Students These Days…
Monday, May 16, 2005
This short essay is going to sound like whining. But, I think that business schools are in some trouble. Maybe, American culture is in trouble. We have some structural problems that are going to be difficult to solve.
I just finished teaching the worst class I have had here at the University of Nevada, Reno in 15 years. It was an MBA class in logistics and supply chain management. Starting with the first night of the course back in January, I could tell the students were not interested in what I was going to ask them to do. When I announced that they were going to get to work on a real project for a real company headquartered in Reno, a couple of students objected and wondered why I had not selected a nonprofit organization instead of a for-profit company. I remember looking at the students and thinking to myself "do they know they are sitting in an MBA classroom?" And truthfully, the semester spiraled downwards from that point.
I have had tough classes before. Beginning in fall 2001, we started to see a real change in our students. Around that time, the career expectations and goals of most of the students we saw began to change. Also, their willingness to slog through difficult, complex problems began to wane. Their attention span and their patience got much shorter. They became much more willing to take shortcuts and cheat. Academic dishonesty has become a serious problem. This school year in the College of Business Administration at the University of Nevada, Reno we've had several cases of academic dishonesty. We have had more students caught cheating this year than in all the years I've taught here previously.
With the class of 2003, we began to notice that students’ career and life goals were different than the classes that preceded them. Students were no longer very willing to take entry level positions in a distant city. Their expectations were that they were going to quickly move into senior management in a city where they wanted to live. Plus, they expected to have a lot of time for personal life. Getting a degree was their permission slip for a great life.
For these kids, friends and family are much more important than work. For most of my generation (baby boomers) work and career are the most important. Baby boomers live to work. The greatest economy in the history of the world was created by the baby boomer generation. “Generation X” works to live. And, millennials (kids born after 1982) live to enjoy. They think of their job or their studies as only a small part of who they are as people. When I was an undergraduate student at Michigan State University, I thought of myself primarily as a student. When I was a young married graduate student at MSU I had almost no time for a personal life. I learned from my father who was a member of the “Greatest Generation” (those folks that fought in WWII and Korea) that hard work was critical. At my house, Saturday mornings usually met working in the garden -not cartoons. Somehow, my generation has not passed the lesson of hard work on to our children.
A third party logistics service company that came to campus this semester told the students that they offer internal courses as to how to manage millennials. Baby boomers are not really prepared to deal effectively with people that don't place too much importance on their work. And, you can't fire a whole generation so you need to figure out how to work with them. This task is difficult for an old, grouchy professor with high expectations.
Problems with Schools
I believe that business school education has become formulaic. Students are programmed from a very young age to expect that everything associated with the classroom will be material that is neatly organized and pre-digested. Since they were in kindergarten their lessons have been laid out carefully for the. A couple of years ago, one of my own children had his week organized by the color of the assignment paper. He knew that Wednesday was the day that they worked on the blue paper, and Thursday was the day that they worked on the yellow paper. He did not really to think or figure out what he was supposed to do. He just reacted to a structure that was put into place to make learning easy for him.
Today the learning process has been made a lot easier for both k-12 students and kids in college. The vast resources of the Internet have dramatically changed the way people work and learn. With a Google search and a few mouse clicks students can learn about almost any subject. It is incredible what anyone can find out quickly on the Internet.
There is nothing wrong with making learning easy for young students. But handing them their education so neatly packaged probably does not help them in the long run. Much of the world is complex and messy. It is not a blue paper on Wednesday and a yellow paper on Thursday. It is not a formula in a textbook.
It is ironic that as the world becomes more complex, students are less inclined or prepared to deal with that complexity. They demand simple even when simple is not available.
So back to the story of my horrible semester…
As I mentioned at the beginning this essay, my graduate class (BADM 779 – Seminar in Logistics & Supply Chain Management) was collectively the worst group of students I have ever had in class. In this course, the students had two graded assignments and a final exam.
For their first project, I asked a local firm to work with the students on a real problem facing the company. This company imports products manufactured in China into a warehouse in Reno. From Reno, these products are distributed throughout the United States to small boutiques and also to department stores such as Macy’s, Bloomingdales, and Nordstrom’s. The head of logistics at this firm is one of our recent graduates. The general manager is one of our MBA graduates. The general manager is a woman who has had a great business career working in more than one industry. I was thrilled when she agreed to bring the head of logistics and talk to the class about their real problem. It was not a problem out of a textbook. It was a real business problem that many businesses face every day. It was a perfect learning opportunity. I was so grateful that these nice people were willing to invest time and effort into helping our MBA students learn something useful.
I carefully laid out nine numbered points in the syllabus that the students needed to answer. The second night of the term the general manager and head of logistics spent an entire three-hour class period talking to the students about their problem. They offered to answer questions and even gave some students are two or of the warehouse and headquarters. I put several resource books on reserve in the library and opened up a WebCT site where students could have online discussions and share notes. I gave the students two weeks off from class so that they could devote blocks of time to this project. Whenever they had a question for me, I responded in less than 24 hours. Clearly, they should have been able to complete this project successfully.
