Friday, January 9, 2015

Three lessons from teaching MBAs in 2014

Use longer, content-heavier handouts; integrate local and up-to-date content; and show numbers and math.

Change 1: Longer and content-heavier handouts

The only significant complaint from previous cohorts was regarding the lack of a textbook. I post a selection of materials to the course support intranet (consultancy reports, managerial articles, academic papers, book chapters), but a few students always remark on the lack of a unifying text for the class.

(There's no unifying text because -- in my never humble opinion -- most Consumer Behavior textbooks are written from a consumer psychology point of view, while I prefer a more marketing engineering point of view.)

Taking that into consideration, I made longer, denser handouts, each like a book chapter rather than just support for in-class activities. The class is participant-centered, with minimal lecturing, so these longer handouts help students feel that they have a coherent framework to fall back on.

Handouts changed from a median size of four pages of mostly diagrams, in 2012, to a median size of eighteen pages of text, diagrams, and numbers, in 2014. (Just a reminder, since there's some confusion about it, that handouts and slides serve different purposes.)

Change 2: More local content

I used local content in most class sessions: local products, merchandizing from local retailers, and examples from local advertising. In particular, using outdoors from around the campus allowed students to recognize their location, for a little a-ha moment that improves mood.

The main advantage of local content is student familiarity with it. Examples are more effective when students don't have to learn new brands, new product categories, and other regional differences. A disadvantage is additional preparation work, but that work also signals to the students the instructor's commitment to the class.

A secondary advantage of local content is as evidence of instructor competence. Local content, and up-to-date content, requires confidence, ability, and practice. For this reason alone, it's worth the additional work, even if old or foreign examples would be equally good for teaching.

Change 3: More numerical content

The rise of analytics is a highly visible trend in marketing; marketing courses are therefore increasingly quantitative. Still, most Consumer Behavior courses shy away from math.

Our course was different: there were plenty of numbers and models. I did most of the work, not the students, since the objective was not to teach them analytics; but I did do the work, so the students were shown modern marketing techniques rather than a lot of hand-waving.

For example, to illustrate the effects of memory on different types of advertising timing, I used a computer simulation of a learning model: instead of rules-of-thumb for media planning, students saw how learning and forgetting rates change the effectiveness of blitz versus pulsing media timing.

(References to technical materials were provided for students wishing to learn more, of course.)


Despite objectively covering more material than before and using harder assessment measures, student grades were higher. In other words, these changes achieved their primary objective: students learned more material and learned it better.

Class dynamics were better than before, though they were pretty good in previous years. When I pick up my teaching evals in 2016 (they're on paper), I'll know whether I kept my top-5 ranking from 2012.

Addendum:  In short events since the MBA class, I replicated these three changes, yielding performance improvements along all dimensions: participant learning (as measured by in-event exercises), participant experience (as measured by client-run event evaluations), follow up contact with the participants, and word-of-mouth.