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The History of Action-based Learning in the Michigan Ross Curriculum

Photo of seven students sitting around a table giving a presentation and wearing professional clothing

Several defining ideas have helped to establish the Ross School of Business as a pioneer in the business world, setting forth a tradition of trailblazing business education and practice and disrupting the status quo. One such innovation is action-based learning. This transformational approach takes learning beyond textbooks to give students the opportunity to apply their theoretical knowledge in practical, real-world business situations. 

History of action-based learning

The concept of ABL at Michigan Ross came about in 1992 with the introduction of the Multidisciplinary Action Projects course. In the course, students worked in teams and consulted with an external organization for seven weeks to solve a real-world business challenge. The aim of the course was to emphasize experiential learning and complement the high-level strategy students are exposed to in the curriculum. By doing so, students discovered and learned from the real-time implications of their actions and decisions.

The impact of this practical, action-based approach was immediate and profound. Student engagement soared, businesses benefited from fresh insights, and the unique curriculum placed Michigan Ross at the forefront of business education innovation.

At the time of MAP’s founding, B. Joseph White, dean of what was then the Michigan Business School, said of the program, “This innovative curriculum will give Michigan Ross MBA graduates a competitive advantage over their peers. Understanding business functions at this level of complexity means the students will contribute more and perform better the minute they enter the workforce.”

Expanding the reach of MAP

While initially conceived as a signature component of the Full-Time MBA curriculum, MAP has grown and evolved to become a required course in all Full-Time, Part-Time, Executive, and Global MBA Programs at Michigan Ross. In more recent years, the concept has expanded into the BBA and One-Year Master’s Programs as well. Today, nearly every Ross student has the opportunity to participate in MAP or a similar course.

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, MAP expanded to include international projects, reflecting the increasingly global nature of business. Students were able to gain a broader perspective by working with companies across diverse industries and geographies. Their work addressed a range of complex global issues, from strategic planning and market entry to operational efficiency and digital transformation.  

The growth of action-based learning

The success of the MAP program led to the integration of action-based learning into other areas of the Michigan Ross curriculum. The Living Business Leadership Experience course allows students to establish and lead a cross-functional team to shape, implement, and lead high-impact business initiatives alongside company founders and senior leaders. The +Impact Studio brings interdisciplinary student teams together to learn how to use scholarly intellectual capital, business acumen, and design methodologies to address business issues. The Consulting Studio takes what MAP started in the MBA degree programs and customizes the experience for the One-Year Master’s Programs.

The Ross curriculum also offers students various action-based experiential courses such as entrepreneurial studies and corporate strategy. In these courses, students generate start-up ideas, develop operational strategies, and interact with real-world corporate clients.

To date, more than 3,300 projects have been completed through action-based courses, and more than 17,000 students have participated in action-based learning projects. Ross also partners with more than 200 companies annually to provide students with impactful learning experiences.

In 2006, a dedicated Office of Action-Based Learning was created to support the engagement and delivery of these signature project-based core courses. Student teams work with faculty and learning partners, faculty advisors, communication faculty, and members of the library services team to help optimize project outcomes for themselves and the sponsors.

The legacy of ABL at Michigan Ross

Action-based learning helped to establish the Michigan Ross reputation for innovation more than 30 years ago. ABL stands as a testament to the Michigan Ross commitment to developing purpose-driven leaders who are empowered to create innovative solutions to the world’s most complex business challenges. Today, action-based learning is more vital than ever as Michigan Ross continues to meet the demands of an ever-evolving business landscape.