How and What INSEAD Teaches Us

Olga Lermontova

It’s high time I told you about the learning experience at INSEAD.

This is a very interesting topic, because it’s obvious that you can’t teach future business leaders in the same way you would teach a PhD or a Master of Arts, for instance. I come from a country where the academic setting is supposed to be very fundamental and theoretical, where you listen to lectures of old professors and write numerous course papers, read thousands of books on the subject, which would mostly be from the 1950-60s. I confess, I studied Philology in my previous life :). And it is part of the reason why I am currently suffering a major cultural educational shock at INSEAD.

The differences are indeed striking. First, because of the interactive format used in class: the professor holds an open discussion with the students, who, in their turn, add to the class by sharing examples from their professional experience with others. Some exercises are done in groups of five to six people, some in pairs, in the amphis or breakout rooms. INSEAD widely employs the well-known case method. To me, this approach was totally new, especially the way it connected theoretical learning with real life. The case method is about analysing a real-life case in class, a certain problem or a situation that a real company faced. The challenge and possible solutions are discussed in class. The professor would facilitate the discussion and then move to the next level, describing how things went on in real life and what decisions the real company management took. The greatest shock for me was to learn that all personalities from cases are real and you can actually Google people or connect through LinkedIn to say Hi and ask how they are doing now and how they feel about the decisions they made five, ten or 20 years ago.

Another huge difference between INSEAD’s education and the way I used to study at my university is the absence of “lectures” versus “seminars”. At INSEAD, all hours of study are 100% practical and interactive, so you will never find yourself listening to a lecture where the professor would take up most of the class time talking. So all classes are “seminars”. INSEAD also offers “tutorials”, where the ones struggling with Math and other quantitative subjects can get a helping hand. My favourite classes :).

The third outstanding feature is the focus on group work. At MSU in Russia the whole student batch used to be divided into sections and groups for the mere sake of organisational benefit – for the administration,  it was easier to handle students in small portions. At INSEAD, you really work very closely with your group mates, as most of the tasks you have are meant to be dealt with in groups, be it a case discussion or a feedback session.  This approach reflects the real business world, where a person can hardly rely on him - or herself 100% of the time. His/her goals, KPIs and other deliverables will always depend on the team’s results and the relationships within the group. In the past three months, I can barely remember two or three individual home assignments I had to deliver, the rest were all group tasks.

Another difference to undergrad is that here you have adult people as students. As a result, professors cannot easily gain authority with us. They really have to demonstrate not only outstanding academic achievements, but also a wealth of practical knowledge and experience in their subject. This is why almost all professors at INSEAD are brilliant professionals, best in their league. This mature type of relationship between students and professors can also be traced in class discussions, where students are never asked to “repeat a lesson learned”, but always add valuable feedback, and in some cases even provide insights the professor wasn’t previously aware of.

Another feature of an MBA programme and INSEAD’s MBA in particular is the total absence of heavy old course books :). The study material has been thoroughly selected to capture only the most concise and relevant information about the main concepts of the course. The rest is either covered in class or through case discussions. This is due to the extreme shortness of the programme (just ten months!) and also to the main purpose of the MBA – to create business leaders, not bookworms :). Another interactive method of learning is betting. The stats professor loved to illustrate some curious points in class through betting, and the winner’s money would always go to the so-called “Champagne fund” that covers student parties. If you bet on something and you lost, for sure you will remember why :). Some other motivational instruments include champagne bottles being given to the students who did the best case analysis or performed best of all in simulation games and class competitions. On top, you’d also expect a lot of fun from an MBA, especially when the professor uses funny videos to illustrate a learning point.

Professors at INSEAD are worth a separate mentioning. All of them are charismatic, not standard business trainer types at all!  Some of them are just so brilliant that you rush to his/her sessions and then get really sad when the period and the subject is over. Some of them who are just too popular always get a parody at INSEAD’s semi-annual cabarets:

A very active student life is another feature of study at INSEAD. You have tens of different clubs, traditions like National Weeks and many others. So far there have been three special weeks at INSEAD – Lebanese, Japanese and Charity week. And I’ve been here for just two and a half months! During the Lebanese week we’ve been smoking shishas, learning belly dancing and the Arabic language. During the Japanese week we drank sake, learnt to break watermelons and watched Japanese horror movies.

Here’s a number of instaphotos from the past events:

Here at INSEAD we also have activities that are totally unofficial and led by different sections. Each section has its own Student Life representative in charge of making section rules, organizing contests and managing the Champagne fund. We currently have a 5 SGD fine for being late in class or having a mobile phone ring. We also used to have the silliest joke and sleeping beauty contests and played the “Bingo!” game where teams were supposed to use the most bizarre words in class. The creative spirit here is overwhelming!