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Action Learning: Setting the University of Illinois Gies College of Business MBA Apart

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Imagine you lived in a bubble and had never seen or heard of bicycles until one fateful day when someone handed you a book entitled How to Ride a Bike. After two years of intensively studying the mechanics of bicycles and the theory of balance, you’re then hand-delivered a bike and told to ride 100 miles. Regardless of how intimate you became with the theory, you’d probably fall flat on your face within seconds.

This scenario is similar to the approach that many MBA programs take with their business curricula. For two years, programs pile on classroom-based assignments that delve into marketing, accounting, consulting, strategy, leadership, and more. If you’re lucky, your last semester might involve an opportunity to practice all you’ve absorbed before being thrown to the wolves of the business world.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Gies College of Business’s Action Learning Model proposes a more effective approach for business education.

What Is Action Learning?

Action Learning is a cutting-edge educational model in which theory and application are integrated in a seamless hands-on learning process. It’s the difference between being given a textbook on how to ride a bike and being given a bike to practice while learning. At Illinois Gies College of Business, MBA students learn the same basic business principles that are taught at every leading business school, but instead of spending all their time focused on theory, they immediately begin implementing what they’ve learned by working with external clients on real-world projects from the outset.

“In the Illinois Gies MBA program, Action Learning is a part of our DNA,” explains Andrew Allen, director of Action Learning at the school. “It begins on day one of the program and continues every semester. But more than an end in itself, Action Learning is the vehicle that leads students to acquire the skills, the competencies, and the experience needed to get a job and be successful in that job. It sets them on an entirely different trajectory.”

Action Learning is embedded throughout the entire Gies MBA curriculum. This means that MBA students gain progressive knowledge in applying their newly-learned skills to client relationships.

Why Is Action Learning Valuable?

Why is Action Learning so valuable for MBA students? “There is no book, case study, or simulation that will prepare students for a career in consulting,” says Maria Jaromin, a second-year Illinois Gies MBA student. “Working on a consulting project with a real client, and with managing consulting teams, does.”

Experience is the key differentiator. Taking a class on how to be an effective leader isn’t as valuable as leading four separate teams of five students in an intense high-stakes environment, which happens during the Project Management in Action Lab. All told, 93 percent of Illinois Gies MBA students report that Action Learning helps them to better apply classroom learning.

“It’s completely different to think about a theoretical problem and come up with a solution,” Jaromin says. “When you’re actually with the client, you have to really consider the environment, the competition, and how the company wants to proceed in the future.”

Action Learning is also invaluable when it comes to helping MBA students determine their career paths. “Most MBA students are either career-switchers or at least industry-switchers,” says Allen. “Action Learning at Illinois Gies allows them to explore multiple industries and job functions. It also gives them experience and a story to tell recruiters. This is critical in order for them to make their case to a potential employer. In fact, nine out of 10 students report that Action Learning gives them a better story to tell recruiters.”

Students who gain this type of hands-on experience typically command higher starting salaries than their peers and earn promotions faster in their jobs.

Inside the Action Learning Model at the Gies College of Business

What exactly does Action Learning look like at the Gies College of Business? It starts from the moment MBA students step onto campus and continues until they graduate two years later. It’s a hands-on approach that introduces client projects in every semester, particularly in four specific labs/courses: the Consulting Lab, the Global Immersion Lab, the Project Management in Action Lab, and the Innovative Lab.

Consulting Lab

The Consulting Lab is a first-semester MBA class at Illinois Gies. Students meet their first client during orientation and begin their inaugural real-world project. This project is woven into every other course that the students take during their first semester.

“For example, they go to their Leadership and Teams class and learn how to better manage their Action Learning team,” Allen explains. “They take a marketing course and learn concepts that help them design surveys and segment markets for their action learning project. The project is the thread that connects learning from multiple courses, making the overall experience more seamless and much more valuable.”

Student Experience

Second-year MBA student Katie Canada’s first project involved addressing a complex internal issue that Uber had on the company level. She and a team of four other students were tasked to develop a viable solution and present data needed to back up their final recommendation.

As the team lead, Canada was responsible for interactions with their Uber contact on a regular basis. She had to ensure that all timelines and project deliverables were met; conduct vendor and primary research; and work with a team of individuals, all of whom had different strengths, from tech to finance to graphics.

It was a unique experience for Canada. “We didn’t look at this like any other group project in school that was attached to a grade, but instead as a real-world scenario as a consultant,” she says. “This would not be possible if we weren’t working with the actual clients and companies.”

