Bringing It: The Darden Classroom

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.. Bring the powers of your imagination, your fresh and unique points of view, and your highest levels of engagement. Quite frankly, we expect you to bring to the classroom nothing but the best you have ..

I might be paraphrasing, but this was essentially the gist of Prof. Peter Rodriguez‘s message. Prof. Rodriguez, the Senior Associate Dean for Degree Programs was addressing us two months ago in August 2011 during international students’ orientation for Darden’s MBA class of 2013. Two months, as most of my fellow classmates would attest, is a very long time in the Darden timescale; one would be hard pressed to recall memories (even fond ones) from back then. But I vividly remembered the above passage from Prof. Rodriguez’s speech. Why? Because I tend to remember things that confuse me, and admittedly I couldn’t fully understand what he really meant. That was until I experienced the Darden classroom first hand and saw Professor’s words coming to life.

A panoramic shot of my First Year section.

Each case-based class discussion aims to drive home key business concepts which further lead to managerial learning. The students are expected to come prepared and be ready to defend their analyses and recommendations (more on the case preparation in a later post). So let’s take a moment here and look at the situation we have: A group of 60-odd bright, business-minded individuals are sitting together in a semi-circular formation and have between themselves potentially 15 different ways to look at the same problem. The best part? What transpires in the next 85 minutes is as dramatic and as intellectually exciting as it promises to be. So much so that I’ll stick my neck out and claim that there are not many parallels to Darden’s classroom in terms of intellectual stimulation. What makes the experience so rich? Let’s break it down, shall we?

The Cold Call

A typical class begins with a cold call – an age old Darden tradition. The Professor calls on a lucky (?) student to lead the class discussion for the day. The expectation is to lay out the key case issues and set the class off to a flying start [No pressure, of course! :-)]. Some people feed off the limelight, while some others detest it, but most end up doing a great job of it anyways.

Student Led Learning

Darden attracts students with diverse functional and industrial backgrounds. Consequently, the student body represents an immense resource pool by themselves. Darden’s case-based classrooms are designed to extensively tap into this resource. Students – both experts on the subjects and others – are encouraged to lead the discussions with their thoughts. Almost every case discussion can be tied back to students’ past experiences – making the learning process all the more powerful.

Faculty Influence

Darden’s faculty is rated amongst the best B-school faculties worldwide. And it isn’t hard to see why. Their display of regulating the class discussions without curbing the flow of idea generation from students is masterful. They also employ swift interventions to prevent discussions from going on irrelevant tangents. They tease out the best comments from students by posing probing, catalyzing questions. Just Brilliant!

Value Left on the Table

“There are no right answers” is a common refrain you’ll hear about Darden cases. And this adage is true to an extent. Business world is filled with ambiguity and Darden cases just mirror that. In fact, some of my favorite cases are the ones that trigger passionate discussions even hours after the classroom. You just can’t put those cases to bed and move on. The classroom discussions make you think about the problems from multiple perspectives and equip the future manager in you to make the right decision, which may not be the best one.

Darden represents an extraordinarily busy and intense B-school experience. Since there are 142 things vying for a student’s attention at a time – many of them non-curricular – it might be tempting to disengage and not spend as much time preparing for the class as one should. Looking back, I realize Prof. Rodriguez was exhorting the students to do their best to preserve this basic tenet of the overall Darden experience: The classroom. And judging by the quality of classes thus far, the students have taken his advice very seriously!

Yes, every student of Darden Class of 2013 does bring it.

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3 responses »

  1. Pingback: The imperfections of memory « UVA Diaries

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