Experienced student

I believe I can call myself an “experienced student” for I have discovered a thing or two about the learning process by experience :)

Peter F. Drucker in his article for HBR called “Managing Oneself” describes the different methods of learning:

“There are people, like Churchill, who learn by writing. Some people learn by taking copious notes… Some people learn by doing, others learn by hearing themselves talk”.

I will begin this post by stating an assumption as a fact: “Students cannot learn without questioning”. The most controversial topic among the MBA class is the differing questioning behaviour among students in class. The main complaint being that few of us ask questions frequently or at the wrong times compared to others and therefore disrupt the flow of the class or in the worst case waste time! I have myself held this opinion until recently. But, only until recently!

question-markIn my opinion, there are five steps in a learning process. Four of them being Listen -> Understand concept -> Look for opportunities to apply -> Integrate. The fifth step is Questioning and can come in at any stage of the learning process. A “Cynical” student will question as soon as he listens, the “Rational” student will question when he understands the concept, “Practical” student questions after looking for opportunities to apply and the rest of students either question right at the end or don’t question at all.

I myself am a Practical learner… If the concept is authored by Porter, I’ll accept everything without questioning the merits… My emphasis is really on application. And as I think about applying the concept, my questions arise out of curiousity about how best to apply. For example, when we discussed the CAPM model, I let my imagination run wild about applying the concept to financial investments, product portfolio of a company or even the portfolio of a country’s GDP. Great! But only later found out that the model is based on certain assumptions which render all those applications useless. Assumptions like “the marginal investor is diversified” and “all investors are rational and on the efficient frontier”! The risk with my learning process is that if I fail to ask the right questions at the right time, I will end up applying the wrong concepts to the wrong situations. That risk is reduced if there is a “rational” student in class who questions the validity of the model and tries to understand the logic and assumptions. But then the problem with the “rational” student is that he/she will accept the concept as soon as the mathematical/logical derivation of the model is understood. There is still a risk that we will not question the fundamental assumptions of the model.

This is where the “Cynical” student plays a key role. They question the very logic of the concept right at the beginning, irrespective of whether it is published in Harvard business review or whether the concept’s author received a Nobel prize!

There are only 2 more weeks of core courses left! As I look back at this year, I think I have learned as much from the “unnecessary” or “mistimed” questions as I have learned from the questions which were in line with my own thought process. I guess this probably is not the case in an engineering class where every student is “like minded”, where as in MBA classes with diverse cultures, professional backgrounds and age, this situation must be common. 

There you go; I guess that is one reason to study in a diverse MBA class. But, to get the most out of it, we’ve got to be aware that there are going to be many questions that we won’t like… that’s an insight which can only come from an experienced student :) 

By the way, let me not be naive, there are certainly few questions which are indeed unnecessary… the reason for raising these questions is often not to enhance one’s understanding of the topic, it is rather to assert one of the two messages to the professor which are “Look, I’m smarter than you” or “How can you not think like me!” Professors and Students can sense that attitude from a mile away especially if the questions always begin with “Isn’t it…”, “Don’t you think…” or “In my opinion…”  ;)


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