OR/MS Today - August 2001|
Classroom case study: University of Iceland professor increases interactive teaching in Operations Management to meet changing demands of students
By Ingjaldur Hannibalsson
At a recent INFORMS conference, I participated in a very interesting discussion about students and their expectations. Those participating in the discussion agreed that the "good old days" were over. Gone were the days when students came to class to listen to their professors, asking intelligent questions and swarming the professor after the lecture asking him or her where they could get a hold of interesting material to deepen their understanding of the subject. Those enthusiastic students seem to be a minority that might deserve some special treatment, which may not be suitable for most of the students.
Many professors believe that they themselves were such students and have difficulties understanding students that are not enthusiastic about the subjects they are studying. It is not uncommon for a professor to spontaneously add material not listed on the syllabus when the first question raised by a student is, "Do we have to study this for the exam?" Another student might consider it unfair and object to adding new material not listed on the syllabus. Possibly one or two students are positive and find the material interesting and helpful. Even though we can no longer take for granted the enthusiasm of our students, many professors continue to improve their courses and seek material that will make their teaching more effective.
Why did our students change? One reason is that university education is no longer a privilege of the few whom are "searching for the truth." It is accessible to all that deem it necessary to improve their social and economic status. Today's student sees education as a means to reach an end, while before for many, education was an end in itself. The objectives of the students have changed, and competition among universities to attract students has increased. As a result, universities have to accommodate the different aspirations and expectations of students. In the end, professors have to carefully consider how best to serve their "new type" of students without sacrificing the rigor or depth of a sound educational program. Student Types
Who are our students then? At the INFORMS meeting, four types of students were identified:
Figure 1: Survey questionaire
When I started teaching 20 years ago I was primarily serving the enthusiastic students. Now, I have to provide a service that appeals to different types of customers. An airline has three classes of service: first, business and economy. The difference in service is achieved by dividing the customers physically. Professors have to appeal to all four types of students, without being able to physically separate them.
Some years ago I knew that I had to change my Operations Management courses to accommodate the change in students. Operations Management I is required for all students in the three-year undergraduate business administration program at the University of Iceland. Usually 180 students attend the course. Before Operations Management I, all the students have taken one mathematics course and two statistics courses. Operations Management II, required for all except those majoring in marketing and business languages, has approximately 120 students. Operations Management I is offered during the spring semester of the second year and Operations Management II during the fall semester of the third year of the undergraduate program. During the spring semester of the third year students have the option of taking an elective in Operations Research.
I realized that the students were not thrilled anymore when I differentiated integrals in order to show them the optimal solution to the newsboy problem with a continuously distributed demand. I had, like so many others, gone through the performing phase, which consisted of giving entertaining and hopefully informative lectures that were spiced up with video clips or slide shows. Even that did not seem to satisfy the students anymore. What should I do? I felt I knew more or less what had to be done but was a little apprehensive about making the necessary changes.
In 1998, I attended the first conference on teaching Management Science at Dartmouth College, and in 1999, I attended the second conference at the Ivey School in London, Ontario. Partly as a result of those two conferences I have completely changed the way I teach my Operations Management courses.
Active Learning Approach
In 1999, I embarked on my first attempt to incorporate active learning approaches including spreadsheets, cases and games. Instead of four, 45-minute lectures a week, I lecture for 70 minutes to a group of 120 to 180 students and have a 70-minutes lab session with 40 students. At the same time the weight of the exam in the final grade was reduced from 70 percent to 50 percent.
First, I conducted a survey to determine how receptive my students would be to these changes (Figure 1: 2.1 to 3.3). Seventy-nine percent believed that it was right to reduce the number of lectures and 75 percent believed that it was right to reduce the weight of the exam in the final grade. This indicates that the students prefer to be active during the whole semester. Ninety-eight percent of the students thought it would be useful to study real firms and contemplate how their problems should be solved. Sixty-seven percent thought it would be useful to get assignments that don't have a single correct solution, but only 46 percent thought it might be useful to get assignments that lack clarity needed to immediately identify how they should be solved. From those results I concluded that games and cases would probably appeal to my students, but at the same time I realized that my students are afraid of uncertainty and find it difficult to deal with unstructured situations.
