Thompson Rivers University

Teaching management, having fun breaking the ice

  Posted on: November 7, 2016

Nancy Southin, Assistant Professor, Management Department

School of Business and Economics faculty member, Nancy Southin, has created a teaching brief, Operations course icebreaker: Campus club cupcakes published with colleague and faculty member, Brent Snider of the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary.

The intention is to use the case on the first day of classes as an ice-breaker, assisting the students to get to know each other, work together and to help instructors meet their students.

One of the challenges of teaching required courses in Supply Chain Management is that many students don’t really know what they’re going to study in the course and why it is so important that they include it in their degree. Other students may have an idea of what the course is about but they are nervous about the math that they may be required to do in the course. The exercise is intended to give a brief overview of some of the topics in an Operations Management class and to encourage students to work with their classmates on a problem that they can relate to while doing some relatively simple thinking and calculations. This icebreaker assists in clarifying the relevance of the course.

The exercise introduces operations management concepts including capacity and bottlenecks. Supply chain management approaches like postponement and risk considerations are added into the mix and the students are challenged to make connections with other functional areas of business.

“It also removes us, the instructors, from the front of the class and gives us a chance to meet the students and help them work through the problems. Having a good rapport with students can decrease their anxiety and hopefully help them to realize that they can come to us throughout the course with questions,” said Southin.

Experiential learning is becoming very popular in Southin’s field as a way to engage students and teach complex concepts.

“When you start to think about how to deliver course material in a different way you can let your imagination lead you. It’s challenging to limit yourself because when it’s your area of interest you want to share a lot with students to get them as excited about the course as you are. Creating a coherent story for the case that integrates useful activities to get students thinking and introduce important tools wasn’t easy but student comments about how helpful the exercise is and how much they enjoyed doing the exercise on the first day of classes makes it worthwhile.”

To date, they have had requests for the teaching materials, that include slides and step-by-step instructions for how to run the class, from 35 universities in eight different countries. With a new term fast approaching, they anticipate more requests in the near future.

“We have heard that the exercise has been used in undergraduate Operations Management courses, in Industrial Engineering courses and MBA courses. The feedback we have received has been very positive, both professors and their students enjoy the exercise,” said Southin.

“I like starting the course with an exercise that engages students and helps me to start to get to know them. As far as other teaching briefs go, we have another one forthcoming that helps to teach a specific topic in Operations Management: Line Balancing. In this exercise, students learn the line balancing process by doing it (and competing with their classmates) with very little upfront lecturing or explanation of how to do it. It challenges the students but they are usually quite successful.”

Southin acknowledged that it can be difficult to think of new ways to engage students. Incorporating exercises like this can be challenging for instructors who may be used to a traditional way of explaining these concepts, and not everyone has the time or inclination to develop them, but they have found that good exercises and games can teach the material as well, or sometimes better than pure lecturing.

“We can all learn from each other and the interest in our exercise seems to show how excited and interested instructors are in generating interest in their students and trying to find ways to explain course concepts that are challenging. I use games and experiential activities developed by other instructors in my classes as well. While all students may not prefer exercises, games or competitions to teach concepts, in our experience, the feedback is usually very positive when asked if they enjoy alternative ways of receiving course material and concepts. One quote from a student who did the line balancing exercise sums it up:  ‘hands on learning beats a lecture any day’.”

Learn more about the Operations course icebreaker: Campus club cupcakes exercise.

More information

Nancy Southin
Assistant Professor
School of Business and Economics