Can We Put Business Students to Work?

Jason Fertig

Business students don’t study a lot. What else is new?

On an episode of HBO’s True Blood series, Jason Stackhouse, the brother of series protagonist Sookie Stackhouse, attempts to blackmail detective Andy Bellefleur into giving him a position on the police force after helping to cover up a shooting. There’s one catch. Andy informs Jason that he must pass a written exam. Upon hearing the news, Jason pushes back, noting that he “can’t take no test.” Andy proceeds to point to his head and tell Jason to “just get it up here and pass the test. Then learn on the job like the rest of us.” Illegalities aside, Andy is a model of today’s business professionals; Jason is a model of today’s college business students. Andy’s advice, applied to the business world, summarizes perfectly the perception of the worth of a business degree in 2011.

Recently David Glenn had a lengthy piece in the Chronicle (a collaboration with The New York Times) titled “Business Educators Struggle to Put Students to Work” that cast doubts on the relevance of business education. The article makes note of the well-publicized Academically Adrift findings – business students are near the bottom in critical thinking gains and hours of schoolwork per week – along with anecdotal evidence from various business professors (e.g. the opening of the article provides a quote from a professor who cannot give the exams he would give 10-15 years ago because few of his students would pass them).

Glenn’s work echoes some of my own thoughts on the state of business education. As a professor in a business school, I do realize that any criticism that I make in public can constitute biting the hand that feeds me or can label me a hypocrite. In fact, when speaking with Mr. Glenn over the phone on the topic of his article, he rhetorically asked me if some of my strong opinions would talk me out of a job. They would if their only intent was malicious, but I love education. I care about education so much that I want to improve it. I contend that those who blindly defend the state of education or those who fail to adapt their teaching for self-interested reasons are much more dangerous.

Glenn’s article concludes with a series of suggestions as to who is at fault for the poor study habits of business students – Students? Faculty? Curriculum? No one? If polled with these four choices, I’d further bite down on that feeding hand and answer faculty. Choosing any of the other choices amounts to blaming other parties over whom I have less control than I have over myself.

Glenn also blames faculty members for student work ethic because of professors’ failure to assign intensive homework assignments.

This is the most common explanation for decreasing homework loads:

Most intensive homework involves writing. Written homework takes more time to grade then running scantron sheets through a grading machine. Because many students write incoherently, grading such work takes additional time just to understand what such students are trying to say. With class sizes upwards of 40 students, grading winds up taking a significant amount of time.

Additionally, business professors at accredited schools have to remain current (i.e. fulfill a quota for published research). Thus, even professors who teach 3-4 classes per semester at “teaching schools” must devote time to their research. This pressure to publish creates a dissonance in which professors feel that too much paper grading takes away from research time. Hence, they make efficiency-based decisions to cut down on the graded work, assigning team case studies and group papers under the pretext of preparing students for all of the teamwork that they will face in their future careers. Throwing students together will look good on a brochure and please accreditors who are looking for assurance of learning, but in most instances, working in teams doesn’t help students learn. Students need more guidance than we want to admit – as Arum and Roska discovered, students who study in groups learned much less than those who study individually.

Furthermore, there is an area untouched by Mr. Glenn that contributes to poor student study habits – the overemphasis on “active learning.” Active learning, also talked about as experiential learning or engagement, is another form of well-intentioned pedagogy that is flawed in its implementation.

Lecturing is a dirty word within the ivory tower. Because passive pedagogy does not maximize information transfer, many professors’ class periods – including mine – now contain discussions, games, projects, and other lively activities. I support getting students “engaged” with class material more frequently than three times per semester on exams. But, I implore my colleagues to not make the mistake of thinking that all experiential learning is equally useful.

No amount of engagement should replace out of class preparation. I only was able to learn this through my realization that entertaining my students did not always translate into learning. There is a difference between assigning a case study or role play to read at home and then having the students recommend solutions or debate issues in class—and showing a movie and having students critique what they see. Ask the students on the spot to think of a poor manager; half the class will raise their hands. Ask them to read Frederick Taylor and then ask them if Taylor’s methods will work with today’s economy, and you’ll see more deer-in-headlights looks then hands in the air.

Additional headwind is generated from faculty performance appraisals that reward “looking like you teach well” rather than “demonstrating that you teach well.” Few higher-ups will scrutinize every syllabus to the proper extent or audit a class to provide constructive feedback. Instead, they rely on student evaluations and syllabi that professors provide in promotion and tenure packages. Professors with high evaluations and a team service learning assignment will look better on paper than ones who have above average evaluations and who teach with original sources, papers, lectures, and the Socratic method. I’m over-generalizing a bit with my example, but as Arum and Roska suggest, there are few extrinsic incentives for faculty members to have each student read over 40 pages a week or write over 20 pages per semester.

In the end, it’s not worth banging our heads against the wall because we need three publications in five years or because our students are not interested in intellectual pursuits. Unless we want to create our own schools or seek out niche schools, or unless the higher education bubble pops, business education is going to sputter forward.

But that does not mean that improvements cannot be made. The key term here is improvements. It’s easy to feel demoralized as a business professor when reading articles like Glenn’s or books like Academically Adrift. But I contend that much of that demoralization comes from comparing the state of higher education to a utopian vision of what we would like it to be. I’m as guilty of that as anyone. But that should not stop us from slowly modifying what we do.

People who want to get in shape don’t go from the couch to running a marathon overnight. They have to start slowly with a few workouts per week. People with no savings can’t build up an emergency fund in one month. They have to develop a habit of stashing away a few bucks at a time. Similarly, few can go from textbooks to Great Books in one semester. I encourage business professors who want to overhaul their classes to have a go at it, but for those who are a little more restricted, a goal of adding one book or one individual paper with detailed feedback that is weighted enough to make students care can easily change the way we feel about our teaching.

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