My Approach to Pedagogy

In the fall of 2008 I applied for a tenure-track position at the university where I currently teach as a full-time visiting professor. As I observed to a friend, that would mean that I would be eligible for tenure when I reach 75…just when I’d really be able to enjoy it.

Part of the application process was to prepare a statement about my teaching philosophy. I figure about three people might have read it during that process. So I offer it here.

Oh, and the tenure-track position? Hiring freeze; I’m reappointed as a visitor.

Prologue

 My initial years in grade school were spent in a warm, nurturing, progressive school district on the north side of Chicago. In the third grade, I was transferred to a traditional, conservative school system in a small city in southern Wisconsin. My second grade teacher had had me “tutoring” other kids in spelling: My third grade teacher had me copying Spencerian script into a copy book. When I graduated from that school system, I went to college in northern California, arriving the year after Jack Kerouac published “On the Road,” encountering the “beat” generation’s North Beach coffee-house culture, Mort Sahl at the hungry i, and the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. After finishing my undergraduate degree in psychology, I joined the US Army, spending three of my five years teaching (in the military style) Latin American military personnel in Panama and on-site in Honduras, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil. I returned to Stanford for my MBA and Ph.D. degrees, then spent my first two years of university teaching at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France.

An Eclectic Approach

My education and teaching experiences have given me an exposure to a broad spectrum of approaches to teaching, and I believe that all of them have had an influence on how I understand the educational process and how I try to prepare myself and my materials.

 In the military, an instructor is expected to “script” his class, and the day’s lesson plan includes the equivalent of a transcript which is placed in the back of the classroom so that a visiting inspector can pick it up and find the current place in the class and be able to check the instructor’s execution. The military operates on the belief that no more than three teaching points can be retained from each hour of instruction, so these teaching points are carefully elaborated and presented with particular emphasis. A favorite mantra is “If the student failed to learn, the instructor failed to teach.”

From the Stanford Business School, where cases are used as vehicles to illustrate analytic techniques, I went to INSEAD, founded by a Harvard Business School professor, and worked alongside a professor whose DBA was from Harvard and  had spent five years on the HBS faculty. We used the Harvard approach to cases, using them as opportunities for students to practice decision-making, and he taught me HBS-style extensive individual instructor preparation and the shared preparation by people teaching the same course, the non-directive but fully-scripted instructional style, as well as the expectation that we would visit one another’s classes.

 Finally, I spent 34 years at Tulane, a school whose culture held that the instructor was – once the classroom doors were closed – answerable to no one for what went on in the classroom. Student evaluations were used as measures of classroom performance, but there was no guidance, no review and no peer observation of the courses and their content, other than the guidance sought by the individual instructor. It was a vacuum into which the instructor was required to inject his own structure.

The Raw Material

While I was at Tulane, I regularly taught undergraduates, graduates and executive students, in semester-long courses and short courses. I was fortunate enough to be able to teach in Latin America and in China for the school. Students are the raw material that we work with and making sure that the “student can learn” means understanding the capabilities and the backgrounds of the students in a course.

In the last 15 years, I have observed a marked change in the undergraduate students that I teach; the coming-of-age of the first “Sesame Street” generation was quickly followed by the arrival of the first “MTV” generation, the “Nintendo” generation, and now the “Internet” generation. It is such a cliché that attention spans have dwindled that students in my classrooms now perceive themselves to have short attention spans, and this provides them with an excuse for their lack of concentration.

 I  have not yet encountered this change in my executive classes, although I think it has started to affect graduate classes. What this has meant to me is an increasing concentration on pre-identifying the important concepts of an undergraduate course and giving them sufficient emphasis so that the students can identify them readily. Today’s textbooks do not make this easy with their ever-increasing quantity of “extras” embedded in the text.

 Course Content

 I believe that the initial responsibility of the instructor is the establishment of the teaching points to be covered in the course, both overall and hour-by-hour. While the military insists that three teaching points per hour are as much as can be comprehended by a student, the number is probably not much greater than three.

The next problem facing the instructor is fitting his concept of the course content to that of the text and ancillary materials being used. While I have used (mostly) my own materials in teaching the Marketing Seminar over the past years, my other courses have used 0ff-the-shelf texts, and I have not used the same text for more than two consecutive semesters over the past twelve years. This has allowed me to conclude two things: First, that there is so much material in current texts that almost any text can be adapted for use in a particular course, and, second, that current texts are very poorly organized with respect to a coherent internal structure that gives emphasis to the important material and removes less important material. It is probably the all-inclusiveness of standard texts that keeps us from making the effort to organize our own material; have the students buy a standard text, then use a syllabus to trim the material into shape.

 Almost inevitably, however, there will be discrepancies between what a text makes available and what the instructor feels must be covered. Sometimes these are major points, and sometimes they are a matter of adding emphasis to available material. In these cases, the instructor is faced with the need to find a way to provide the additional material. This has presented me with opportunities for the development of supplemental web-based and multimedia content that I find to be the most enjoyable challenge of preparing a course.

