Discussion-based classes

A number of my recent classes have been based, in some part, on class discussions.  In terms of engagement, there are some clear benefits to this approach.  However, there are a number of negative factors that become clear over time.

When a teacher asks a question to the class, there are more things that could go wrong than right.  First, some students will misinterpret or misunderstand the question.  Second, from among the students who were able to understand the question, some will have answers that are incorrect.  If you consider that most teachers want to ensure they hear from all students, this is a sure plan to get lots of wrong and unrelated answers.

Some might disagree, but I find these bad answers annoying.  It’s discouraging when the teacher teacher tells you that you’re wrong, regardless of how much tact they use.  It is time consuming when a teacher turns down several qualified answers while they are waiting for their desired answer which will segway to the next question.  The point of class is for the teacher to share knowledge with the students.  To have students try to guess it piece by piece is horribly inefficient.

The root issue is that a true discussion is between peers, where neither party is authoritative.  Each side contributes, and the combination of ideas may bring new insight.  In a classroom setting, the teacher is considered authoritative.  Each side may contribute, but the teacher nixes ideas he disagrees with.  This uneven situation wastes time and discourages many students.  Isn’t there a better way to increase engagement?

What is going on at school

I have fallen quite behind in blogging; while My Yahoo claims my last entry was one month ago, I don’t know that I’ve written anything substantive since January. So let’s cover the major news.

For being in an MBA program, I don’t spend much time writing about it here. (If you do want to hear about the MSU full-time MBA program, you can read the diaries.) With 17 credits, I am taking one more class than many of my peers. This reduces my free time, but I have a hard time turning down a free class (a result of block tuition). I did seriously consider dropping one class, but that was due to professor quality rather than time constraints. My time is further reduced because I work for Journeys International in Ann Arbor on Fridays, as well as working remotely during the week.

There are a number of fun things related to my classes. In my entrepreneurship class, the professor has invited some real-life entrepreneurs to come in and give presentations and Q/A sessions about their experiences. It has been pretty interested to see the different paths and philosophies. On Thursday, my team will be pitching our business plan to a number of venture capitalists the professor has invited. In my investments class, I am part of a team that is investing an imaginary $1,000,000 in the stock market. Despite having a very passive strategy, we have consistently been in the top third of the competitive rankings. I would like to thank the efficient frontier for this.

My search for a summer internship has continued. While my classmates studying HR were interviewing heavily last fall, it appears that many of the companies in the tech industry didn’t get around to posting internships until March. With each company having its own resume system, apply to these positions can take a lot of time. I have an idea on how to improve this, and I’m planning to write a patent for it.

New style

Today I updated the main stylesheet for my website, increasing the font size, narrowing the article width, and making a couple other tweaks. This is the first time I have changed the style in over a year. While some Internet research showed that usability studies have not identified a single, optimal column width for websites, I think the previous size was beyond the recommended norms. Also, I specified the font and column widths in ems, so changing your browser’s text size will scale both the text and the columns, similar to Yahoo’s home page. Now, I’m not sure what to do with the additional space in the right margin…. perhaps I could add a random image roll from my photo galleries. I’ll definitely consider lazy web suggestions.

Equal members

The syllabus for one of my new classes states in bold, “It is expected that each team member will contribute equally on each part of each assignment.” Apparently the professor did not read my recent post on group projects. I agree with some of the group requirements: the group size (2 students) should not be too large for the assignments, and teams last for the entire course. However, I disagree that individual contributions should be equal for every single subdivision of each assignment. If the goal is to enforce fairness, the professor could simply allow optional group feedback reports. If the goal is to ensure every student can perform everything taught in the course, why bother having groups at all?

I also resent when professors mandate a certain level of note-taking, but at least the class does not have a participation grade based on quantity of class questions.


Another blog entry that has been rattling around my head is the subject of fairness. In my leadership and teamwork class last semester, Professor Hollenbeck explained the concept of fairness in the simplest, most practical way. In the context of a relationship, someone considers what they put in versus what they get out. Then they compare this to a different relationship for reference. There are three possible outcomes:

  • If the reference relationship matches, they consider it fair.
  • If the comparison reveals that they get out more than put it, they feel guilt.
  • If the comparison reveals that they put in more than they get out, they feel angry.

