Friday, February 20, 2009

Core Business Classes

Summary and Recommendations at bottom

Our Finance professor, Mary Brown, commented in class yesterday that she was on a committee responsible for reviewing the Business core curriculum.

A core curriculum consists of the classes that every business major must take. The idea is to ensure that every student has a good understanding of every field of business, so he/she can make good business decisions in a management capacity (or just from a business perspective). Professor Brown specifically mentioned two things:

1. UIC students apparently aren't performing well on case presentations. This is when someone gives you a big file about a problem a company is having, and you have to make a recommendation

2. Teachers wonder how much UIC students are actually retaining of the core curriculum.

2 makes sense if 1 is a problem. After all, maybe the reason that students can't analyze a business case is because they don't actually remember anything about business! That would be very disappointing, and would cast some doubts about UIC's current teaching style.

Now I can't really SOLVE the problem, in part because I don't know the problem fully. I would have to obtain a lot more information if I was going to try to make UIC students astoundingly better. I have some ideas which I like floating around with Alpha Kappa Psi members sometimes (because I can more directly influence AK Psi than I can UIC), but nothing very concrete and well-researched.

Still, Professor Brown asked for thoughts. And there is no such thing as a BAD thought, so I figure I'll give it a go.

If they think retention is a problem, they are probably right. Information learned but not used is not retained very well, especially when it is only studied for a test. That's not to say that it is totally lost: for instance, I took psychology 3 years ago, and if I took a psyc test on the spot right now, I'd fail. But I can still talk about positive reinforcement a bit, and since I once learned "shaping" back then, I can pick it up faster now.

The problem is that business majors can't immediately access all of the information they have because they don't use it often enough. But they probably still have the fundamentals down to some extent, so they can relearn quickly if they need to.
On a case, though, they need to know it RIGHT NOW. They don't have time to relearn it all. So the thing we want to do is increase their understanding more than right now, preferably through making them use it often.

Another possibility: it might be the case that 2 is not really the problem. Rather, the issue might be that students can't think very well. They UNDERSTAND how marketing works, they understand how finance works, and they understand how accounting works. They just can't put it all together, and they can't analyze information put in front of their face and put what they know to work.

While I think retention is a problem, I also think this other problem, which I will call "critical thinking," is a major one. First, cases can be extremely intimidating, especially if you have never ever studied one.
For example, if you've spent your entire life writing essays and giving lectures, you might be thrown totally off-guard when you take a test for the first time. Just as you can learn good test-taking skills, so can you learn good case skills.
UIC, though, has pretty much NO case studies. All my experience in them comes from two sources:

1. AP tests in high school, which had things called Document Based Questions. They weren't business cases, but somewhat like them.

2. Consumer Behavior (Marketing 462, I believe) with Professor Rosa. The entire class consisted of one Mid-Term, two case studies, and a consumer interview.

UIC business classes, on the other hand, teach a lot like other academic classes. You are lectured 2 or 3 days a week, and have an exam once every few weeks. You have homework assignments in some classes, you have papers in a lot of other classes. My gut instinct is that this is a bad approach, and generally leads to our students being unable to do cases because they are trained more like professors than decision-makers.

There are two counter-arguments to this:

1. The Document Based Question-item, which is something that non-business people do with ease, is a lot like a case.

2. The papers students do in class should train them to think critically.

The first is very true, but those types of questions were rather difficult for high school students, enough so that our history teacher, Matt Whipple, gave us an example question before the exam so we should be prepared. It wasn't something that came naturally to us, because tests are about converging on a right answer, while cases are more about diverging, analyzing, and choosing. You need to think of possibilities (diverging), figure out the merits of each one (analyzing), and pick the best one (choosing).

On the second, papers HELP, since they are much less about convergent thinking than tests are. A student can, if he/she chooses, dazzle a professor with brilliance. However, papers tend to be graded a bit softly for my tastes. I can remember writing numerous papers on the night before a due date and getting near-perfect scores. The only teachers that have actually graded harshly are Professor Thompson (who I had for Compensation Management) and Professor Rosa (who I had for Consumer Behavior, as previously mentioned).
We need to grade tougher if we want students to develop better writing skills, and we need MORE. Just like other skills, writing improves when practiced. My own writing skills have been honed through countless hours of posting on internet forums and internet blogs, something that most other students simply don't have.
Another problem with papers is that they aren't really integrative. Writing a paper for my management class doesn't usually require me drawing upon my marketing and finance knowledge, which doesn't make much sense if we want our students to understand business as a whole.

The other aspect of "critical thinking" is that students just don't seem to have good reasoning abilities. Their arguments are SOMEWHAT sensible, but they are not really good enough or developed enough. So...all they really have is an idea, not a truly defensible position, and it would crumble upon closer inspection. See, for instance, my remarks on my experience with the bank simulation.

If students can't construct logical arguments because they simply don't have those skills, then they will fail even if they are trained in cases and retain knowledge. So UIC needs to be more concerned about developing those skills.
I find the best method to doing this is taking a student's position and simply pointing out all the logical flaws and why they are logical flaws. Learn through experience.

So...if we want our students to do better...we actually have three different problems:
1. Students retain knowledge, but not well enough to access it on demand.
2. Students do not have much experience putting different business ideas together.
3. Students do not have strong reasoning abilities.

There are a couple different approaches we could take, but as my time is running out, I will simply say what I would do.

First, I would require case competitions every year by UIC students, to be done in very small teams (2-3 people max). They will be required to come up with some sort of product idea and explain how they would sell it. This would be graded and put on the transcript, like any other course. Guidance would be minimal: sink or swim on your own.
Hopefully this will keep students integrating and using new knowledge every single year. That helps out with problems 1 and 2. Small teams are a must to ensure that there are no shirkers (which occurs in every group, but especially among any group above 4 people in my experience at UIC).

This may be difficult to accomplish, so I would be perfectly happy with an addition to 495, but a class devoted entirely to case studies of actual strategic management. These case studies would be done individually.

Second, to address problem #3, I would make a new, required class (BA 250?). Every day, a different student will be required to give a presentation on a topic that the professor assigns. The other students will then be required to agree or disagree, with the professor facilitating discussion towards the "disagree" side. The onus will be on the presenter to both identify the weakness in his/her own arguments and be able to address any questions or counter-points other students would have. I imagine a 3 hour, twice a week course would be sufficient for this.

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