Teaching Differently

Faculty and administration at the University of Central Missouri put their management students in charge of the learning process.

Nothing spurs innovation in a business curriculum like con-sensus among faculty that it’s time for new ways of teaching. That’s what happened nine years ago at the University of Central Missouri’s Harmon College of Business Administration in Warrensburg, when its senior faculty wanted to shake up Harmon’s curriculum and hire teachers who didn’t mind making radical changes to the traditional lecture format. When they heard about a program called the Integrated Business Core (IBC) at the University of Oklahoma’s Price School of Business in Norman, they were more than a little intrigued.

OU’s IBC, developed by management professor Larry Michaelson, comprises a multicourse one-semester program in which students create business plans, apply for bank loans, and start businesses, all while taking courses in which content is carefully timed to provide information just as they need it. (IBC was profiledin “Junior Executives,” an article in BizEd’s May/June 2003 issue.)

UCM faculty were so intrigued by the OU program that they offered Michaelson a job implementing a similar program at Harmon. He took the school up on the offer, and with Michaelson’s help, Harmon College developed its Integrated Business Experience (IBE), a block of four courses that management majors take during the fall semester of their junior year. The block includes courses in management, marketing, and information systems, as well as an entrepreneurship and community service practicum.

In IBE, students work as employees of a 20-35 member company where they apply concepts they learn in their courses to engage in two ventures—a startup business and a service project to benefit a charity oganization. Students receive a $5,000 loan from a local bank to start their enterprises and are charged with paying off the loan and making a profit for their charities before semester’s end. So far, students have sold everything from bobblehead dolls to T-shirts. Last fall, the three student “companies” in the course decided to band together to sell related products—sweat pants, sweatbands, and water bottles.

So far, all student teams have paid back their loans and made money for their charities. In the six years IBE has been in place, teams have raised more than $170,000, logged hundreds of service hours, and completed a number of projects. One team renovated a Salvation Army disaster relief trailer and wrote a grant to support the renovation of another. Another team built a gymnasium for a local youth home. Yet another raised $23,000 for a local homeless shelter.

With IBE, students don’t just learn business skills and concepts—they also discover first hand why those skills an concepts are so important in the workplace, says Christine Wright, a professor of management at UCM who was hired just as IBE was getting started.

“I came here because I wanted to teach differently,” says Wright. “In this program, faculty give few or no lectures, we plan hands-on projects—and many times, we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Not all faculty can handle that format, says Wright. “Some faculty have come and left because they weren’t able to let go of control in the classroom. They reverted back to lecture format,” she says. But for those who stay, it’s truly a chance to go off the syllabus and see where students’ own learning processes take them. 

Going Beyond IBE

IBE has sparked a culture of innovation that has gone beyond its four core courses. It now sets up a series of nontraditionally taught courses that build on the lessons students learned as they created their businesses in the IBE block. Wright teaches operations management, a spring-semester junior year course that includes a four-week project in which students have to write a request for a proposal to manufacture 60,000 origami stars. They must determine how to fill the order, including where to buy the materials, how much those materials will cost, and how long they would need to complete so large a project. That’s a different experience, she says, than they’d have learning operations management from textbooks and lectures.

Eric Nelson, associate professor of management, teaches teams systems and organizational behavior—also known as “experience-based management” (XB)—which business students take in the spring after IBE. At the start of the course, students are placed into 12 teams, each with four department heads.

“Then we basically give them a 350-page manual and say, ‘Now teach each other,’” says Nelson, with a laugh. “We want them to know that they do indeed have something of value they can impart to other people.”

Why not require students to take the team course before IBE? “The faculty here agree that we have the courses in the right order,” says Nelson. “Sure, IBE would run more smoothly if they took XB first, but IBE gives them a shared series of mistakes. When they get to XB, they can discuss those mistakes and try to run their groups differently.”

He has no set grading system for the course—each semester, students determine the standards by which they will all be graded, so the criteria for success in the course change each time Nelson delivers it. During each meeting, different students lead the discussion—they decide among themselves who will teach which topics. And they receive harsh criticism if those presentations aren’t helpful for the group, Nelson says.

XB is a “messy, messy course,” Nelson admits. It’s designed to replicate the work environment, where students are judged by their output, not by a grade, says Nelson. “In XB, they experience situations that don’t have clear outcomes, and that can be difficult,” he says. “If students have never been measured in ways other than grades on tests and papers, it can be hard for them to understand what they’ll need to do.”

