Education for the higher educated
Published on: 18 October 2011
Function: Learning Consultant in the Centre for Research in Executive Development
Organisatie: Ashridge Business School

Making the Most of Your Executive MBA Learning Experience

The MBA experience promises to be a landmark opportunity in your career and life, if only you can make the most of it. Beyond earning an important credential and forming significant new relationships and networks, you will also have an unparalleled opportunity to engage in transformative learning and accelerate your personal growth and development.

Students making the most of their Executive MBA Learning ExperienceThe MBA experience promises to be a landmark opportunity in your career and life, if only you can make the most of it. Beyond earning an important credential and forming significant new relationships and networks, you will also have an unparalleled opportunity to engage in transformative learning and accelerate your personal growth and development.


However, if you’re like most people, your natural ability to learn quickly and effectively has been drilled out of you by past educational experiences. Fortunately, we now have an impressive body of research on how adults learn and how the human brain works and performs at its best. You don’t have to let this exciting opportunity become an expensive opportunity cost in terms of your own learning and development.


Below are ten guidelines to help you maximize the value of your MBA learning experience.


1. Look for motivation inside yourself.

The best learners are those who are driven by a curiosity or passion for what they are learning and a personal drive to grow and develop, or what is called intrinsic motivation. Such learners are more intellectually creative and emotionally engaged. They may have an appreciation for the external rewards that could accrue from the experience, such as a higher salary, a better position, or enhanced status within the profession or their organisation. But they realise that such forms of extrinsic motivation do not in and of themselves incite commitment to what can at times be a challenging learning process. So instead of fantasizing about the bigger paycheck or more impressive title awaiting you in the future, focus on having a deep and satisfying learning experience in the moment and envision the better manager, leader, or even person you intend to be as a more immediate result of your MBA experience.


2. Set concrete and specific goals.

People who learn and perform best are those who set challenging goals for themselves, believe that they can achieve those goals, and make a firm commitment to accomplishing them. This is called self-efficacy. By setting concrete and specific learning goals for each module and for the MBA programme as a whole, you will ensure that you are guided by a clear sense of personal purpose and direction, rather than being taken hostage by the aims and agendas of others. You will also be better able to direct your attention and effort in the most productive ways and to stay motivated in the face of the challenges that you will inevitably encounter in a demanding MBA programme.


3. Focus on your own learning journey.

When it comes to learning, one size does not fit all. Every individual begins the learning process with an entirely unique set of skills and knowledge and traverses the learning experience in their own highly individualized way, ending up in a radically different place from their fellow learners. For that reason, learning should not be viewed as a competition amongst equals. If anything, it can be likened to a hero’s journey in which one enters strange lands in order to bring back something of value to one’s self and the community. Learning is, indeed, a heroic act that many choose not to undertake. Therefore, you will profit most by staying focused on your own learning journey and your own exploration of strange new knowledge terrain. Bring back your own learning treasures to enrich your life and share with others.


4. Pay attention to your health and wellbeing.

Groundbreaking research has shown that exercise, sleep and diet are directly linked to better attention, reasoning, problemsolving and memory formation. Therefore, if you want to get the most from your MBA learning experience, make sure you do at least thirty minutes of exercise two or three times a week. Get a good night’s sleep before and after every session, as sleep is critical for acquiring and consolidating your learning from the day. And assure optimal concentration and focus by paying attention to nutrition and proper hydration, in particular by avoiding foods rich in sugar and starch and drinking plenty of water during learning activities.


5. Get into a state of ‘flow’.

Forget the old adage ‘no pain, no gain’. The most effective learning occurs when people get into what Mihaly Csikszentmihaly calls a flow state of becoming completely absorbed in what they are doing and losing all track of time. People do not learn well when learning is ‘painful’, either when they are bored and unengaged or when they become anxious and stressed about performance. In fact, recent evidence suggests that lifelong learners are those who find learning to be challenging but enjoyable and even fun. If you find yourself under- or over-stimulated by the learning experience, take a deliberate step back mentally and / or emotionally and reflect on how you can make it more enjoyable and engaging for yourself.


6. Construct your own map of the conceptual territory.

Learning and remembering happen when people connect what they are learning with what they already know. You can help your own learning process by thinking explicitly about similarities and differences between what you are learning and what you have encountered in the past, particularly by thinking of analogies and metaphors such as “this is like the time when…” or “this reminds me of…”. Also helpful is developing your own conceptual maps of what you are learning and how it relates to your personal understanding of the topic. Be creative in how you draw these maps – be guided by your own associations and thinking process, rather than following a process or pattern laid out by someone else. As you map out the conceptual territory, you increase the likelihood that you will internalize it and make it your own.


7. Put valued learning into immediate practice.

If you want to retain new skills or knowledge, you must put them into practice as soon as possible. You are not likely to remember something new and different just by being exposed to it unless it incites a strong emotional reaction, and even then it doesn’t mean you are able to apply it in any productive way. The brain sustains permanent changes in response to direct, visceral and repetitive experience. If you want something to become part of your regular repertoire, practice it in one context until you have consolidated your understanding, then build the same level of expertise in other contexts. Mastery will be achieved when you are able to call upon that skill anytime and in any context.


8. Expect your performance to vary.

Don’t beat yourself up if you think you have ‘gotten’ something and then fail to perform it as expected. Research has shown that people demonstrate a high level of skill in the classroom where they are given intellectual and emotional support, but often experience dramatic drops in ability when they try to use what they’ve learned back on the job or try to explain it to others. Even masters ‘choke’ when they are hungry, tired, inebriated or stressed out. Expect your performance to decline when you practice on your own and when you’re not up to par, and don’t let it deter you from continuing on your path to understanding and ultimate mastery.


9. Create a supportive environment.

One of the critical factors in whether people use what they learn is whether they are supported in doing so. This scaffolding can take many forms, but research suggests that people tend to use what they have learned when significant others encourage them to do so, such as supervisors, colleagues and life partners. Other environmental factors have been shown to actively get in the way of learning transfer, such as organisational structures and policies that undermine or thwart the new behaviour. If you want your learning to last, make a plan for how you will create an environment that protects and nurtures your ability to apply and practice your learning on an ongoing basis.


10. Make small consistent changes that become lasting habits.

You may learn something during your MBA experience and think “I want to be like this” or “I want this to be a regular part of my work or home life”. People tend to make wholesale or radical changes in how they work or live in response to learning and then feel disappointed when they fail to sustain these changes over time. They blame themselves for not having willpower when it fact they are working against human nature. Instead, make small changes that allow you to experiment and figure out what will work for you. Sustain these small ‘wins’ over time and gradually extend and expand them. Soon your new behaviour will become a habit that endures and leads you down the path to more significant change.


The bottom line in making the most of your MBA experience is that you cannot be a passive participant. You must be proactive in extracting as much learning as you can and applying this learning as soon as possible back at home or work. By following the guidelines above, you dramatically increase the likelihood that your MBA will not be just a piece of paper or a learning opportunity squandered, but a transformative and even life-changing experience.