 For the principles courses that I teach, I feel there is sufficient substantive material to be covered that I limit “activities” to short exercises used to illustrate specific course teaching points. While in-class activities may be pleasing to students who feel attention-challenged, they frequently interfere with the time required to cover essential materials. Where there is a trade-off involved between activities and substantive material, I will tend to err on the side of substantive material. For my Advertising Principles course, however, I do include a creative exercise, a page-layout exercise, and a Google ad-writing exercise in addition to a few in-class exercises.

For advanced courses such as the Marketing Seminar, I find that the use of a fully-featured simulation as a vehicle to illustrate strategic concepts is a useful tool. It is my view that various activities – simulations, competitions, internships, and projects – serve an extremely useful purpose as vehicles to test the application of learned concepts, but that they require that, first, the student learn the concepts and, second, that the activities be strongly supervised.

Gradual evolution

As part of this shift in teaching styles that I feel drives my work, I produced the following note and distributed it to my Advertising Principles classes in the Fall of 2008. I will be trying to extend its applicability in coming semesters:

 The New Teaching

I started teaching in the military. The Army had developed a technique for teaching the materials that were essential for a soldier’s survival and success (not always the same thing). The instructor had to produce a lesson plan that included a verbatim script which was to be placed in the back of the room for the head of the department to use to check how the lesson was going. Even the jokes to be used were to be included in the script; everything was planned ahead and laid out.

Included in the lesson plan were the Teaching Points to be covered. There were never more than three teaching points in a 50-minute class. The teaching points were what the student was to retain after the class and would be the basis for examinations. The teaching point might encompass more than one factoid. For example, a teaching point might be to know how to name the parts of one of the assemblies making up the M1 rifle, in which case all of the names of the parts would have to be memorized. For example, the Feeding and Operation Assembly of the Garand M1 Rifle has 11 individual parts. That teaching point might be the only teaching point in a 50-minute class on the functioning of the M1 rifle.

This kind of training produces people who know the names of the parts of their weapon. As the Army discovered, however, it does not produce people who use their weapons. In studies following the Korean Conflict, the Army found that less than two-thirds of infantrymen fired their weapons in battle, and that the number of those who directed their fire effectively in the direction of the enemy was even less.

This is the clearest example I know of that shows the importance of using outcomes as the measure of effective learning. It seems obvious that the reason for soldiers to learn about their weapons is so that they can be effectively used, yet the teaching methodology and course content had been designed to teach people how to take apart and put together their weapons. Knowing what the name of the follower arm pin is and what it contributes to the functioning of an M1 is useful, but does little to improve effective fire.

Anyhow, I am trying to think about the desired outcomes of this particular class. During the semester there will be many factoids and a lot of examinable information covered but what I want all of them to point towards are the desired outcomes, not just measurable hurdles for you to clear. While that sounds easy, it’s not the way that I’ve taught for the past 44 years. So here goes:

Desired outcomes, Advertising Principles MRKT 301

1.        Actively perceive and evaluate advertising as a part of your environment.

2.       Understand how advertising is created, works and is evaluated

Rationale: While few of you will ever work for an advertising agency, many of you will have the occasion to create or participate in the creation of persuasive messages. This course should provide you with the tools to make your efforts effective.

Professor Ed Strong
Advertising Principles
Fall 2008

  Measurement

At INSEAD (in 1971) we undertook a major review of the school’s grading scheme. As a result of that experience, I became and remain an advocate of classifying people into three groups: The upper sixth, the middle two-thirds, and the lower sixth. The upper sixth become candidates for honors, the lower sixth become candidates for possible probation or termination, and the middle two-thirds are in no difficulty. For honors or probation/termination, the number of different classes in which you are in the top or bottom sixth becomes the critical determinant. Beyond this, it is my belief that grades are not useful.

 I’ve never been at a school willing to undertake this scheme, and I doubt I ever will. And my practical experience has indicated that exams and graded exercises are motivators that have become extremely necessary to get students to do the required reading in a timely fashion. As a result, over the past five years, I have increased the number and frequency of examinations so that there are now a minimum of four in my principles courses, and I can see this number increasing in the future.

 Epilogue

 My approach to pedagogy has been to evolve in response to the demands of the course content and the course audience. I think this is taking my work in interesting and challenging directions, relying far less on the printed word and far more on internet distribution of digital content, and that digital content becoming increasingly rich in terms of sound, graphics and video.

 On one hand, it pleases me to be able to keep moving forward with teaching technology, having been blessed with a technical inclination that probably stems from having been raised working at a family newspaper. On the other hand, it is a little sad that it is accelerating now that I am reaching the end of my teaching career. I would guess that there’s plenty of excitement down the road for younger professors.

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