Pre-Course for Recourse in Business School

Why Should Business Schools Offer Pre-Courses?

As business schools become more diverse, it becomes more imperative for faculty to ensure incoming students possess the skills and knowledge they need to engage with course material. Pre-courses, providing foundational learning before instruction begins, have been established to meet this need by helping students to learn core concepts in advance. As a provider of pre-courses for MBA and Masters in Finance, we explore the widespread benefits of these preparatory courses for students and administrators.

Courses as Inclusive as the Admissions Process

Since 2013, top MBA programmes have launched diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives to encourage applications from underrepresented backgrounds. However, despite increased representation in the admissions process,

Research findings show that representation in student performance still lags, as women’s grades remain 11% of a standard deviation lower than those of men from similar backgrounds.1

Commenting on this disparity, Harvard Business School (HBS) writes: “It is therefore important to ensure that the systems and processes designed to foster diversity do not take as their end goal simply bringing more people from underrepresented groups into their institution, without working to create a culture that enables their success and well-being.”2

Online Pre-Courses: Anticipating Learning Gaps from Afar

In recent years, more than half of the world’s top ranked business schools have integrated pre-courses,3 and online pre-courses have specifically gained popularity for their logistical convenience in allowing students to learn at their own pace, cost-effectiveness, and ease of implementation.4 While some researchers attest that online pre-courses are only beneficial for those students with pre-existing subject comprehension skills, the preponderance of evidence reveals that pre-course learning and later performance is successful for all students whether administered online or face-to-face.5

Pre-Courses beyond Programmes

In 2014, Harvard Business School developed its HBX CORe “pre-MBA” course to provide incoming students with the basics of statistics, economics, and accounting.6

The program was designed to address the “non-trivial” 20% to 30% of incoming students in HBS’s MBA program, who lacked the background necessary for “the language of business.7

The course established such success among cohorts that HBS made enrolment open to professionals outside business school looking to develop the same skills, and other leading programmes soon followed, such as Yale’s Global Pre-MBA Leadership Program and UCLA’s Extension Pre-MBA Course.8 The widespread popularity of these modules demonstrates the demand among professionals for acquiring requisite skills in financial analysis whether working or considering business school.

Encouraging Applicant and Student Success

Pre-courses bridge the gap between those students well-versed in core Finance and those not. As students without a robust background in Finance often worry about being disadvantaged, their anxiety applying or entering programmes is often exacerbated by anticipating poor performance in comparison with their peers.

This anxiety can thus have a strong impact on student performance.9 In the quantitative disciplines, such anxiety is often reported as higher among female students than male and is often found as more prevalent among students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.10

By adopting pre-courses, business schools can ease this anxiety and enhance performance among students from all backgrounds. In turn, they succeed not only in welcoming more applicants, but also in encouraging more students to succeed in their courses and subsequent careers.

Benefits for Administrators and Students

Online pre-courses enable instructors to preliminarily identify and target needed areas of improvement among cohorts before in-person instruction commences. Addressing these areas early, instructors can ease student anxieties and tailor course design to the foundational knowledge of each cohort.11

Pre-courses can also heighten student levels of interest and engagement prior to course commencement, as students develop proficiency and gain familiarity with course content.

As research demonstrates that prior knowledge, interest, and anxiety have the power to mutually reinforce each other in their effects upon student learning, pre-courses have been shown to counteract the negative impacts of such effects.12

In turn, by providing pre-courses, instructors and administrators can provide a method of recourse to incoming students, increasing course satisfaction and performance.

Pre-Course Learning with Summatic

Partnering with Cambridge Judge Business School in 2021, Summatic designed a quantitative assessment for incoming students to the Master in Finance programme. Covering algebra, calculus, and statistics, the assessment is taken the summer prior to the programmes’s commencement and replaced a previous paper diagnostic. Questions were tailored to learning materials, and students were given access to a digital textbook of relevant maths and stats materials with interactive graphs and detailed explanations.

Metrics from the 2021 – 2022 cohort demonstrated a very high level of self-motivated engagement, with students making heavy use of the bank of resources provided to them and averaging 247 attempts at questions outside the official test. Instructing staff received a live, automated mark book, and a report detailing which students required extra support in selected topic areas (algebra, calculus, statistics) which demonstrated the greatest need for improvement amongst the wider cohort.

Staff reported that use of the Summatic platform “significantly decreased anxiety in class and allowed for a much more dynamic, customized experience,” and the online pre-course assessment was employed again for MFin students in the 2022 – 2023 cohort at Cambridge Judge Business School. Data from the subsequent year revealed that 97% of students engaged with the assessment.

We at Summatic are happy to promote the use of online pre-course instruction and assessment in business schools to advance applicant diversity and student performance. Tailoring quantitative preparation resources to the demands of specific curricula, our online learning platform can help level the playing field for all students before instruction even begins.


  1. Krishna, A., Yesim Orhun, A. (2022) Gender (Still) Matters in Business School. American Marketing Association, ↩︎
  2. Grace, B., Ammerman, C. (2022) How Business Schools are Really Doing with Diversity. Harvard Business Review, ↩︎
  3. Mahrt-Smith, J. (2007) “Preparing Students for Learning: The Case for Finance Pre-Courses at Business Schools.” Journal of Financial Education 33: 25. ↩︎
  4. Ibid, 21. ↩︎
  5. Maki, W., Maki, R., (2002). Multimedia Comprehension Skill Predicts Differential Outcomes of Web-Based and Lecture Courses. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 10.1037//1076-898x.8.2.85. ↩︎
  6. Mahrt-Smith, J. (2007) “Preparing Students for Learning: The Case for Finance Pre-Courses at Business Schools.” Journal of Financial Education 33: 25. ↩︎
  7. Feloni, R., (2015). I took Harvard Business School’s new pre-MBA course online – and it is definitely worth the 150 hours and $1,500, Business Insider, ↩︎
  8. Management Consulted (2023) Pre-MBA Programs, ↩︎
  9. Tobias, S., (1986). Anxiety and Cognitive Processing of Instruction. In R. Schwarzer (ed), Self-Related Cognition in Anxiety and Motivation, Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. ↩︎
  10. Hembree, R., 1990. The Nature, Effects, and Relief of Mathematics Anxiety. Journal of Research in Mathematics Education, 21(1), 33-46. ↩︎
  11. Thompson, R., Zamboanga, B., (2003). Prior Knowledge and its Relevance to Student Achievement in Introduction to Psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 30(2), 96-101. ↩︎
  12. Tobias, S., (1994). Interest, Prior Knowledge, and Learning. Review of Educational Research, 64(1), 37-54.
    Alexander, P., Kulikowich, J., Schulze, S., (1994). How Subject-Matter Knowledge Affec Recall and Interest. American Educational Research Journal, 31(2), 201-252.
    Alexander, P., Kulikowich, J., Jetton, T., (1994). The Role of Subject-Matter Knowledg and Interest in the Processing of Linear and Nonlinear Texts. Review of Education Research, 64(2), 201-252. ↩︎

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