This blog post is about teaching—not about my research on the good jobs strategy. The inspiration came from my MIT Sloan students from spring 2015 who encouraged me to share my teaching tips and from a surprise visit from a former HBS student.
I’ll start with 2002, my first year teaching the required Technology and Operations Management (TOM) course at HBS.
It was one of the first classes of the semester when a student came in late. I knew I had to do something. My seasoned colleagues had told me that success in a case discussion depends on holding students to high standards: being on time, being prepared, and paying attention throughout the class. So I had to make it clear that coming in late was not acceptable. My colleagues had told me how they handle that: some restart the class, some make a joke, some ask the student if he or she is okay.
But I was too nervous to say anything. My heart was just beating too fast. All I could do was stop teaching, put a serious look on my face, and stare that student down as he made his way to his seat on the second row. Suddenly, the temperature in the room dropped several degrees.
Needless to say, my response did not go over well with the section. My students already had reasons not to like me and this action just reinforced their feelings. Things got a lot better by the end of the semester, but even so, one of the most common comments in my student evaluations was, “You were really mean to us in the beginning of the semester.”
All the same, my colleagues had been right. Setting high standards in the classroom is really important for a successful case discussion. But if it’s not done right, it can backfire—as it did for me that year. Setting high standards works well when it’s done with purpose and compassion—when students can see that you are doing it for them.
Below are some of the things that work for me. I hope some of these will help others as well.
Make expectations clear: On the first day of class, I spend time talking about case method learning and tell my students that we will all learn more when we all prepare well, respect each other, feel safe to say what we think in class, listen well, and focus on contributing to the discussion. Then I go through my expectations. Here are a couple things I mention:
- I will prepare well for the class and I expect them to prepare well.
- I will start and end on time. I expect them to arrive on time and stay throughout the class.
- I will give my full attention to them throughout the class. I expect them to do the same. No raising your hand when someone else is talking. No eating. No electronics—the phones, tablets, and computers must be put away.
Model the behavior: Early on in the semester, I do several things to model the right behavior.
- To encourage students to prepare well:
- I prepare a lot! I come to class with a detailed teaching plan and do my best to know the content inside out. If the case has numerical analysis, I do the analysis multiple times before class to make sure I’m comfortable with the numbers.
- For the first session, I often choose a case with some numerical analysis. The first day of an elective course can be tricky, since some students are shopping, so I go to the classroom early, walk around before the class to find which students have done the analysis, and call on them. I ask several follow up questions to help them complete their analysis and then encourage others to ask questions or contribute.
- I tell students on the first day that I will cold call and I do, at least once per class. In the beginning of the semester, I often cold call several times per class. Before each class, I have two to three students in mind to cold call. I have a bias for choosing strong students for the opening cold calls—a strong start often helps the rest of the conversation. For easier questions, I sometimes choose students who haven’t spoken much to give them the opportunity to contribute.
- When a student makes a point, I often ask follow-up questions. If they are not well prepared, they often can’t answer them and that encourages them to prepare more next time.
- Carrots and sticks: A significant portion of a student’s grade is participation.
- To encourage students to come on time and stay throughout the class:
- I start the class on time and end it on time. On the rare occasion that I go over by a minute or two, I give them back double those minutes the next day; if I end today’s class one minute late, I end tomorrow’s class two minutes early. My students know that I respect their time.
- When students come in late or if they leave during class and come back, I acknowledge it. I don’t stare them down anymore! But I do say something to let them know that it’s not acceptable. I might just say “Welcome!” or “Oh, you made it!” or “Are you okay?” If tardiness or leaving the classroom continues, I may say something more and often follow up with an email (from me or one of my TAs).
- Important note: Sometimes the problem is that the student was sick or had an emergency. I encourage students to let me know in advance about these conditions.
- Carrots and sticks: The class participation grade depends not only on verbal participation, but also on nonverbal participation—that is, being there on time. My TAs and I track tardiness and penalize students for it.
- To encourage students to give full attention and listen:
- I listen and make an effort to remember what they said during discussion. I often go back to a student for a comment he or she made earlier that day or even in a previous class. (I confess this is becoming more challenging over time!) One way to remember what students said in past classes is to quickly write down their comments right after class. If you have TAs, you can ask them to record what students say and then use those notes for your own class preparation.
