The different MBA curriculums and learning models explained

BY Sam BeckerJuly 12, 2021, 10:00 PM
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No two MBA students are exactly alike, and the same applies to MBA programs. While some MBA curriculums and learning models are seemingly tailor-made to feed graduates into certain sectors or industries, others take a broader approach by giving students a degree of flexibility and customization in their journeys.

Because each MBA program has its own spin on the business curriculum, it’s critical that prospective students understand what makes various programs unique. Depending on a student’s specific goals, preferred way of learning, and applicable constraints (like enrolling in a part-time versus full-time program), choosing the right program—with the right learning model—can make a big difference.

The core of MBA curriculums

A school’s “curriculum” typically refers to its educational process, or the subjects taught in a given program. For MBA programs, curriculums vary from school to school and program to program, but they generally feature some core areas or classes, which tend to cover most of the same ground regardless of the MBA format. Students do have the option to take a certain number of electives or narrow their studies to a concentration area, however, like entrepreneurship or technology.

“If you are an MBA student, you take all of your core courses—whether you’re part-time or full-time—those are going to be the same: It’s going to be classes like accounting, management, and marketing,” says Mia Hawlk, director of part-time and online MBA programs at the University of Connecticut.

The magic happens, so to speak, outside that core curriculum, where students have some leeway in their studies. At George Washington University School of Business, which offers six different MBA options, administrators can actually dip into their playbooks to design a nearly customized program for each specific student, says Liesl Riddle, the school’s associate dean of graduate programs. It’s a necessity, she adds, as each student has different needs and goals. For instance, if a student wants to eventually work in the C-suite at a tech company, GWU can cater to his or her course load to ensure they learn hard tech skills, along with managerial ones.

“Our customizable and flexible programs enable us to tailor the degree to the unique needs of the student—we’re not a one-size-fits-all program,” she says. “I can look at all of the different curricular tools that I have to really deliver the type of curriculum that they need to achieve their goals.”

Aside from the classes and subjects covered in MBA programs, there’s another element at play: learning models. While some students might classify themselves as “visual” learners, others absorb information more effectively in alternative ways. That’s all to say that different programs (and classes within those programs) may offer different methods of study.

Learning models

At some schools, the curriculum may prove to be lecture-heavy, whereas at other schools, the programs may take a more hands-on approach in an attempt to get some real-world experience under their students’ belts. This is true at the University of Washington, where students engage in “sprints” that involve developing a product or business model in a short period of time—a common practice at tech firms and startups.

Taking a look at what the learning environment actually consists of at a specific school is something that should be on prospective students’ radar, says Shaifali Aggarwal, a Harvard Business School graduate and the founder and CEO of Ivy Groupe, an MBA admissions firm.

Harvard offers a “very interactive” environment, with an approach in which you’ll read actual business case studies, put yourself in the shoes of the protagonist, and discuss what you would do with your classmate, Aggarwal says. “Some other schools are a bit more lecture-based, where it’s more of a professor doing the talking and teaching the material. Some of my clients really value these experiential learning experiences.”

There are also the “extras” that can sweeten the pot for prospective students. Some schools, such as Columbia, have students participate in an in-semester internship to gain hands-on experience, Aggarwal says. Others offer master classes guided by industry practitioners, she notes.

Master classes and built-in internships can be especially beneficial for some students and, depending on the field or sector they’re hoping to work in after they graduate, could provide unique insight or help them establish contacts in those industries.

As a part of the global MBA program at GWU, students take part in “study tours,” which involve working directly with a client in a foreign country to tackle a business issue. These stints can be even more granular, Riddle says.

“We have a very well-known sports management professor who works with the International Olympic Committee and who takes students every year to learn about the business of putting on the Olympics,” Riddle says. “That is either in the preparation years—during which there’s a lot of business to take care of—or during the years of the actual Olympic Games themselves.” 

For students interested in sports-related businesses, that type of curricular add-on may be a deciding factor when choosing a program.

Curricular considerations

An MBA program in which one student flourishes could, ultimately, suffocate another, depending on the learning model and other factors.

So for students, it’s important to do some digging and look not only at a program’s costs, its roster of notable alumni, and time commitments, but also at how you would be spending your time in the program—be it sitting in lectures or in a far-flung country, learning to apply your skills on the fly.

And finally, when it comes down to it, the experts say it’s critical for students to assess their professional and personal goals, consider their preferred learning styles, and think about what they’ll need to get out of a program in order to choose the right one.

“A lot of it does come down to what someone is looking for,” Aggarwal says.