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Innovation in Course Design Drives New Level of Learning for Business Analytics Students

by Clare Becker Wednesday, December 20, 2017
Portraits of Anita Mukherjee and Hessam Bavafa

Anita Mukherjee, assistant professor of risk and insurance, and Hessam Bavafa, assistant professor of operations and information management


When Wisconsin School of Business faculty members Anita Mukherjee and Hessam Bavafa first started teaching Business Analytics I in 2015, they didn’t set out to break new ground. They just wanted to avoid the standard rut schools can fall into with high-enrollment, introductory courses.

“We designed the course to make sure students applied the skills that are tested on the exams,” says Mukherjee, an assistant professor of risk and insurance. “We wanted students to know how to do data analysis accurately and effectively, how to work creatively and come up with good analysis ideas, and how to communicate those ideas to others, all while working with real company data.”

Early on in the course, Mukherjee and Bavafa, who is an assistant professor of operations and information management, had started to notice certain patterns. Students were getting bogged down in picking a topic to study for the semester’s in-depth case study. They were investing a lot of effort and resources in collecting data from Madison-based businesses and organizations, taking time away from learning data analysis and feedback skills, the real purpose of the course. Mukherjee and Bavafa also couldn’t control the uniformity and accuracy of the real-world data students were receiving, which made grading and measuring student progress more difficult. 

Business Analytics I also mixed in University of Wisconsin–Madison undergraduate students from other disciplines. Despite an initial class size of 50, Mukherjee and Bavafa knew the course would eventually scale up to 700 students. Given all of these competing variables, they recognized the need to take a different approach that focused attention away from course logistics and more on effective student learning.

The redesign process

The solution came in the form of a two-part course redesign: find a way to randomize the data sets students used while implementing an automated grading system that shortened instructor grading time and allowed for more individualized feedback.

With input from WSB lecturer Michael Hernke, Mukherjee and Bavafa wrote two case studies using real data from a cab portal company in India and a bike rental company in the U.S. Each student was assigned a randomized subset of the company data, meaning that no two students produced the exact same solutions to the tasks required. Under this system, students collaborated intensively on methods, as they all had to perform similar tasks but still needed to come up with individual interpretations of their data. Since students did not need to look for data under this case method, they were able to dive into analysis from the beginning. Instead of seeking one right answer, students were tasked with understanding how to analyze their assigned data to arrive at the correct answer. This case method allowed Mukherjee and Bavafa to assess the accuracy of their students’ analyses, a key learning outcome. Ultimately each student also generated a formal case report including data visualization and business insights, and the teaching team spent significant effort in assessing these reports. 

The opportunity to devote such attention to feedback on the written case is in part due to an innovation in grading. With assistance from WSB risk and insurance doctoral students Kenny Wunder and Junhao Liu, Mukherjee and Bavafa developed a grading tool that allowed them to split the case into several pieces and return student submissions with feedback within a two-hour window.

“It was taking us a long time to grade their work,” Mukherjee says. “We had almost the entire case due at once, which is typical, so students were learning between the cases but not within them because the assignments were so hefty.”

In 2016, the team’s hard work paid off. Mukherjee and Bavafa applied for and received the Michael E. Lehman Distinguished Chair for Inspired Learning in Business, which funded the grading tool and recognized the team’s significant contributions to educational innovation.

Suzanne Dove

WSB's Suzanne Dove

Suzanne Dove, assistant dean for academic innovations, says Mukherjee and Bavafa’s work is a creative solution to a common problem many universities face in gateway courses.

“We want to produce graduates who will be highly successful in a rapidly changing workplace and economy,” Dove says. “This requires people to develop their ability to learn from projects and experiences and apply that learning to the next challenge. It’s about not shying away from challenging projects but instead learning to break them into manageable chunks. Wisconsin School of Business faculty such as Hessam Bavafa and Anita Mukherjee design their course so that assignments get progressively more challenging and students receive feedback as they go, with the expectation that they’ll reflect on this feedback and deepen their understanding at each step along the way. In education, this is called ‘scaffolding.’ It encourages our students to focus more on the process than on getting a certain grade.”  

Simulating the work environment

One of the major achievements of the redesign is how it encourages students to engage with the data, Bavafa says. It can be frustrating for students because they have to fix mistakes on their current assignment in order to tackle the coming week’s work. 

“This really challenges them,” he says. “If you’re missing one data point, it may not appear consequential here. But, in your real job, you might be missing a thousand data points and that might change your result. Until you do it right, you won’t get the answer. I think that is amazing. You could never do that in a project setting because you wouldn’t be able to supervise it in the same way.”

The new model allows for greater creativity, critical thinking, and an increased facility with data visualization. It’s fun to see what students come up with, Mukherjee says, and she and Bavafa try to select companies like the cab company that course participants will have some instinct for.

“With the cab company, many students will figure out what the holidays are in India and map them to the cab patterns they are seeing, for example,” she says. “This helps them understand why the company is cancelling on its customers so frequently. They figured out it happens in regions where there are local festivals generating a lot of traffic.”

The course innovations have impacted students beyond the classroom as well.

“A lot of our former students tell us they use their final analysis from this course in job interviews,” Mukherjee says. “It looks like an analysis they would do for a firm: a real piece of writing, a real piece of data analysis with an actual company—it gives them a chance to show off these key skills.”

Block quote about Mukherjee and Bavafa receiving funding through Chair for Inspired Learning in Business

Downstream effects

Bavafa has received feedback from other instructors saying students coming into their courses after taking Business Analytics I are more prepared, something he credits as much to mapping learning outcomes efforts done collaboratively by Dove and other faculty across WSB as he does to the current course innovations.

“The course at its core is still very much statistics and analytics—we still have traditional exams—but another half of the course is this practical application of concepts, which is important to us that the students learn,” Mukherjee says.

Bavafa summarizes via a quote he read once that stuck with him: “‘If you give the learner the answer, you might prevent the learner from learning it.’ And I think that’s what we’re trying to do here: It’s about method, it’s about making mistakes, it’s about getting it wrong and having to decide what to do next. These innovations allow us to spend more time on method and giving students feedback that leads to actual learning."