Canada explains that the highlight of her experience was the presentation she and her collaborators gave to Uber at the end of the project. They met with six different Uber executives for a three-hour meeting where they presented their recommendations as well as the reasoning behind their choices.

“It was awesome to see that we all knew the subject matter and material so well that we could talk beyond the project, and they regarded our opinions very highly based on the work we had done,” Canada says. “It is a fantastic feeling to deliver recommendations to a company that you know will be implemented and have an impact on their business.”

Global Immersion Lab

During an MBA student’s second semester at Illinois Gies, they participate in the Global Immersion Lab. This experience is similar to the Consulting Lab, but with an international scope. Students work closely with a foreign company for the entire semester and then spend one immersive week working on site in that country.

Project Management in Action Lab

In the third semester, MBA students participate in the Project Management in Action Lab. This is one of the school’s most unique course offerings. “The class is part leadership and part project management,” explains Allen. “It’s intense, and the stakes are high. Because of that, it’s incredibly satisfying to see the impact the second-year MBA students make on the teams they oversee.”

MBA students are placed in charge of a portfolio of four Action Learning project teams (approximately 20 students total) across the school. These teams can include MBA students, undergraduate students, and other grad students, all of whom necessitate specific types of leadership skills.

“They learn to manage multiple projects, train the team leaders, and get hands-on project management experience,” Allen says. “And a large portion of the grade is based on the student experience of the team members from the four teams, and based on the feedback and satisfaction of the clients—much like the performance evaluations they’ll experience after they graduate.”

Student Experience

For Maria Jaromin, the Project Management in Action Lab was not only her favorite MBA class so far; it was also “honestly, probably the most useful class I have ever taken.” It exceeded all her expectations and challenged her across disciplines from project management to client interactions, team building, conflict resolution, and leadership.

Throughout the semester, Jaromin supervised 18 students—one team of first-year MBA students and three undergraduate teams—on four concurrent consulting projects with clients in manufacturing, chemicals, national security, and healthcare. The projects were varied as well, focusing on:

  1. Process improvement for a Fortune 500 healthcare company,
  2. Evaluation of potential new markets and a new market entrance strategy for an international company primarily operating in the chemical industry,
  3. A competitive landscape study and development of the digital business strategy for a tools manufacturing company in the automotive industry, and
  4. Evaluation of an industry’s best practices, process improvement, and development of risk mitigation strategy for a national security and energy client.

This meant that not only did Jaromin have to be proficient in leading teams composed of unique individuals, but she also had to handle four different areas of problems from four distinct industries.

“Without a doubt, the best part of the experience was to see my teams (and the team leaders) grow with the progression of the semester,” says Jaromin. “I observed many student-to-consultant transformations. By the end of the semester, the teams were clearly more proficient in navigating the ambiguity of a consulting project. They acquired an extensive knowledge of their client’s industry and built lasting client relationships. The team leaders learned how to navigate team dynamics, resolve conflicts, motivate teammates, and keep the projects on track.”

Innovative Lab

The last Active Learning course that MBA students will take at Illinois Gies is the Innovative Lab during their fourth semester. This course focuses on solving societal problems for a sponsoring company. Unlike the other courses, this lab is a semester-long competition that pits MBA teams against each other to come up with the most progressive and logical solution.

As the culmination of the entire MBA experience, the Innovative Lab offers students the chance apply skill that they’ve gained over the last two years. It’s the final opportunity for soon-to-be MBA graduates to gain real-world experience in the classroom before they move on to their future careers.


Would you rather thumb through a book on business skills or get your feet wet and see firsthand what’s floating at the bottom of the business deep end yourself? At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Gies College of Business, you’ll take part in one of the most hands-on client-based MBA programs available. It makes all the difference in the classroom and after.

“Having to go through that process of understanding the problem and coming up with the solutions really helps with your analytical reasoning skills,” says Hayden Noel, the school’s MBA academic director. “It takes students to the next level. It takes them to a point where, I believe, we can put them in almost any situation in the corporate world and they’re able to function. They’re able to be successful.”

Jonathan Pfeffer
Jonathan Pfeffer joined the Clear Admit and MetroMBA teams in 2015 after spending several years as an arts/culture writer, editor, and radio producer. In addition to his role as Contributing Writer at MetroMBA and Contributing Editor at Clear Admit, he was also a co-founder of the Clear Admit MBA Admissions Podcast. He holds a BA in Film/Video, Ethnomusicology, and Media Studies from Oberlin College.