Business School Teaching Methods Improved with Application Orientation and Unannounced Quizzes

The merits of class time focusing on teaching application over content was an important message I learned from attending a seminar by Alan November at the outset of my teaching career. Alan is an international leader in education technology who believes that content is best taught outside the classroom with Internet vehicles leading the way. The logical extension from believing that content is best taught outside the classroom is that professors can focus class time on engaging students with real world application.

After composing the introductory paragraph above, I emailed it to Alan November to confirm that my interpretation was accurate. I received a very prompt email back from him stating, “Essentially, it is a reverse of what we do now. What is now traditional class work, the delivery of content will become homework. Traditional homework, students solving problems, will become class work with immediate feedback from the professor or teacher. I do believe that content will be delivered over the web and the skill of a professor will be his or her ability to apply content in class.”

The Benefits and Implementation of an Application Focus

Students are more than capable of learning content on their own from reading the assigned chapter or article. Much of undergraduate business curriculum involves straight forward terminology, processes and concepts. The benefits of focusing on application in the classroom are immense as this generates relevance, engagement and excitement. Focusing on application also enhances the student’s problem solving skills to be more strategic, creative and resourceful in conjunction with both solving in-class exercises and reviewing weekly graded assignment submissions.

A professor’s precious class time, approximately 38 hours total per semester, is best spent on application, not regurgitating basic terminology, concepts and processes. Students get bored when professors spend blocks of time delivering content driven lecture slides that cover the same material in the book. Ask most students which professor empowered them the most or what they remember most from undergraduate business school, and they will talk about professors that told them real business stories.

A student email I received supports this conclusion in a very impressive manner:

“I cannot express how much valuable, real world knowledge I learned in Heller’s course compared to other management classes I have taken. As a student, I most appreciated that Professor Heller strived to make our limited classroom time as valuable as possible. He didn’t use lecture slides from the book or repeat class worksheets. Instead, he used his experience in the hotel industry as well as his connections with leading world businesses such as Coca-Cola to foster class discussions about real world marketing scenarios. I learned basic marketing concepts best by applying them to these classroom examples and learning from and contributing to in-class discussions with my peers.”

I try to achieve a class time split between application and content of approximately 80% – 20%, respectively. With this objective in mind, I structure the majority of class time on application oriented activities including:

  • Viewing short and engaging video segments that apply terminology and concepts to real world companies.
  • Solving in-class exercises that involve real world situations that stimulate classroom discussion.
  • Reviewing prior week’s graded assignment submissions anonymously, both the good and the bad. Students learn a great deal from viewing each other’s mistakes as well as obviously displaying the excellent submissions.
  • Providing current week graded assignment background to the degree necessary.

To a much lesser degree I use class time on content as follows:

  • Unannounced quizzes during first ten minutes of class; usually averages one-third of classes.
  • Quickly present lecture slides that review the vital portions from the textbook/article. This is the content that I feel is most relevant and that I am holding students responsible for. Students receive detailed lecture slide handouts.

Content Accountability Achieved Through Unannounced Quizzes

Effectively applying content through application during class time requires that the students be prepared; that is, having read their assigned chapter or article prior to class. Students need this base level of terminology and concept familiarity to understand the application during class time.

Can you expect the majority of students to read the assignments prior to class? Get realistic; it doesn’t happen unless you take measures to create accountability. I have found unannounced quizzes extremely effective in forcing students to read assignments prior to class. The grade allocation is approximately eight to 10% of total grade. When a new topic is covered, two-thirds of the time the students receive a short, ten minute quiz at the outset of the class. See Premium Attachment for two examples of actual unannounced quizzes and one completed by a student. [Note that the student’s completed quiz evidences that fill-in-the blank questions are much more effective than mutliple choice.] I have found the following approaches to unannounced quizzes to be most effective. This approach is further supported by a student email I received that included the comment,

“The pop quizzes held students accountable for weekly textbook reading assignments and ensured that class time was not wasted defining terms or outlining basic processes Marketing is the only course this semester that I have consistently completed all the textbook readings before EVERY class! Heller simply had a way of motivating students to adopt practices that would ultimately make them more successful in every class.”

Grade Quizzes Liberally Expecting A Basic Understanding, Not An In-Depth Knowledge

The objective is to have a general understanding of the assigned reading; you are not expecting them to have an in-depth knowledge as this is prior to coverage in class. Therefore, quizzes are structured to be graded very liberally and have 135 total possible points. Therefore if the students get 70 to 75% or more on the quiz, they are achieving your objective that they have taken quality time to prepare for class. At the same time, the student achieves their objective of getting a good grade [70% * 135 = 95; 75% * 135 = 100]. A student who does ace the quiz receives extra credit, a grade of 110 on the quiz. The grading scale for quizzes is as follows for a 135 point quiz:

  • 135/Perfect Score: Grade 110
  • 100-134: Grade 100
  • 0-999: Same numeric score, not adjusted
Another Benefit of Unannounced Quizzes: Reading Comprehension

College is an opportunity to reinforce and enhance reading comprehension skills. In-depth, comprehensive studying for a major test or final is not the same skill set as basic reading comprehension. In the workplace there will be many situations where you will be expected to review a wealth of background reading and come prepared to a meeting to discuss with a solid recollection and basic understanding. The unannounced quizzes usually cover a chapter of approximately 20 to 30 pages or a couple of 5- to 10-page articles. Each week students are reading, and knowing that they are expected through quizzes to comprehend materials. Often some students complain to me that they are putting quality time into studying but not doing well on the quizzes. I encourage them that with continued practice and elevated effort their reading comprehension skills should improve over the semester. I also re-emphasize the importance of this skill in the workplace.

Focusing on Application Propels Students to Solve Tomorrows’ Challenges

I will hear student sentiments towards unannounced quizzes like, “Professor Heller how can you test us on material that you haven’t even lectured on yet?” Anticipate some whining initially; however, the merits of teaching application are realized by most students by the end of the semester. Holding students accountable through these quizzes is vital in allowing a professor to focus on engaging students through real world in-class exercises and assignments.