For a Self-Taught MBA, Coursework Beats Reading Books

While researching how to put together a self study MBA, I came across a lot of information about the books I need to read to make my own MBA.  While I think reading business books is a good start, I don’t think it’s quite enough to call a self study MBA.  Here’s why I don’t think reading alone is enough for my homemade MBA:


Reading is passive

People learn business by doing.  Imagine you just read a book on accounting.  Are you an accountant now?  Are you sure you understand what you read and how to apply it?  My guess is not really.


You need a place to practice in order to truly learn.  Practice comes in many forms, but the time-tested method of homework assignments is hard to beat.  Assignments are graded.  There are right and wrong answers.  Graded assignments tell you if you really understand something or not, and if not – what topics you need to revisit. You won’t get this feedback from reading a book.


Reading doesn’t test what you’ve learned

Tests and quizzes are a good thing.  I only realized this after leaving college, but tests and quizzes are a part of normal corporate life, too.  I can’t tell you the number of corporate training courses I have completed that required a grade of “80% or higher” to receive credit.  Why do they use tests?  To make sure you really understood – or were paying attention to – the material at hand


Let’s face it, even the most active readers are probably drifting off to a more interesting mental place while reading this sentence, let alone an entire Finance textbook.  It’s just not realistic to trust that you can read and absorb all the information you desire.  That’s what the test is for.  Like the grade of a homework assignment, a test will let you know how well you understand the subject at hand.


To be clear, I’m not saying you need to get A’s, or 100% on any self study MBA tests or homework assignments.  This is independent study land here, so grades are almost irrelevant.  The point is, after taking a test on a subject, YOU will know where you stand.  This can be a confidence booster or a humbling experience, but at least you’ll be more self-aware.


Reading gives you a false sense of security 

The main problem I have with reading alone is the false sense of security, and ultimately misplaced confidence, that comes from reading by itself.


For example, if you read a strategic analysis of a company, presented for you by a professional strategist, have you really learned anything about strategy?  Have you learned how to create a strategic analysis?  Have you learned how to use the tools involved in creating a strategic analysis?


No, you haven’t.  You have read an analysis.  Mentally, you are likely to “agree” with the points the strategist mentions, and you might have a few “oh, that’s interesting” thoughts along the way.  But this does not a strategist make.


Instead, to learn how to do a strategic analysis, you need to do one (or maybe fifty).  Sure, read about the components and tools involved, but then put them into practice on your own.  You need to do the research, weigh the options, use the tools, and compile the data yourself to reach some ultimate conclusion or recommended action for the entity you analyzed.  Then, and this is very important, you need to get feedback on the effectiveness of your arguments.  Without the feedback loop, learning isn’t as effective.



Learning styles

Of course, everyone is unique.  Enter the literature on different learning styles.  Yes, I do understand that there are those who do learn best by reading material, and are able to absorb and retain vast amounts of information through their eyeballs.  For these types, perhaps the reading-only MBA route is right?  However, I still think that without some form of feedback, you never really know if learning has occurred.


The solution – free online courses

The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) movement really is a game-changer for self-studiers interested in these kinds of pursuits.  At the risk of sounding like a Coursera advertisement (just to clarify, I have no affiliation with Coursera beyond being enrolled in their free classes), I have to say that they are the way of the future.  I’m not sure if it will stay free forever, but right now there is a massive library of of free courses available anywhere you have an internet connection.


The quality of Coursera’s classes is excellent, and the parent universities that offer the courses through Coursera are world-class.  The homemade MBA curriculum I put together has classes from such great universities as:

  • University of Pennsylvania – Wharton School of Business
  • University of Michigan – Ross School of Business
  • University of Virginia – Darden School of Business
  • IE Business School
  • Yale University – Yale School of Management

And the list goes on.  I don’t care who you are or where you come from, those are some heavy-hitters in business education.


The point is this – these courses are even cheaper than a self study MBA consisting of a reading list, or the MBA-in-a-book itself.  These are 100% free!  It really is incredible.


You can’t lose with this plan – free material; assignments, tests, and projects that give you feedback on how well you are learning; all guided by the brilliant minds of the best b-schools around.

1 comment

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    • Gary Mulraney on May 11, 2017 at 9:41 am
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    Great info ! I clicked on one off the coursera courses thought and it was asking to pay for £79 or something ? Did you have this

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