Learning from Failure

For each of Harmon College’s experiential courses, faculty are there to provide guidance, but they also must let the students fail so they can learn from their mistakes, emphasizes Mary McCord, a professor of management and entrepreneurship who teaches in the IBE program.

McCord points to the IBE team that sold bobbleheads—it was barely able to repay its loan because it failed to take into account the $3,000 air shipment of its product from China. “They didn’t make much money, but they learned a huge lesson,” says McCord. “When I first taught IBE, I wouldn’t sleep well because I was worried about the decisions my students were making. Now I sleep like a baby because I know that even when they make mistakes, they’ll overcome them. As faculty, we start to trust our students more and help them realize their untapped potential.”

When courses are student-driven, however, it can be difficult for faculty trained in traditional teaching techniques to accept that failure is part of the innovation equation, says McCord. “It’s difficult to ask faculty to shut up and let their students do the learning,” she says. “Most professors think that if they’re not talking, they’re not teaching. But students learn by trying to do something. Yes, they’ll flail around at first, and it’s not going to be efficient. You’re going to want to step in and fix it. But you need to let them do it. When students fail, they learn.”

Embracing Mistakes

When faculty are given opportunities to experiment, they’re bound to suffer some missteps themselves. Nelson is quick to admit he’s no exception. For instance, Nelson also teaches a post-IBE leadership course, in which students teach leadership topics not to each other, but to client organizations. Their audiences range from corporate executives to a class of eighth-graders. Students meet with representatives from the organizations beforehand to discuss their biggest leadership problems. Then, the students design workshop presentations with those problems in mind, pulling from their textbook and individual research.

When his students gave their first corporate leadership workshop, he did not have them meet with the clients first to target the discussion. He now knows that was a mistake. “We weren’t sure how to get this started, so we just presented a random workshop,” he says. “But that didn’t work for the company. We learned from that, and now we know we need to have a specific business problem to tackle.”

But making those mistakes is part of the larger innovative process, he says. The workshops, for example, spark conversations about leadership among students. They learn about leadership through their discussions with clients, their preparation for the workshops, and their experience of teaching the workshops themselves. The events are so popular that every organization has asked the students to return—“with the exception of that first one,” Nelson jokes. “No one thought those workshops would work, but they did.”

Breaking from Tradition

Even though students are often considered the vanguards of change on college campuses, even they can be uneasy when professors stray from the traditional—and often passive—classroom format of lectures, tests, and grades, says McCord. When students in Harmon College’s new courses realized they were in for a different kind of learning process—where they would determine their grading standards and even teach content—many weren’t initially happy with the change. Some even complained to administration.

“Students often resist learning outside the ‘norm.’ In fact, if the administration doesn’t support or understand innovation, some students can use the bureaucratic academic system to change their grades or even return the methodology back to a passive assessment method,” McCord says. 

With a supportive administration, however, faculty can prove the value of new approaches to students, using everything from testimonials from past students about the effectiveness of the courses to statements from employers that prefer to hire students with these experiences. “Once a college or department has a culture of teaching innovatively and once students find and implement solutions to real problems, their resistance evaporates,” she says.

Other faculty also might doubt that new teaching methods educate students as well as the old. They want to see hard evidence of skills learned, even if an innovative course offers tangible results such as higher employability, better interpersonal interactions, and better citizenship, says McCord. “Despite clear quantitative assessments, such as product creativity, net revenue, profit, hours worked, charity benefits and service impact, our nonmanagement colleagues felt that the students were not learning as well as students in classes that did not use the IBE innovation. ”

But an analysis of years of multiple-choice tests dispelled much of the skepticism, says McCord. The tests had been completed by students in Harmon’s marketing and information systems courses before and after IBE was implemented. “IBE students scored as well as or slightly higher than non-IBE students,” says McCord. “For these professors, the only valid way to measure learning in an innovative format was the score on a traditional multiple-choice test!”

Making It Easy

In an environment such as that of Harmon College, faculty creativity increases dramatically, says Nelson. Like Wright, Nelson came to UCM because he wanted a place where he could teach a little differently and have room to experiment with new approaches.

Last semester, for example, students in his XB course decided to teach themselves teamwork by holding their own egg drop contest, in which student teams create packages designed to protect an egg inside from breaking when the package is dropped from great height. “I want to find moe ways like this to get students excited and help them learn. I love that XB never runs the same way twice,” says Nelson. “Here, innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum—we have multiple courses, multiple approaches, and multiple ways of experiencing content,” he adds. “This is the coolest department, because everyone wants to try new things and is open to new ideas. That’s what makes innovation easy.”