What to Expect In an Experiential Learning MBA Program

There are many different types of MBA programs, but the most effective emphasize experiential learning. Here's what makes experiential MBA programs better.

A business woman leans her arms over a ledge while holding a phone in an office setting

The blog post was originally in May 2022, and was revised in July 2023.

Sustaining and growing a business isn’t easy. First, there are financial concerns. Managers, owners and entrepreneurs need to know how much money they require to operate and turn a profit, how much money they’re projected to bring in and how those numbers will change five or 10 years in the future. These leaders must also manage marketing and sales strategies; ensure employees are engaged and productive; and keep a pulse on economic, national and global events. Supply chain shortages, economic upheaval and political change can all drastically affect an organization’s day-to-day operations and bottom line.

Juggling these complex considerations can overwhelm unprepared business leaders. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 20 percent of businesses fail within one year. An additional 45 percent fail by year five. And yet, optimism abounds. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans launched 843,320 new businesses between March 2020 and March 2021–a time of upheaval and uncertainty; we saw a significant rise in our Online MBA programs during this time as a result. Those most likely to succeed may be the ones launched and managed by professionals who took the time to earn a Master of Business Administration (MBA).

MBA programs exist to teach ambitious businesspeople to manage moving parts and react strategically to unforeseen events. That may be why it is the most popular graduate degree in the U.S. What many people don’t realize is that graduate business degree programs aren’t all the same. Some teach theory. Others – those best categorized as experiential learning MBA programs – give students real-world experience that complements classroom learning.

Just like their traditional counterparts, experiential learning MBA programs provide critical hard skills in data analysis, strategic management and the fundamentals of marketing. They also offer networking opportunities that can lead to partnerships and job opportunities after graduation. But MBA programs that include experiential learning courses also do more than traditional MBAs. They provide students with the rare opportunity to experiment without risk while working through business challenges.

The SMU Cox School of Business Online MBA program faculty teaches advanced business management and leadership concepts through hands-on consultative experiences. They enlist students in solving real-life business problems, such as consulting with the largest foster care charity in the UK. This bridges the gap between theory and practice. Here is what you can expect from an experiential learning MBA program.

What Is Experiential Learning in an MBA Program?

Experiential learning is learning by doing. “It is a holistic theory that defines learning as the major process of human adaptation involving the whole person,” Angela M. Passarelli and David A. Kolb, who created the practice, wrote for the Experiential Learning Institute. Experiential learning happens in four stages. First, student teams have a concrete experience. For example, they may be presented with a real problem a nonprofit organization has faced. In a simulated business environment, students learn what is at stake – not just financially but also in terms of social impact – and what considerations should guide their problem-solving. Then, they observe and reflect on that experience and its outcomes. Students develop a deeper understanding of abstract concepts based on what they have seen, heard and felt. Finally, students in experiential learning programs experiment with what they have just learned. They discuss what they may do differently the next time they’re presented with a similar problem and consider how they can apply recently learned concepts to new challenges.

In an experiential learning MBA program, students might role-play as negotiating business owners, coordinating simulated marketing campaigns before getting real-world consulting experience by partnering with companies for a capstone course.

The SMU Cox School of Business’s Online MBA curriculum includes a course called Global Business Strategy. Rather than just reading about the dynamics of global business, students go into the field, meeting with business and government leaders, visiting manufacturing facilities and learning about the impact of social and cultural customs. MBA candidates also go on domestic and global immersion trips, meet business leaders and consult with actual companies in different parts of the world. In 2021, for example, students traveled to Dubai. As well that year, SMU Cox added War Games as a unique extension of the business school curriculum in which teams of MBA candidates work to outmaneuver one another while developing and marketing product or services.

SMU Cox faculty members guide students through the experiential learning phases based on their backgrounds and entrepreneurial ambitions. Coursework provides students with technical proficiency in data and business analytics, people management, marketing and global supply chain management. At the same time, through immersive learning experiences like foreign excursions and fellowships, students develop the soft skills necessary to be business leaders, especially in times of uncertainty.

SMU Cox professor Maribeth Kuenzi is also the director of the Albert W. Niemi Center for Economic Growth and Leadership Development at the university, where students can complete fellowships while studying. “Part of what I do at the Niemi Center is help students learn to take care of people and the environment and do things that carry the values and principles of leadership,” she said.⁠

How Is Experiential Learning Different from Other Styles of Learning?

Experiential learning goes beyond rote memorization. Because it is more holistic than traditional learning, it engages more senses than just the cognitive. Research has shown that emotional thought is a platform for learning, memory and decision-making. When you form an emotional attachment to learning experiences – by feeling challenged, then accomplished, for example – you’re more likely to retain the information.

In a traditional classroom setting, students may listen to a lecture, take notes and then take an exam to test whether they have learned. In an experiential program, students spend less class time listening passively to lectures and more time engaging with their course material through discussions, simulations and projects. This is why all of the graduate programs at SMU Cox prioritize experiential learning as a part of their offerings.

