Readings: 

Tips for getting the most of out your MBA

Is it time to get your MBA? 3 reasons to do it online



Online Master of Business Administration by University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business 

What is experiential learning? by ThoughtCo

The power of experiential education by Association of American Colleges and Universities

Experiential learning theory of David Kolb by Verywell Mind

What is experiential education? by the Association for Experiential Education

How Experiential Learning in College Could Launch Your Career by Princeton Review