These students were MBA students. They are candidates for a master's degree in business administration. They are students that we expect to be able to move into management positions quickly.
On March 14 the folks from the company came back to class to see the final presentations relating to their real business problem. That night was the worst night of my teaching career. After the first group which did a pretty good job, the rest of the night was horrible. The nice folks from the company sat there in shock as group after group showed they had no idea how to attack the problem. Their presentation skills were bad and their understanding of the problem was shallow and incomplete. They had no idea what they were doing. One of the groups walked up to the front of the class with a piece of notebook paper with a few lines printed on it. They were clearly not prepared to make a business presentation. The next group nearly had a fistfight between themselves during a long, meandering, bewildering presentation. Another group figured out the cost of moving product from China to the US, but they neglected to figure out costs of getting the product all the way to the warehouse.
As the evening unfolded, I sank deeper and deeper into depression. The nice folks from the company could not believe what they were seeing. My 16 year old son Benjamin attended class that evening. She could not believe it either.
Truthfully, I was angry. I expect students to do what ever they have to do to complete the assignment short of committing academic dishonesty. It was clear that many of the groups had not made a serious attempt to complete this assignment. In the hours before the class that evening, four of the groups came to my office to complain about group members that had not helped much. I let the students know in clear and concise terms that there effort was lacking. I mentioned to them that it was the most embarrassing night of my teaching career.
Although I was furious I remembered that the goal of any class is to learn. So, the correct course of action would be to offer the students a second chance to successfully complete the project. And, because I wanted to be a nice guy, I told the class that there would be no penalty for this horrible performance. They would be given grace and mercy. They would have a free shot at completing the project a second time.
Unfortunately, this story does not end with "lives happily ever after." Most of the students blew their second chance. I had them come in at seven in the morning on Saturday, April 16 to redo the presentations. Only one of the groups did much better than they had a month before. So, I gave them a third chance to complete this project. One student refused to contribute to his group’s second revision of this project. He did not think he should have to redo something for a class twice. Honestly, I would usually agree with him.
By this time, the students needed to turn in the second term project. This project was again carefully laid out for them in the syllabus. It was a project that examined radio frequency identification or RFID. Because of the student's performance on the first project I gave the students an example RFID project paper that an undergraduate student turned in during fall semester as a model for them to use. Even with a model to follow, most of the groups could not successfully complete this project the first time they turned in. So, I gave them another chance to do so.
This brought us to the final exam. I went into exam preparation worrying about whether or not the students would be able to answer the exam questions. They had not been willing or able to do anything else decently during the term. Because I was worried, I actually gave them a study guide that included all of the final exam questions except for one the week before the final exam. They did not even have to answer the one question that was not included in the study guide if they do not want to. They got to pick six questions out of the eight I gave them on the exam. I gave them the actual final exam questions a week before the test because I was hoping they would do well. Unfortunately, many of them still did badly.
I have never worked harder in a glass and I am exhausted. There've been a lot of nights this semester that I was unable to get to sleep very quickly because I was thinking about how best to manage the class.
Honestly, I don't believe that very many of the students satisfactorily passed BADM 779. I gave them more chances than I have ever given any class and they still were not able to do a very good job. I let them turn in the first project three times and RFID project twice with no penalties for doing a bad job the time they turned it in before. I spent a lot of hours grading and giving feedback in this class. I gave up four entire weekends working on grading and giving students second and third chances.
So, what is the answer?
Well, the first thing is that I probably should quit whining. The reality is that I will probably have more classes that may nearly be as bad as this one. As I mentioned earlier, I can't fire the whole class. I can't flunk everyone.
The thread that goes through both assignments and the exam is that in order to be successful students needed to be able think critically and deal with complexity. They could not just mindlessly download stuff off of the Internet. They had to figure out what the problem was and then come up with an answer. The answer was not going to be neatly laid out on a web page or in a textbook. They had to think about it. The two assignments and the exam required critical thinking and real - not surface - understanding of the problems.
This is where the problem really is. If you have stayed with me and been willing to read this far, here is the meat of the issue. Because most students throughout their entire lives have only had to deal with clearly structured assignments with fairly simple answers, they have difficulty dealing with messiness and complexity. Even though the problem in my class was structured carefully, students had to really think about the problem and look for resources outside their known universe. They could not look in the back of the textbook for the answer. They had to figure it out. They could work together, but they had to figure it out. And most importantly, they had to spend a fair amount of time figuring it out. Given that our current student population wants to both go to school and work and the job full time, plus have an enjoyable personal life, there is precious little time to devote to class assignments.
Even thought this was a difficult term, I am optimistic and have hope. It is summertime and next fall we will get a brand new bunch of kids and another opportunity to teach them. We will get another chance. And, another chance is a great option.