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Max. Classroom Capacity: Teaching Through the Lens of Research on Training and Learning

Loren J. Naidoo and Nick Salter

Dear readers, for this issue I am pleased to invite Kenneth G. Brown, 2015 winner of the SIOP Distinguished Teaching Contributions Award, to share some of his thoughts on teaching. Ken is the Ralph L. Sheets Professor of Management and associate dean of the Tippie College of Business, University of Iowa. Ken is an award-winning scholar and teacher with longstanding interests in learning and motivation. He is a fellow of SIOP and APS and former editor-in-chief of Academy of Management Learning and Education, the premiere educational journal in the business disciplines. Ken was voted three times as the Student’s Choice for Faculty Excellence in the Tippie College. He also won the highest teaching honor bestowed at the University of Iowa, the President and Provost Award for Teaching Excellence. I’m delighted to welcome Ken to Max. Classroom Capacity!

Kenneth G. BrownMy training as an I-O psychologist established a foundation that has helped me time and time again as a teacher. Bolstered by my research in workplace training and learning, my understanding of people and processes has been an effective guide as I planned for and delivered a variety of courses, from a large undergraduate survey course to executive MBA courses to doctoral seminars. In this column, I provide a few examples of the way our discipline has helped me. I will conclude with a statement of gratitude and advice for graduate students and faculty who aspire to further improve their teaching. 


Assessing Needs and Setting Objectives

            A fundamental principle of effective training is that design should begin with clear learning objectives that are linked to desired real world performance. One method for establishing learning objectives is task analysis. When I first began teaching I struggled with the question of how to apply the logic of task analysis and learning objectives to my courses.

The syllabi that I borrowed from colleagues when I started teaching often had objectives that listed content to be covered rather than knowledge and skill to be gained. At times it seemed that these topic lists were driven by the textbook chapters rather than by a concern for what students need to know to succeed in the future. But students are not like new employees, at least in some ways. Unlike entry-level employees who need to learn the same, objective processes, students in higher education (even those in the same major) are unlikely to hold the same jobs or hold jobs in that field for that matter. How could I align objectives with the future heterogeneous and uncertain world that students would face?

            The answer to this question was simpler than I expected and followed from basic lessons about task analysis. Task analysis examines what trainees will do after training and acknowledges potential heterogeneity by focusing on commonalities. Specifically, common forms of task analysis determine the shared, frequently conducted, and important tasks that trainees face back on the job. In this regard, university students do share a common fate, including subsequent courses in the curriculum and an entry-level job (or graduate school seat) that will require fundamental competencies in critical thinking and communication.

These commonalities led me to a few simple practices, including talking to the instructors who teach downstream courses and learning more about students’ first jobs. For downstream courses, I have found it useful to review both formal curriculum (captured in syllabi and readings) and faculty’s implicit assumptions about what students should know and be able to do coming into their course (captured through face-to-face conversation). I still remember the first time I interviewed an accounting professor about his thoughts on what my Introduction to Management course should know. He was astounded, albeit pleasantly so. The practice of consulting downstream faculty, or at least meeting in a curriculum meeting, is routine at some schools, but why isn’t this standard practice everywhere? Perhaps some of us are so entrenched in our disciplines that we think our focus, our materials, are the best ones? My I-O training prodded me to recognize that a discipline matter (to be true to course titles at least), but they matter less than requisite knowledge and skill for desired performance. So I sought, and continue to do so when I teach new courses, information about the performance desired by faculty who teach further into the curriculum. I also have found it helpful to talk with recent graduates and employers about their expectations of our graduates. These conversations, and associated large-scale studies, have guided me toward particular types of classroom assignments. Based on the need for better critical thinking and communication skills, I focus activities in almost all of my courses on common written and verbal communications, including emails, letters, and short reports. In the case of doctoral students, I have them write journal reviews as well as research papers.


Building Authentic Practice to Boost Transfer

            Doctoral students who go into academia will face a lifetime of writing and presenting reasonably technical material. But this mix of work activities is less likely for college graduates who head into corporate or nonprofit life. More common work assignments will be informative emails, short persuasive written reports, and brief presentations. Interacting with employers of students to discern this information has been helpful for designing practice opportunities that are similar to the work students will perform. In this way, I attempt to have students work on products that are similar to what they will do at work, increasing transfer of training.

