By Mohsin Jat, Assistant Teaching Professor, Bob Gaglardi School of Business and Economics
A fresh Ph.D. graduate walks into a lecture hall to deliver the first 90-minute session of a business statistics course. He had thoroughly prepared for the lecture based on an established outline. The lecture, however, concludes within 60 minutes—this was the first lecture I had delivered in my academic career around eight years ago. Anxious about not filling the allocated lecture time, I started including more content and advanced concepts, confusing and overloading the students. Lecture plans were not working well, so I consulted my experienced colleagues. One suggestion was to solve more examples on the board while taking input from students. The suggestion made sense and covered the lecture time, but I found it disconnected. Solving problems on board interrupted direct contact with students, and only a small number of students gave their input on solutions.
A challenge with delivering quantitative courses in business schools is the wide variation in the quantitative competency of students (Kaighobadi & Allen, 2008). Business school intake is generally made up of students with diverse academic backgrounds. Pitching a quantitative course at an average level can result in difficulties for half of the class. Make the content shallower, and a significant proportion of students find it dull. A colleague with whom I discussed this introduced a worksheet approach to me in which students are asked to complete one or two lecture-related problems in the last 15 minutes of the session.
The worksheet approach worked surprisingly well, and I continually adopted and adapted it in various operations and supply chain management courses. My current approach is summarised as follows: Most sessions, depending on the nature of the course, are split into a lecture and a lecture-related problem-solving part. In the 15 to 20-minute problem-solving part, students are asked to perform problems, short case discussions, or computer exercises in groups of 3 to 4. Each group member must complete the task and consult with the group members about the solution approach and the final answer. I can help with any confusion, but not on an individual basis; the query should come from the group. This way, I assist 8 or 9 groups rather than 35 individuals. If confusion is common, I brief the whole class using the board. Participation credit is granted once all group members have completed the tasks satisfactorily. The worksheet participation credit typically accounts for 8 – 10% of the total grade.
Over time, with various teaching and learning trainings, I realized that the seemingly simple worksheet approach aligns with several pedagogical philosophies and objectives. I have highlighted some below:
Instant feedback for students and instructors:
Students can immediately test and reinforce their understanding of the concepts covered in the lecture. They can receive help from their peers and instructor if their understanding needs to be improved. Instructors can use the performance on worksheets to gauge the learning outcomes. Performance observations can enable instructors to timely modify their teaching if needed.
Enhanced engagement and participation:
Seeking help from peers and instructors in small group settings can be easier. In my observation, even the quieter students participate in groups, and, in general, students actively assist their group members. Students can polish their concepts by explaining the solutions to their peers. Instructors can closely interact with students.
Better than homework assignments:
Traditional lecturing and demonstration approach is generally based on unidirectional content delivery. Written documents or videos can replace it. Critically speaking, the physical presence of an instructor is not necessary if the instructor is just a narrator. In other words, lectured content can be delivered through different media without any significant intervention from instructors. It is when students perform tasks that they may need assistance, confirmation, or reinforcement from instructors. Worksheets serve this purpose, while homework assignments don’t. That is, homework assignments create a situation in which the instructor is unavailable when needed the most.
Worksheets and the flipped classroom model:
Much has been written about the advantages of flipped classrooms (Akçayır & Akçayır, 2018). A challenge in implementing this model is ensuring that students are prepared in advance for live problem-solving exercises. The model doesn’t work if students are unprepared. The worksheet approach can be considered a modified version of flipped classrooms. Through worksheets, an instructor can flip the classroom in the last 15 minutes after discussing the required concepts.
Worksheet as an alternative grading tool:
Worksheets offer an alternative grading mechanism in which participation points are granted for demonstrating a minimum level of understanding of the desired concepts and skills. (Please read the “Alternative Grading Strategies” piece by Carolyn Ives, CELT). The participation score for completing a worksheet can be seen as a proxy for attendance, but it is not a credit for mere attendance; the score is for demonstrating the learning attained by attending the session.
Flexibility to pitch courses at a higher level:
Instructors can avoid overexplaining the concepts and mellowing down the lectures to ensure learning at the lower tail. The learning gaps can be covered during the worksheet phase.
Worksheets and the concept of mastery learning:
Mastery learning is a key theme in my teaching philosophy. The mastery learning concept is based on the understanding that students have different learning trajectories. A standard teaching approach with a large student group can result in learning gaps for some students. These gaps, if unaddressed, can hinder the understanding of the subsequent concepts and create further gaps. Hence, providing every student an opportunity to master each concept is desirable. I believe worksheets can facilitate mastery learning by providing opportunities to fill learning gaps in class.
So, what are the pitfalls and limitations? Worksheet tasks must be clearly stated, not lengthy, and not too challenging; otherwise, time management can be an issue. The student experience and confidence can be compromised if tasks are unclear or need longer than the designated time. I suggest starting with small tasks and then making them lengthier and more challenging if necessary. Regardless, be prepared to see many hands raised and walk swiftly—Have comfy footwear!
[This piece is based on my experience in courses having quantitative or computational components.]
Kaighobadi, M, & Allen, M.T. (2008, July). Investigating academic success factors for undergraduate business students. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 6(2), 427-36.
Akçayır, G., & Akçayır, M. (2018, November). The flipped classroom: A review of its advantages and challenges. Computers & Education, 1(126), 334-45.