Experiential learning is especially beneficial for students already working in the business world. Unlike a full-time MBA program, students in online or part-time programs tend to be working professionals – the average age of SMU Cox Online MBA students is 34. These mid-career students are looking for engaging, collaborative experiences. They want to deepen their understanding of business theory and better understand how they can apply theory in their actual business environments. Since many students study part-time while working full-time, they can immediately use lessons learned through in-class experimentation in their workplaces.

“I’ve already been able to apply the skills learned during the program on the job,” said SMU Cox Online MBA alum Reed Waldenmaier (‘21) of his experience. “Especially in areas of managing and leading people, I’ve brought what we’ve done in the courses to refine my skills.”

One of the most distinguishing factors of the experiential learning modality is that it is typically student-facilitated rather than entirely faculty-led. MBA candidates work together to do a majority of the intellectual heavy-lifting, solving the ambiguous, unstructured problems that real businesses face. They may work in teams or work alone but discuss their ideas in a group environment. SMU Cox’s live classes are interactive and discussion-based. Rather than listening to a lecture, students discuss practical applications of the theories and business practices they are studying.

Experiential learning in MBA programs emphasizes information uptake as a continual process rather than an end goal. When students graduate from an experiential learning MBA program, they usually find numerous opportunities to continue learning and developing throughout their careers.

Why are More Universities Implementing Experiential Learning?

Experiential learning has many benefits. Not only are more universities implementing it in the classroom, but employers are also adopting its methods for employee training because it works so well in MBA programs. “Giving employees an experience – rather than just a lecture, course or book – to help them learn and develop themselves can be very effective,” said Andrea MacKenzie, founder of Lead with Harmony. The same is true for students.

Experiential MBA programs help students develop healthy professional habits such as reflection, experimentation and continuous development. This makes them more competitive in the job market.

Experiential learning opportunities also let students explore what lies beyond their comfort zones. In a simulated business negotiation, they can fail without risk. Students learn to communicate more comfortably with their peers, with business leaders and with people from cultures different than their own. Graduates are more confident when they finish the program and less prone to making mistakes due to inexperience or fear. Experiential learning offers students a chance to stumble in low-stakes environments before they move into high-stakes leadership positions.

How Will Experiential Learning Help You in Your Career?

The 2021 GMAC Corporate Recruiters Survey found that the most-desired skills for business school graduates are interpersonal skills, leadership, the ability to manage decision-making processes, motivation and learning. Experiential learning strengthens all of these skills.

Experiential learning encourages collaboration. Students have to work together to problem-solve. They engage in lively discussions, bringing lessons from textbooks off the page and into the world together.

In two leadership-oriented courses - within a larger robust online MBA curriculum - offered by SMU Cox School of Business, students learn to manage based on the dynamics of human behavior and on their own strengths as leaders. They evaluate their leadership strengths at a personal level and receive detailed feedback. Students then write a leadership development plan they can use as they move from individual contributors to management roles in their real-life workplaces.

One of the greatest strengths of experiential learning is that it encourages further learning. David A. Kolb’s initial writing on the practice emphasizes that “learning is best perceived as a process, not in terms of outcomes.” Students who learn how to reflect on their experiences and draw lessons from their failures and successes continue to do so throughout their careers. With each experience, they get better at managing, collaborating and making decisions. This makes professional development a habit, rather than a responsibility.

Finally, experiential learning MBA programs that include immersive virtual programming prepare students for the future of remote and tech-enabled work. “The future of work is going to be virtual, so holding a practical immersion in the virtual space gives students the experience of consulting virtually, which is going to become more and more important,” said SMU Cox adjunct professor Arjan Singh. If students can comfortably utilize remote networking, AI-enabled tech and video conferencing, they are much more likely to succeed as remote team leaders or consultants. Fortunately, students are primed in our highly-ranked Online MBA to adapt to an imminent career of tech-enabled work. SMU Cox understood this new way of working when it created its online portfolio. 

Why Choose The SMU Cox School’s Experiential MBA Program?

Experiential learning is one of the SMU Cox School of Business’s foundational pillars, along with analytics and leadership – good news if everything you have read so far seems like an optimal learning environment.

The SMU Cox’s experiential MBA program combines the best of in-person and virtual learning. You'll earn advanced degrees part-time and online and still have access to SMU Cox’s campus, its resources and student groups. Career Coaches work with each MBA candidate one-on-one to set and meet career goals, making the learning experience personal and its benefits far-reaching. And two global immersion opportunities offers you the option to travel, meet industry leaders and get hands-on experience in culturally diverse business environments.

SMU Cox also offers access to a swath of business experts, from faculty doing leading-edge research on crypto and blockchain technologies to alumni who have developed successful and award-winning startups. The return on investment in an online MBA program is already unmatched since students have the option to continue earning a full-time salary as they learn, but SMU Cox also offers financial aid and scholarships. Sixty percent of students receive awards. If you are ready to enroll, start your online application today or connect with an enrollment advisor. An MBA is an important credential to have on your resume, but the right MBA program will always be the one that continues to deliver after graduation.