That should make sense immediately, as long as I explained it well.

Now, let’s apply this to human-corporation relationships, e.g. business transactions. A good example is buying a new car. If I pay the same price for a new car that my neighbor paid, I would consider it fair. If I pay more than my neighbor paid for a new car, I would feel angry. If I pay less than my neighbor paid for a new car, I would feel happy. This all matched up until that last part… while I might feel a tinge of guilt about gloating to my neighbor, it is a victorious feeling knowing that I “beat” the dealership.

I am not going to expand on this right now, but it seems the lack of guilt in business transactions is related to the many woes of globalization. The odd thing is that individual consumers are the source of the cruelty.

Group projects

I have been thinking about the title subject of this blog entry, but before I get to that, it’s worth mentioning a bit about Microsoft’s stock price. A month ago, I commented that the price had been going up constantly since early October, which was conveniently when I purchased some shares. I have since sold the shares when I saw the price hit $28 and stay there for a couple days. Apparently 28 is a bit of a glass ceiling for MSFT, which has bounced down to 27.13 in the past week. If it returns to 25 I might be interested, but for now I’ll try my luck with XOM.

Now, to discuss group projects. For a long time, I have known that having to do group projects for school generally sucks. Sometimes they can be tolerable or even decent, but usually they are not enjoyable to work on and do not provide effective learning experiences.

Motivation of the group members is often a problem. In high school and earlier, my fellow classmates frequently lacked motivation. They were there because they had to, not because they wanted to be there. This issue improved as I moved on to college and now business school.

Groups require a period of adjustment before optimal performance can be realized. This is a well accepted fact of team dynamics, and my experience has reinforced the claim. With a brand new team, you have no idea what to expect…. who can you rely on? Who should you not rely on? What are the real strengths of each member? Even if you knew the fellow members before the group formed, working with them may show a different side of them. Many of my classes would have us form a new group for each project, or only have one project, so the group did not have much time to gel. While the teams in MSU’s MBA program were designed to maximize conflict, by sticking with the same team for the whole school year, we have ample time to mutually adjust and then perform optimally.

While groups for school projects rarely exceed sizes of 4-5 members, even this number is too large for most tasks. Writing a report, possibly the most common requirement for school, can really not be actively performed by more than 3 people. Even with only 3 people, the third person is not adding much net value. Probably the best way to organize the team would be to have 2 people do the writing and have the other members review and critique the paper, with one member nominated for final review.

The real problem with having groups larger than required for the task is that students feel obligated to equally contribute to the project. This may be the result of simple peer pressure but is often backed up by teachers requiring peer feedback. Having separate writers and reviewers is not a equal division of labor, so groups are effectively encouraged to either (1) have all of the team members huddle around one computer collectively dictating the report or (2) farm each section out to a different member. The first option is a waste of time, and the second option yields a report that lacks flow and has inconsistently writing styles. The problem is further compounded when the group exists for only one project, because there is no opportunity to allow the individual contributions to level out across multiple projects.

While I do not have a fix for the motivation problem, the way to improve school group projects is fairly clear. Teachers should either have students form groups for the length of course and work on multiple projects or have no groupwork at all. The compromise, having one group project for the course, is actually the worst idea.


Recently, all of the fulltime MBA students completed a series of surveys and received a CQ score. What might that be? Well, clearly CQ stands for cultural intelligence. (Don’t worry, I had that confused look on my face, too.) The person running the survey told us that there are many kinds of intelligence, so she figures cultural intelligence is one of them.

I have heard this multiple intelligence thing before, and I had a special 5th grade class that was supposed to exploit this fact. It was a cool class, but I don’t agree with the eight-category theory of multiple intelligences (i.e. logical, linguistic, spatial, musical, kinesthetic, naturalist, intra-personal and inter-personal). If we are going break it down, it seems to me that intelligence has 3 parts:

  • Thinking/Reasoning
  • Knowledge/memory
  • Execution

The thinking category includes comprehension, observation, calculation, and other types of rational thought. The knowledge category describes the body of knowledge one currently have as well as one’s ability to remember new information. The execution category generally involves your ability to convert your thoughts and knowledge into physical acts: speaking, moving, playing instruments, and playing sports. Execution also includes less mobile activities such as written communication.

