Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Teaching Undergrads vs. MBAs: Four Observations

Hello and sorry I've been away from blogging for so long! I ended up switching departments and jobs--now I work at Yale University at the School of Management. As you might imagine, a lot of things have changed as a result of the move. What I'd like to do today is to briefly summarize what stuck out to me as the main differences between teaching undergraduate psychology majors and first year MBAs.

A note of caution before we dive in: I've only spent about 27 hours teaching MBAs and three years teaching psychology undergraduates, so it's possible that I know little to nothing about teaching BOTH groups. Also, the undergraduates and MBAs experienced different courses and come from different universities, so the differences I observed might not reflect MBA/undergrad distinctions. What is reported here is simply one person's observations from a relatively short time period.

(1) Energy and effort
I recently started tracking my daily exercise using fitbit, and one of the striking things I see in my own data is the manifestation of new situational demands on my time and energy. Nowhere was this more apparent than when I was teaching a Yale MBA class over the last week. The class is called "Managing Groups and Teams" and all first year MBAs take the course, which spans eight different topics over the course of five days. Much of the course is focused on classic social psychological principles of inter/intra-group dynamics, but the class activities are designed specifically to create team experiences: That is, the class provides activities that get students to work in teams and experience some of the challenges that teams contend with--ranging from challenges of coordination to interpersonal challenges of dominance and hierarchy.

These student experiences require a ton of legwork on the part of TAs and faculty. As a result, you walk a lot while teaching the class. Check out my daily steps on the five days while teaching as compared to my typical steps on the five days surrounding the teaching:

Teaching the MBA course marked a significant increase in my daily activity levels. For instance, on the first day of the course I tried to go out for a run and literally couldn't bring myself to do it. This is not my phenomenological experience of the energy and effort it takes to teach undergrads. Lecture style classes that I've taught for undergrads in the past do not seem to result in this level of exhaustion. My conclusion: MBA teaching requires a bit more physical effort/energy.

(2) Mechanism v. application
By and large, questions of process and mechanism dominate undergraduate psychology major discussions of lecture content. Undergrads spend a large amount of time trying to understand how and why things work the way they do. This is very different from the sorts of questions I heard last week teaching MBAs: The MBAs wanted to know how generalizeable the insights from lectures would be to other situations and contexts, they wanted to know how data from a scientific study could apply to an actual team within a real organization.

One example, in my MBA class last week I talked about cortisol as a stress hormone--it's something I also talk about in my undergraduate psychology lectures. Whereas the undergraduates were interested in how cortisol is related to short and long term stress responses, and why it is used (sometimes) as an indices of long term health, the MBAs were less interested in the how and why of cortisol, and much more interested in what the important outcomes of stress might be for leaders and subordinates, and whether stress matters much at all in the context of organizations. Both pathways I find interesting, but they result in very different classroom discussions.

(3) Speaking norms
My undergraduate psychology class was the same size as my MBA sessions last week (n= 60-70), but despite the equality of size, it was much more common to pose a question and get half the students raising their hand to answer in the MBA class. In the undergraduate class, sometimes I ask (what I think are) critical questions about content and I end up having a deep conversation with two or three unique students. It is important to note that MBAs are older with work experience, so they must be eager to get something personally out of the course. Undergraduate psychology students may still be searching for their unique voice, and so they still might weigh the costs and benefits of having their voice heard during class discussions.

(4) Motivation v. Utility
In my first experience with MBAs I found the main challenge to be about how much I could make the material I wanted to talk about directly useful to their organizational lives. As someone who is obsessed with process and mechanism, at times I struggled with the "so what?" questions that seemed to be of the sort I kept getting in the classroom sessions. Making utility obvious and apparent seems to be the main challenge (for me) in teaching MBAs.

For undergraduates, the challenge for me has always been individual student motivations. Some undergraduates either can't get excited about the material presented in lecture, or they are weighing the interpersonal costs of becoming excited about classroom content around their peers. This feature of undergraduate teaching left me sometimes feeling great about delivering a spot-on lecture but uncertain about how the material was received by the audience. When teaching undergraduates I was always trying to find ways to get them to care more about the material.

That's all for now! More insights will arrive in the coming years as I become more familiar with teaching MBAs.


  1. You beat me in Fitbit. :-(

    That was a nice read. Thanks!

    - Chris

  2. brilliant! having just done my first 4 day of a post grad diploma (a bespoke course based around an MBA) at a New Zealand university, I found the comments of comparing the students of that to under grads fascinating (my blog as linked as more insights). And for sure, that lecturer had boundless energy - he was on the go for 6 hours at a time...impressive!