[The Montana Professor 22.1, Fall 2011 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Redesigning a Business Capstone from the Perspective of the Student

Timothy L. Kober
Montana Tech

Gordon R. Flanders
Montana Tech

David N. Ottolino
Montana Tech

—Timothy L. Kober
—Gordon R. Flanders
—David N. Ottolino


Recent studies suggest that today's college students are less engaged than their predecessors and that business students can be typically singled out on any given campus as the least engaged of all. According to the most recent National Survey of Student Engagement, nearly half of seniors in business spend less than 11 hours a week studying outside of class—less time than students in any other broad field of study (Glenn, 2011). Research by Arum and Roksa (2010) reports that 45 percent of students in general did not show significant improvement in a range of skills during their first two years of college; the authors singled out business students as the worst performers. The faculty of the Department of Business at Montana Tech, concerned about the same pattern of performance by their students, has been seeking a solution to this problem for a number of years.

The department attempted to address the issue of student engagement over the last two years while changing the format of its strategic management course. This course, which serves as the capstone for the Business program, had evolved into an online course focusing on three or four case "write-ups" incorporating student interaction through the use of an online discussion board. The revamped course was eventually brought back to a traditional classroom environment with mandatory attendance and discussion. The course was subsequently revised again to include a business simulation, and a more significant communication piece was added with the students required to make two formal presentations to the board of directors of the company profiled in their business simulation. The new version of the course employed a standard textbook, and the topics from the text were presented by the instructors in a traditional lecture style complete with PowerPoint slides provided by the author of the text. A second instructor was added to the course in an effort to promote discussion and divide the workload. The overhauled course was largely considered a success in many ways, but it appeared that the department was still having difficulty engaging many of its students. Stronger students, as measured simply by grades, would come to class prepared and would generally dominate the discussion while average performers attended class but usually only spoke when called upon and typically offered no additional insight to the discussion. The average students seemed to be more concerned about watching the clock rather than engaging with the course content.

The move to redesign the delivery of a capstone course

In Fall 2010, the department faculty, still concerned about its students' overall level of engagement, went back to the drawing board for its strategic management class. This time one of the newer faculty members suggested an attempt to fully integrate an active learning pedagogy into the course. The formal assessment of students would continue to use components from prior strategic management courses including exams, case discussion and write-ups, a business simulation, and a term paper, but the delivery of the material would change from an instructor-centered pedagogy of transmission to a more student-centered pedagogy of engagement. Specifically the course would move away from a traditional lecture delivery approach to a format where the students would be directly responsible for the content and direction of classroom dialogue.

The proposed revision had support in the literature. According to DiCarlo (2009), the traditional course delivery format does not create opportunities for teachers to help students "develop lifelong skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication and interpersonal skills" (p.258). Russ Edgerton, as cited by Smith, Sheppard, Johnson, and Johnson (2005), is given credit for the concept of pedagogies of engagement in his 2001 Education White Paper in which he maintains that

learning about things does not enable students to acquire the abilities and understanding they will need for the 21st century. We need new pedagogies of engagement that will turn out the kinds of resourceful, engaged workers and citizens that America now requires. (p.36)

Since Edgerton introduced his approach to developing pedagogies that engage students, more evidence is emerging that engaging students with active-learning strategies will deepen their understanding of course concepts (Heller, Biel, Dam, &Haerum, 2010; Kuh, 2009; LaNasa, Cabrera, &Transgrud, 2009; Zyngier, 2007).

In addition to tackling student engagement, the department also decided to implement a "deep learning" process to encourage students to move past the surface learning mode of temporarily recalling facts and ideas (Beattie, Collins, &McInnes, 1997). This change would allow a shift from an environment where the instructor shares only course-specific knowledge to a setting where the students would apply business concepts learned in previous courses to address issues presented in a strategic management setting. The department faculty hoped that engaging deep learning would enable students to synthesize the content acquired in previous study, developing an understanding of core concepts that encourages their integration with new applications (Floyd, Harrington, &Santiago, 2009; Nelson Laird, Shoup, Kuh, &Schwarz, 2008).

An active learning approach was new to the department and its instructors, most of whom were very familiar and comfortable with a traditional course delivery approach. While the department saw this pedagogical shift as a step in the right direction, many were nonetheless unsure about how instructors—and students—would adapt to the new model.

Designing an active-learning capstone course

When the Montana Tech Business faculty discussed the idea of changing the delivery of the strategic management course, there was so much interest in the experiment that the excitement about the possibilities of an active-learning approach far overshadowed any fear that such a method might flop. Three instructors in particular declared a strong interest in being involved in the course; it was determined that they would be able to work together well and that the combination of their individual skills and experience would help students manage the different aspects of the course. This pilot group agreed on the basic content and delivery of the course and felt confident going into the semester that the new approach would work. That being said, there was still some apprehension on the part of the faculty as to whether the students would share their enthusiasm for an active learning methodology.