            Service learning, and its many associated practices, is another way that I attempt to encourage transfer and build authentic practice opportunities. Service learning has been defined as putting students into a position to apply their newly acquired knowledge to address social problems. Many years ago I had the great fortune of attending a workshop by Edward Zlotkowski, the founder of the Bentley Service-Learning Center. Edward is an outstanding teacher and staunch advocate for creating authentic opportunities for students to apply knowledge learned in class through work with communities and nonprofit organizations. Since taking his workshop, I teach my training course in collaboration with local nonprofit organizations. Students are randomly assigned to teams and then rank order their preferred projects. Projects vary from creating board training for a local fundraising organization to creating training for food pantry volunteers. I strive to have the need be real although somewhat ambiguous. When it works, this type of project challenges students to conduct a thorough needs assessment to find and define as well as address the need in question. I have had many students express frustration during the class but then gratitude after because of all they have learned. This pattern of frustration and satisfaction (or relief at being done, in some cases) is a feature of trial-by-fire, stretch assignments. Although I provide ongoing support and guidance during the course, and many opportunities for feedback, the challenge of authentic work can be inspiring for students.


Assessing Person Characteristics and Designing Motivating Instruction

            Another practice that I use, drawing on I-O research, is to examine the interests and motivations of students. At the beginning of every course I have students complete a student information survey. In the survey I ask about their reasons for taking the class, their past experiences relevant to the class, their future career goals, and the names of companies and organizations that interest them. I use a checklist format where possible and report back to students with histograms and simple charts (using another principle from my I-O training— don’t ask for data unless you intend to use it and share the results in an accessible way). I then use this information to tailor the examples in class and at times even adjust one or two class days. Just as importantly, I use knowledge of student experiences to identify any discrepancies in my knowledge of their motivations and past experience. When a class has had an unusual number of students who are not familiar with certain features of our learning management system, for example, I added a 15-minute participative discussion of those features.

            Allowing students input the course should boost motivation and allow them to see that I am interested in helping them have a meaningful learning experience. In some classes, where possible, I have taken this further with a “voted topic day,” where I allowed students to vote among a number of possible topics related to the course. In a doctoral seminar, I have allowed students to vote, before the class began, for their favorite of 8 among 12 possible topics. The most recent time I taught a training doctoral seminar, I allowed students the opportunity to drop an assignment that they deemed least central to their intended future profession. They could choose to drop either a practice-oriented paper or a journal submission review. This option both gave students choice and sent a clear signal that as an instructor I am equally concerned with training practitioners as researchers.


Providing Repeated Practice and Feedback

            When I first began teaching a large, required Introduction to Management class, I wanted students to have a hands-on opportunity to practice managing a team. I also wanted to provide an opportunity for students to learn how to work in teams to produce well-researched arguments. To accomplish both goals, I designed four cases to be completed by four-person groups, each requiring that the group work together. I also assigned students to rotate through as the “team manager,” providing both role description and some reward and punishment power to the person in this position (allowing him/her to recommend extra point or firing of team members).

Each project is a different case, but each requires the team to create a written document that is graded along the same rubric that demands well-researched and clear arguments. Without going into too much detail, I have adopted and adjusted this approach over the years with the help of many talented teaching assistants and now other faculty. The basic approach remains the same and students in the class are provided an opportunity to practice managing and to engage in repeated practice producing written arguments. Each time I finish teaching the class, I wish there was more we could do including providing students feedback from their peers on their management activities and an opportunity to practice again. But one class cannot teach everything, so we have those opportunities in smaller classes, deeper into our curriculum.




My training as an I-O psychologist, and in particular my understanding of needs assessment, practice opportunities, motivation, and feedback, have been so useful for me as a teacher. Of course, much of what I have written here is not new. I know many of these ideas have been written about in past Max. Classroom Capacity columns. What I hope is unique in this article is the framing that has helped me make sense of why I enjoy teaching so much and find myself with more ideas that I can possibly use. When I wear my I-O psychologist hat, I have most of the conceptual frameworks and methodological tools that I need to build and deliver excellent classes. 

I am grateful to my undergraduate and graduate instructors for helping me become acquainted with the field. Since graduating, I have also been fortunate to observe many outstanding teachers at the University of Iowa, Tippie College of Business, including the late Jude West, Professor Emeritus Nancy Hauserman, and my colleague and life partner, Amy Kristof-Brown, among others. As part of my role as a senior faculty member, I observed junior faculty and doctoral students, and I am confident that I learned more from watching them than they did from my feedback. And I even had an opportunity to teach with faculty from English (Teresa Mangum) and from Education (Rachel Williams), and each time it was a fun, eye-opening experience to work with people trained in other disciplines. Just as enlightening has been collaborating with younger faculty and doctoral students, where I benefited immensely from discussion and debate. I have learned so much from my instructional teams and am so proud of the great work they have gone on to do both at Iowa and at other institutions.

The value of observation, experimentation, discussion, and reflection cannot be overstated as avenues for learning new approaches to teaching and refining them over time. I encourage all teachers who want to improve to do more of each of these activities: Observe others as they teach, experiment with new techniques and technologies, discuss teaching with students and colleagues, and spend time reading and reflecting on teaching as a practice. Much more has been written about each these topics because, after all, teaching is a form of work performance that is learned in a variety of ways. For me, training I-O psychology was an outstanding foundation for a lifetime of learning about teaching.

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