- The case method doesn’t work very well if students don’t listen. In the beginning of the semester, students may be so eager to make the point they have prepared that they do not pay attention to what’s being discussed. This tendency shows up in different ways: raising a hand when someone else is talking, repeating a comment that was made earlier, not answering the question the instructor or another student asked, making a comment that’s not in line with the discussion. If I see any of these manifestations, I immediately speak up. For example, if I see students raising their hands while others are talking, I either make a gesture or say, “Please don’t raise your hand when someone is talking.” If someone says things that are not relevant or repeats a comment that has already been made, I may ask, “How is that related to what we have been discussing?” or “Are you answering the question?” or “How is what you said different than what so-and-so said earlier?” There are times when there was a connection or a distinction that I didn’t catch and these questions help make those clear.
- If I see students who use their electronic devices during class or even have them on their desks, I ask them—by word or by gesture—to put it away.
Be fair: Here are a few things that help with fair calling:
- Seating chart: Have students sit in the same seats and make sure to memorize their names. The more you know them, the more likely you are to remember what they said and how frequently they talk.
- Identify students who speak a lot and those who don’t speak enough. Before each class, my TAs give me the seating chart with students highlighted in different colors: red for those who have spoken during al three last classes and green for those who have not spoken at all during the last three classes.
- I encourage students to let me know if I have consistently not called on them despite their hand being up.
Be thoughtful about assignment questions:
- The better the students know how to prepare for the class discussion, the better the discussion. So I put a lot of thought into the assignment questions. Those are often the exact same questions I will use to facilitate the discussion.
- I’m a big believer in pre-class written assignments. For about a third of the cases I teach, I ask students to turn in their answers to about three questions, which can be quantitative or qualitative. These assignments are due several hours before class. Pre-class written assignments help EVERYONE.
- They help me understand where students are on an issue. This is especially helpful when I teach a case for the first time.
- I can do more strategic calling when I already know their responses to questions.
- Students’ preparation for a class (or effort) is hidden from us. Pre-class questions allow me to acknowledge students for good preparation. Some students are just too shy to speak in class despite a lot of preparation. The pre-class questions also help me identify students who are not well prepared but who are just too comfortable talking.
- When students know that I will read their answers and use them in class discussion, they prepare better.
- For quantitative questions, my TAs and I often provide the class with the mean and standard deviation of their answers. That shows them how much agreement (or sometimes competence!) there was in the analysis and where they stand relative to others.
Get feedback and provide feedback:
- About a third of the way into the semester, I ask students to provide feedback on our class discussion:
- What is working well that I should keep doing?
- What is working well that the students should keep doing?
- What should I stop doing or start doing to improve the class discussion?
- What should the students stop doing or start doing to improve the class discussion?
- What should the TAs stop doing or start doing to improve the class discussion?
I read the feedback and then, with my TAs, identify the common responses. We then share those with the whole class. It’s very important to separate noise from signal in feedback. It’s also important not to be defensive. If you are asking for feedback, make sure you are interested in it and use it as a way to improve! Finally, it’s important to know what you will and will not change based on feedback. For example, even if multiple students complain about cold calling (this doesn’t really happen; if anything, students like the high standards), I know that it will stay for as long as I teach the case method.
- About half way into the semester, my TAs give the students feedback on their participation. (This idea actually came from the feedback we received from students!) We highlight:
- Attendance and tardiness: number of unexcused absences and number of times they were late
- Participation frequency: the student’s total number of comments and the class average
- Participation quality: the student’s average participation score and the class average
These are some of the process-related things that have worked for me. Obviously, no process can save a bad case or make up for a teacher’s lack of knowledge or lack of passion for the material. But even a good case or a knowledgeable and passionate teacher will be undermined by a poor process.
And finally, last week I had a surprise visit from my student who turned up late for during my first year teaching in 2002. He is now a banker in Africa and doing very well. We laughed over what happened and I’m happy that he doesn’t remember me as the “mean professor.” Here’s a photo of us from his visit