Course learning objectives

The syllabus for the new strategic management course incorporated active learning concepts directly from the literature into the course objectives and outcomes. According to the syllabus, the learning objectives for the course were

Use of class time

The redesigned capstone course essentially scrapped the lecture approach and replaced it with a variety of methods designed to employ an active engagement pedagogy. Students were given a detailed introduction at the start of the semester to methods of critical thinking, Socratic questioning, problem-based learning, process-oriented guided inquiry, and collaborative learning. The instructors would lead the detailed discussions on each of the methods presented at the beginning of the course and clearly emphasize how each would be employed by the students and instructors throughout the term. After the introductory phase, the students knew that the instructors would step to the side and become participants in student-led discussions.

It was decided that in lieu of a textbook the students in the revamped class would engage in the write-up and discussion of nine different topics related to strategic management. Students were asked to find academic articles from peer-reviewed journals and, for each of these topics, write a summary of the article and participate in an open forum discussion of the topics. To facilitate group discussions, students were randomly assigned into groups as small as four students or as large as one large group arranged in a circle. All students were required to present their article selection regardless of the size of the group.

The students were also required to write up and discuss five Harvard Business School case studies over the course of the semester. The instructors had introduced the case study approach with a sample case with the discussion for each of the five assigned cases completed over two class meetings and—again—led by the students. Virtually all of the students had been exposed to some form of case approach in their other classes at Montana Tech, but the cases selected for this course were more comprehensive, being suitable for a graduate program.

The three instructors also determined that the simulation was valuable only if the students made a serious effort. The students, with the understanding that it would help them get the most out of the simulation, allowed the instructors to set up semi-formal sessions, related to the business simulation, outside the scheduled class meeting times. These outside sessions allowed the instructors to elaborate on a number of concepts, ranging from the operation of the business simulation to how to make a presentation to a board of directors. These sessions were not required, per se, but each student-led company from the simulations had at least one member in attendance at each session.

Results of changes in the capstone class

On the first day of class the three instructors addressed the 40 graduating seniors and advised the students that this course would be more intensive and rigorous than any class they'd had yet. Students were informed that attendance and participation were mandatory. The discussion then went a direction that no Montana Tech business student had ever gone: The instructors stated that students completing a capstone course are expected to demonstrate their mastery of subject matter taught in previous courses. As such, there was no textbook required for this course; instead, students would be required to incorporate information learned in previous classes and be able to apply it to situations involving strategic management. The students were also told that the class would not follow a traditional lecture format and that they would be required to lead the classroom discussion. The effect was dramatic; one student reported that "in ten minutes the tone of the class changed from boundless enthusiasm to abject terror."

Observations from the instructors

Suffice it to say, the students and the instructors were unsure about what to expect; students in the Tech business curriculum had never been held so directly responsible for their learning. Both the students and instructors seemed to gain confidence over the course of the semester, however, as the students became engaged in each classroom discussion. The instructors had been accustomed to an environment of control, yet it became clear to them that the class was gaining momentum as the students quickly took responsibility for the discussion. The instructors had seen these students in other lecture-based courses; they typically did not come to class as prepared as they should be, waited anxiously for class to end, and deferred to their classmates when the instructor asked a question. Under the new format, these same students would often extend the class session beyond its allotted 75 minutes in order to wrap up the discussion or class activity. A number of the students, who would have been classified as poor performers in other lecture-based courses, actually excelled in this new format and performed far beyond the expectations of any of the instructors. These students, who were quiet in other classes, seemed to find their voices and were able to provide insight in any given conversation. Most of the students in the course were enrolled in another senior-based class that met immediately after the strategic management course. The instructor has asked for a new meeting time for next year, noting that his students were basically spent after the strategic management class and that it was difficult to get them involved in his lecture-based course!

One final note: A primary concern of the instructors going into the course was the issue of attrition through students dropping the class. Historically, about 20 percent of the students enrolled in Tech's strategic management class have dropped, and the concern was that this would increase after the new format was introduced. As it turned out, only two students dropped the course—both in the first week of instruction; the remaining 38 students went on to successfully complete the course.

Student surveys

The 38 students who finished the course were asked to participate in two separate surveys. The first survey was the general student survey adopted by Montana Tech for all of the courses offered; 24 of the 38 students completed this survey. A second course-specific survey was also given to the students, 33 of whom completed it. Table 1 summarizes the findings from the surveys, both of which asked for Likert-scale responses.

The Likert-scale questions uncovered several attitudinal themes regarding the new strategic management format. First, it appears that although a majority of the respondents enjoy the traditional lecture style of teaching, they do not believe they learn best in an environment where they simply take notes from an instructor's PowerPoint. It also appears that our students have had little experience with principles of critical thinking in their other courses at Montana Tech and would like exposure to this approach earlier in their curriculum. They also indicated that they would like to enroll in more classes taught under an active learning approach. Additionally, the answers to questions related to the instructors indicated a high level of support for their efforts. It is notable that the numerical averages for the instructor questions in this course were higher than the averages for any of the other classes individually taught by the three instructors.