While I am sure most people exhibit correlations between these three parts, they seem to be independent. From someone’s musical or sports performance, I do not know their ability to think or remember. It is more difficult to separate thinking and knowledge because one’s ability to reason is shown by their ability to compare a new idea to previous ideas they remember. And one’s ability to structure information greatly improves recall. However, it seems like there should be a way to show these are independent.

More myspace spam

I got some more spam on myspace today. I have been reading about cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerabilities on myspace, and I suspect this must be a result of that, since it claims to be using a friend’s account. Here is the text:

Hey. Sorry, I don’t have an account, I have to use this one for now, its a friends. I am not too confident about this online dating, so i am waitng a bit to sign up. See how it works out first. It seems like ages since I have been in the dating circuit. I could really do without all the useless meetings and dates that go no-where. I do enjoy all the great sex that comes with having a boyfriend though. That is always the greatest part! I guess you have to start somewhere, so here I go. i thought your profile was nice and decided to say hello. If your interested in me you should send me an email at my personal addy: luvleepeech22 at yahoo. i am sure you want to see pics of me and I have some but I couldnt figure out how to attach them so when you write I will be sure to send some with my reply.

Write back soon!

Why do you work?

My undergraduate degree is in computer science from Kettering University. Being interested in software, choosing this major was a no-brainer. Kettering was small, and the body of computer science students was even smaller. While we didn’t hug each other, I would say it was a close-knit community. As time goes on, I realize more and more how special computer science is, or at least computer programming is.

Computer science professors have relatively high expectations of student’s initial skills. While programming is taught from scratch, it is introduced very quickly. I actually skipped the first programming course at Kettering, but that was because I previously had two related courses as well as several years dinking around on personal projects with BASIC, C, and Java. I think a large number of the computer science students had programming experience before starting college. Later, in the system programming course, the professor just assumed all of the students knew UNIX!

I am writing this extemporaneously, so I apologize that my thoughts may not be conveyed very well. My point is not that professors have unrealistic expectations. It is actually quite the opposite; professors are correct to assume that students either (1) are already familiar with the technology or (2) have the desire and propensity to learn it on their own. These students write software as a hobby. People program computers for fun — in their spare time! This has always made perfect sense to me, but I am beginning to see how bizarre it really is.

So now I am in MSU’s MBA program, where all students have at least one of the following four concentrations: finance, supply chain, marketing, and human resources. I haven’t met many students who do these things as hobbies. I don’t know any HR students that choose benefits packages or develop corporate staffing policies in their free time. I haven’t met any supply chain students who manage logistics or make purchasing decisions just for fun. The only related hobby I can think of is personal investing, which clearly goes with some aspects of finance. Many of my classmates have been interviewing recently. They are excited about the potential positions, and I am happy for them. However, when I hear about the details of their jobs, I think, “How boring! That doesn’t sound like fun.”

So what makes computer programming different? One possible reason is that it is a creative process. People do many creative activities for fun: painting, writing, photography, or even designing parts for radio-controlled trucks. Another reason is simply that you can do it as a hobby, because all you need is a computer. Developing corporate staffing policies is not a hobby simply because it is virtually impossible for it to be done without a corporation. Investing is not an innately creative activity, but it can easily be done individually on the Internet. I think coaching should fit into this analysis somehow, but I’m not quite sure.

I see a (possibly imaginary) distinction between IT workers with CS degrees vs. MIS degrees. The CS guys are there because they enjoy working with computers and software and have a passion for it. The MIS guys are there because they believe employees with computer skills are highly desired by many corporations today and in the future. Or maybe they were in the first group but didn’t want to deal with the math. As for which group is better suited for the job, I don’t think there is a clear winner. The CS group has a tendency to overlook practicality, and the MIS group has a tendency to miss algorithmic optimizations and other aspects of code quality. Going out further on a limb, the CS group is more likely to work overtime because a technical problem is challenging while the MIS group is more likely to work overtime because the boss is expecting it. Now I realize I am far from actually making a point about anything…..

My point is that most jobs in the MBA world seem to be things that people would never do for fun. If I’m not careful, I will be moving from a something I do for fun (web development) to something not nearly as enjoyable. While I expect to earn more with an MBA, I am not interested in enduring a boring job just for a biggest paycheck.