Independent Learner Skills May be Critical to an MBA’s Success

ID-100147375 (1)While reading Kio Stark’s book, Don’t Go Back to School: A Handbook for Learning Anything, I discovered that I am an independent learner. I also realized that for most of my early life, I was a dependent learner, as I progressed through the formal education system – K-12, BBA degree, MBA, D.B.A., and various certification programs. The transition or evolution from dependent learner to independent learner was not obvious to me, yet it happened. In retrospect, had the changeover occurred sooner, advancement along my chosen career path might have been faster. For this reason, I believe that the sooner MBAs become independent learners, the faster they will advance along their chosen career path. Moreover, I believe an MBA program is the perfect place to start developing independent learning skills.

Independent Learners

Independent learners are individuals whose learning is independent of schools or the formal education system, as we know it today. At the other end of the spectrum is what I call the dependent learner, who is someone whose learning is dependent on an infrastructure – syllabi, teachers, assessment models for feedback, like-minded peers, physical resources, etc. As an MBA student, you are functioning in a dependent-learner environment. That is, what you learn is dependent on the MBA program’s curriculum, the faculty, your peers, etc.

After earning your MBA, you shift learning environments, which means you have the opportunity to become an independent learner. As an independent learner, you control what you learn, when you learn it and how you learn the skills and knowledge you need at the time you require them. Accordingly, you no longer are dependent on someone else for your learning.

Commonalities of Forms of Independent Learning

Kio Stark clearly develops the concept of the independent learner in her book. More importantly, she identifies four attributes shared by various forms of learning outside of school. Even though an MBA program is dependent-learning-based, these attributes describe the underpinnings of many MBA programs. They are:

1) Learning is collaborative, even though “independent learner” implies otherwise.

2) Professional credentialing is not the objective.

3) The learning appears to be more effective and satisfying.

4) Learners reflect on their own way of learning to figure out what processes and methods work best for them.

Unfortunately, most MBA programs do not openly promote these attributes as part of their course, although some do introduce the concept of lifelong learning, which is tangentially related.

Starting the Transition to Independent Learner

Proactively managing the transition from dependent learner is the key, and MBA programs provide an excellent opportunity for MBA students to begin developing their independent learner skills. With this goal in mind, the following items may provide a starting point for making the transition:

1) MBA students will not learn everything they need for career success during their MBA program. While enrolled in the MBA program, students can start thinking about the skill sets they will need to learn or master for career advancement. Once these are identified, the student can develop a plan for learning or mastering the requisite skill(s). There is a high probability that most of the learning needed will occur outside of school or a formal-education system.

2) Each of us has a preferred or favorite way of learning. The MBA program can be a time to reflect on one’s own way of learning and to figure out what processes and methods work best. At the end of a class period, a few minutes of reflection can help identify what you liked and what you did not like about the class. Over time, patterns will emerge and soon you will have a clear understanding of your favorite way of learning.

3) Faculty members have preferred or favorite ways of teaching or managing their classes. Observing each faculty member and identifying what you like and do not like about the way each teaches will also help you identify your favorite way of learning.

4) Engagement is one of the keys to learning, as either an independent learner or a dependent learner. Furthermore, engagement can be an indicator of your preferred way of learning. If you are engaged in the learning process, then there is a high probability that the learning process and teaching methods used by the faculty member match your preferred way of learning.

5) For the most part, learning is the responsibility of the learner and not the teacher, especially in graduate school. The old adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink” applies. When individuals decide not to learn, it is impossible for anyone to make them learn. At the same time, when someone wants to learn, very little gets in his or her way. One way of making sure that things do not get in the way is to prepare a personal learning guide to help organize and manage your acquisition of future knowledge.

I think program success and career success for MBAs may depend on the development of learning skills to support independent-learner activities. I also believe that the MBA program provides a place for learning these requisite skills and can help with the transition from dependent learner to independent learner.

Are you a dependent learner or an independent learner? How do you manage your learning? Please take the time to share your thoughts by adding a comment below.

About the Author: Dr. Rodney Alsup is the creator of the MyeEMBA blog. His goal is to help MBA students live and work smarter while they earn their MBA.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

2 comments for “Independent Learner Skills May be Critical to an MBA’s Success

  1. November 8, 2013 at 8:05 am

    The following quote by Ian Brooks, an HP Executive supports the independent learner concept:
    “You have to self-train, you have to read, you have to study. You can’t expect to be spoon-fed anymore. The world is moving too fast to spoon feed the information. You earn your success in life,” said Brooks.

    Click here to view the complete article: posted on the Computer World UK website.

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