As of now Excel is the main tool of business professionals; I have also found it very useful in teaching. The students find it much easier to set up a spreadsheet model than to develop a mathematical model. They seem to understand the model better and like using SOLVER to find a solution. The spreadsheet makes it much easier to find answers to "what-if" questions. Using data tables makes sensitivity analysis much more convenient, and with some simple Visual Basic for Applications the students have a very powerful tool to analyze real business situations.
For presenting cases and games, I decided to divide the students into groups of three and introduced four new homework assignments. Those assignments required the members of the groups to work closely together. As the assignments were not as well structured as typical homework exercises, the students had to spend more time together, they had to plan their work, and they had to reach a consensus on many questions in order to be able to structure and analyze their assignments.
For the first two assignments I chose two cases from Ivey Publishing: "McLeod Motors Inc" and "Longxi Machinery Works A, B and C." The groups studied the cases and wrote a report. Some of the groups got the opportunity to present the cases and thus lead the class discussion.
Fifty-four percent of the students found the discussion in their group useful, but 41 percent felt they did not learn as much from the cases. They felt they had learned as much from mini cases that had been used in the introductory Operations Management course. Forty-four percent of the students said they would not like to study more cases like those (Figure 1: 4.1 to 4.4.)
From those results I have come to a few conclusions. Learning and teaching from cases is an acquired skill and possibly the "McLeod Motors" case was too ambitious as a first case. Perhaps I needed to ease into the approach using several cases with increasing levels of complexity. Another factor that I believe effects the result is the layout of the classroom where the case discussions occurred. My classroom arrangement contains parallel rows of tables, which is inconvenient for case discussion. A U-shaped layout would be preferable in order to involve more students in the discussion. My final conclusion is that the students feel they should study real life situations but find the lack of structure and uncertainty frustrating. I believe it is very important that business students develop the skills needed to overcome these frustrations and the ability to analyze real problems.
The other two assignments were based on games. I used "The Manufacturing Game" (http://webserver.lemoyne.edu/~wright/learn.htm) developed by Salwa Ammar and Ronald Wright at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, and "Littlefield Technologies," a virtual factory (http://www-gsb.stanford.edu/research/reports/1999/wood_kumar.html), developed by Samuel C. Wood and Sunil Kumar at Stanford Graduate School of Business.
"The Manufacturing Game" was played in class in a computer lab and the "Littlefield Technologies" game was played on the Internet 24 hours a day over a two-week period.
When asked (Figure 1: 5.1 to 5.6), 74 percent of the students learned a lot from "The Manufacturing Game" and 66 percent learned a lot from "Littlefield Technologies." The students liked the long duration of the Littlefield game. Two-thirds of the students said they found it more useful to practice different methods when playing a game than when solving ordinary problems and 54 percent were willing to use more time practicing different methods when playing a game. Finally, 98 percent found the games useful tools in training them to deal with uncertainty.
The students were very motivated while playing the games. They took them very seriously and many of the groups really wanted to be the best. I have never before seen students so willing to spend time practicing the different OM methodologies as when they were playing the games.
In the last set of questions of my 1999 survey (Figure 1: 6.1 to 6.6), students expressed enthusiasm for developing competitive knowledge and skills. The students, however, were divided on whether they gained sufficient appreciation for the subject matter. One can argue that having 38 percent of the students more interested in operations management after taking the required course is an indication that the course a success. This is particularly true since the majority of students agree that the study load is greater than in other courses and may even be too great.
During the fall of 2000, I used "The Manufacturing Game" and "Littlefield Technologies" in addition to some less extensive games, such as the "Inventory Game." I used three cases instead of two (MacPherson Refrigeration Ltd., VBF Tubing and Mutual Life of Canada). I had the students use some VBA to carry out further analysis of situations that they have modeled using spreadsheets and SOLVER. The cases went better than the year before. MacPherson Refrigeration was more suitable as a first case than McLeod Motors, and when working on the third case the students obviously gained some experience that they could build on.
For 2001, the number of cases will be increased to seven. I am convinced that repetition is important to train students in structuring and analyzing different situations. They will feel they have accomplished something important the ability to tackle uncertain and unstructured situations without anxiety, an ability that will benefit them in their careers.
Ingjaldur Hannibalsson (email@example.com) is a professor of business administration at the University of Iceland.
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