Table 1. Student Observations of the Strategic Management Course offered at Montana Tech, Spring 2011
Likert Scale Responses
Mean(SD)a Rangea % Disagreeb % Agreec
I enjoy the lecture style of classroom teaching.d 3.6(0.8) 2 - 5 9.1 60.6
I learn best in a classroom environment where the instructor uses PowerPoint and I sit and take notesd 2.9(1.0) 1 - 5 33.3 33.3
I have been exposed to critical thinking in classes throughout my years in colleged 3.2(0.9) 2 - 5 30.3 42.4
My exposure to critical thinking in this class is similar to how critical thinking has been taught in other classesd 2.5(1.0) 1 - 5 54.5 12.1
Having been exposed to a class that was structured around critical thinking, I found that I looked forward to coming to classd 3.0(1.1) 1 - 5 33.3 36.4
I would like to have taken a class on critical thinking and decision making earlier in my career at Montana Techd 4.1(0.9) 2 - 5 9.1 84.8
I would recommend that more classes be taught using this method of instruction that involves the student in his learningd 3.9(0.9) 2 - 5 9.1 66.7
The instructor encourages class discussion/participatione 4.6(0.6) 3 - 5 0.0 95.7
The instructor asks questions of the studentse 4.7(0.5) 4 - 5 0.0 100.0
The instructor is willing to listen to student questions and opinionse 4.6(0.5) 4 - 5 0.0 100.0
The instructor has a concern for the quality of teaching and learninge 4.6(0.5) 4 - 5 0.0 100.0
The instructor encourages students to challenge themselves and do high quality worke 4.7(0.5) 4 - 5 0.0 100.0
The quality of teaching was very effective in contributing to my learning 4.4(0.8) 2 - 5 4.3 91.3

a Student observations were measured using a Likert scale with the following breakdown: 1 "Strongly disagree", 2 "Disagree", 3 "Neutral", 4 "Agree", and 5 Strongly agree"

b % Disagree represents the percentage of those students who responded with either 2 "Disagree" or 1 "Strongly disagree"

c % Agree represents the percentage of those students who responded with either 4 "Agree" or 5 "Strongly agree"

d Results taken from a student survey written specifically for the Strategic Management class (sample size = 33)

e Results taken from the general student survey required for all courses at Montana Tech (sample size = 24)


The survey, given only to the strategic management class, also asked students a number of questions where the students were required to state whether they agreed or disagreed with a statement. These questions also specifically asked the students to provide additional insight on the questions. Table 2 summarizes these questions.

The findings presented in this table appear to address the concerns held by the instructors at the beginning of the course regarding the students' acceptance of the new classroom delivery approach. The student responses have given our department the impression that it is possible that less of the instructor in the classroom could translate to more for the student.

A number of respondents took the time to offer additional insights on the format of the course from the questions in Table 2. Fourteen students offered additional positive written comments, such as "This format was great" and "I loved this approach." (Not all the comments were positive, however: Three students said that they believed the new format added stress.) Four of the respondents noted that the course sharpened their time management skills, forcing them to pay attention to deadlines. Several specifically mentioned that not only did the course help to adequately prepare them for a job or for graduate school, but that it also did a good job of tying together the entire business curriculum. Some students said that they were afraid of the requirement regarding the recollection of information presented in previous business courses, yet these four went on to say that they felt they were able, in fact, to recall material used in prior classes and apply it to strategic management issues. Two students reported that the course helped them speak out in class. Only one respondent thought there was too much work expected in this course and suggested that fewer time-consuming assignments be considered.


Table 2. Student Observations of the Strategic Management Course offered at Montana Tech, Spring 2011
Non Likert Scale Responses (N = 33)
% Yes % No % No response
Do you believe you are able to demonstrate the outcomes of this course after the successful completion of this course? 100.0 0.0 0.0
Were you prepared for the amount and type of work required in this course? 54.5 27.3 18.2
This course attempted to avoid a traditional lecture format. Did you prefer the format of this course as compared to the traditional lecture format? 97.0 3.0 0.0
Do you believe this department capstone course properly prepared you for entry into either the work force or graduate school? 97.0 3.0 0.0


Changes adopted for the current academic year

The department has made a number of changes for the new academic year as a direct result of the success of its strategic management class. A three-credit special topics course devoted to critical thinking and decision making was added to the Fall semester schedule. This class has been designed to reach beyond the Department of Business; as of this writing, a number of students outside the department have already enrolled. Additionally, the course has been accepted as part of the Montana Tech Honors Program curriculum. The department has also used the active learning experience in Strategic Management to change the delivery of its freshmen level Business intro course: A number of the positives from the capstone have been introduced to the freshmen business students, who will now be engaging in a business simulation, article reviews, and case studies—all appropriately adjusted to their limited business backgrounds. Finally, all the senior level courses in the department will be similarly revamped, to varying degrees, in keeping with the changes to the strategic management class and will be taught in a more active format with additional emphasis on student engagement and student-led learning activities. The department will consider applying these approaches to its junior level courses next semester if the experience in the senior level courses proves to be as positive as that of the strategic management course. In view of the great success of the new Strategic Management course, the department is currently considering plans to implement the process throughout its entire curriculum over the course of the next few years as well as looking to incorporate the active learning approach into its assessment process. So far, so good!


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[The Montana Professor 22.1, Fall 2011 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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