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WSB Faculty Showcase Classroom Innovations

by Rob Kelly Thursday, June 18, 2015
When Anita Mukherjee, assistant professor of risk and insurance; and Hessam Bavafa, assistant professor of operations and information management, created Business Analytics I, they wanted to bring the material to life for the students. 
wisconsin school of business active learning teaching innovation uw-madison

Hessam Bavafa (C), assistant professor of operations and information management, prepares for the Coke and Pepsi taste test active learning exercise.

The analytics course is crafted around memorable learning experiences that help students connects course material to real-world situations, including a semester-long group project in which students apply their learning to business problems that use real data. 

Feedback from students indicates that this active-learning approach is having a positive effect. Formal evaluations indicate that students’ interest in the content increased by 40 percent after taking Business Analytics I. 

“It’s been one of my favorite courses so far,” says Zachary Pagel (BBA ’16). “I’ve never been much of a math guy, but this class really showed me how to take the concepts I was learning and apply them to what I’ll be doing in the workplace. What I really liked was that they gave us the freedom to choose projects that we were interested in, which really drove us to do the research more than if we were working on a topic assigned to us.”
 anita mukherjee teaching and learning symposium active learning uw–madison wisconsin school of business

Anita Mukherjee, assistant professor of risk and insurance, shares active learning techniques with colleagues.

Chris Dakes, the School’s director of educational innovations and learning design, says that traditionally, instructors have found it challenging to share authority and the role of teaching with their students. 

“There are many misconceptions about active learning,” Dakes says. “Instructors think, ‘If I give up control to the students, the classroom will become chaotic.’ Or, ‘If I do make time for active learning, I give up the ability to cover content in my class.’ Or, ‘I can’t do it in a traditional classroom.’”

These misconceptions have been largely dispelled by a recent meta-analysis of more than 200 studies that shows that active learning can be an effective teaching model. “The question now is how do we make sure we’re not only doing a bunch of activities, but doing them well and helping students learn?” Dakes says. 

Class size can pose a challenge, but these WSB professors are finding effective ways to adapt active learning exercises to classes of all sizes. When he teaches hypothesis testing in a large class, Bavafa asks for two student volunteers to participate in a blind taste test to see how well they can distinguish between Pepsi and Coke and uses the results as a way to introduce the concept of type I and type II errors. 

“The nice thing about this activity is that when you have a class of 130 people, just having two students participate engages all the students,” Bavafa says. “They get curious, they remember the exercise, and I refer to it throughout the course.” 
mark feeding educational innovation uw-madison teaching and learning symposium

Mark Fedenia, associate professor of finance at the Wisconsin School of Business, discusses his strategies for engaging students in the classroom.

When Mark Fedenia, associate professor of finance, uses group work, he has each group select a leader to help facilitate the learning. “I find that with group captains there’s always some expertise that can be drawn upon in real time as students are going through the activities,” he says. 

Fedenia also provides instructional videos to help students maintain progress during in-class group activities, which is particularly helpful in large classes where the instructor may not be able to assist every group within the class period. 

“Students can move at their own pace,” Fedenia says. The videos provide struggling students with timely answers without having to wait for the instructor’s immediate assistance, and more advanced students can move ahead and make productive use of their time rather than having to wait for the other students to catch up." 

In large classes, it’s not possible to monitor each group continuously, according to Dakes. Instead, the instructor can get a representative sample of the groups to monitor progress and see if they’re making connections to prior and future learning. 

“When students can see that you as an instructor are immediately connecting their words, questions, and ideas to what you’re going to teach next, they start to feel a sense of ownership of the class because they’re contributing to the course instead of just being consumers of it,” Dakes says.