“Make an Executive Decision” is the Answer when Assigning Casework

Casework is instrumental at undergraduate business schools and the benefits to the student include the following as discussed in my posting, “Undergraduates Deserve Case Work with Shorter and Topic-Specific Mini-Cases”:

  • Creating true engagement and interest by applying academic content to real-world application.
  • Enhancing problem-solving skills to become more strategic, creative, resourceful and persistent.
    See posting entitled, “Enhancing Strategic, Creative, and Resourceful Problem Solving.”
  • Enhancing written presentation skills, including effective consolidation of information using
    summary tables.
  • Enhancing and reinforcing vital Excel and Word skills.

During my initial years of instructing I was constantly frustrated by the dilemma of how to handle student questions arising from my weekly mini-casework assignments:

  • How much should be clarified?
  • If I respond to one student’s question(s), should I distribute that question and response to all other students as not to give anyone an advantage.
  • How long should I let students procrastinate and still respond to their questions?
  • Are “slight” data inconsistencies and/or confusion bad or productive?

Casework should challenge students in a multitude of dimensions and not be designed to “spoon feed” them. Students need to struggle somewhat as they evaluate background information, collect relevant data, perform various analysis and develop an executive recommendation. These struggles will prepare them for the real-world challenges they will face in the workplace. Their future supervisors will typically not structure projects with clear information, objectives and end products. More often work assignments will resemble putting together a puzzle involving independently making logical interpretations and assumptions, and conducting research activities. Their supervisors will want them to check back periodically with their progress but expect them to pursue the assignment as independently as possible. The more one can run with something themselves in the workplace the more one can impress the supervisor. The ability to run with something involves developing the skill set of independent problem solving that many undergraduate business school curricula may fall short on creating among its graduates.

UVA McIntyre School of Commerce had the Answer: “Make an Executive Decision”

During a visit with my son who is attending the University of Virginia, I was conversing on various business school teaching topics with some of his friends at their McIntyre School of Commerce. I shared my dilemma regarding student questions on casework including both how time consuming it was fielding these questions, and how many were unreasonable and ridiculous. They told me that all the McIntyre instructors have a consistent answer, “Make an Executive Decision.”

This “Make an Executive Decision” response is brilliant because it steadily prepares students to build the independent problem-solving skill set vital to being productive in the workplace upon graduation.

How to Practically Implement this Profound Position

I immediately began incorporating this approach in the courses I taught from that point forward. I have created this “Make an Executive Decision” policy position, yet give the students an opportunity to email me questions up to 48 hours before an assignment is due. They are aware that I may simply respond “Make an Executive Decision.” However, in some situations where I feel it is warranted, I will respond/clarify and share with all students uniformly.

Grading that Rewards the “Right Process,” not Necessarily the “Right Answer”

In supporting this “Making an Executive Decision” approach, it is vital to adopt a grading system that rewards the problem-solving process and not necessarily the right answer. At the outset of the semester the students realize that their assignment grades will reflect the amount of problem-solving creativity,
strategy and resourcefulness exhibited, not necessarily how “right” the conclusion or recommendations are. This allows the students to feel more comfortable independently attacking the assigned case without bombarding me with constant questions to “assure” they get the “right” answer.

Are “Slight” Data Inconsistencies and/or Confusion Bad or Productive?

The real-world casework assigned each semester is often newly developed due to reasons I discuss in the previously referenced posting about shorter topic-specific mini-cases. Being new and untested, there were often slight issues in the assignment write-ups and some students were overly provoked. Despite apologizing for these mistakes, I kept reinforcing that although I didn’t intentionally create confusion, it was a valuable real-world learning experience detecting inconsistencies or confusion. I would further explain that this was very typical of what they would encounter in the workplace.

Students that could identify these assignment issues had superior comprehension and analytical abilities. I had one student in a Marketing Management course that routinely would be the first to send me an email about clarifications almost like clockwork each week within a couple of days of getting the assignment. I applauded her constantly on both her astuteness and her time management abilities to be working ahead.

Propelling Forward Independent Problem-Solving Skills

I would strongly advocate undergraduate business schools adopting the “Make an Executive Decision” approach with assigned casework. This approach enhances students’ abilities to independently problem solve which is the cornerstone in preparing today’s business students to solve tomorrow’s business challenges.

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