Teaching with Technical Notes

So much of the art of teaching by the case method involves asking rather than telling.   We teach this way out of a belief and considerable evidence that learning “sticks” when a student makes his or her own sense of an idea, as opposed to passively memorizing it.  And one of the most important decisions a case teacher must make is choosing where the “sense-making” should begin.  Do you start with first principles, or somewhere higher up the intellectual ladder?   I would guess that most teachers in graduate business school opt for higher up.  But when you have a diverse student body, it is helpful to have some supporting materials for your case studies that can help level the playing field.  These materials are typically called “technical notes.”  How and where should one use them?

 

Darden faculty gathered recently for a seminar on teaching at Darden led by Yael Grushka-Cockayne and myself.  The subject was “Exploiting Technical Notes and Other Supplements for the Learner.”  At the outset, a show of hands suggested that some 80% of the attendees had written technical notes; and virtually all of the instructors had used them.  Of course, defining a “tech note” might include all kinds of didactic materials, such as a Darden Business Publishing tech note, Harvard Business Review article, review paper, book chapter, research working paper, a webpage, and a video.   Getting the most out of technical notes is a challenge relevant to all case teachers.  What are some of the considerations or best practices about using technical notes?

 

Our discussion grappled with four sets of questions:

  • Whether or not to use technical notes.  We began by asking why colleagues have chosen to use tech notes—or why they have consciously NOT used them.  Here are some responses:

 

Why use technical notes?

Why NOT use technical notes?

§  Explain things for the non-technical student: theory, research findings.  Give examples.

§  Might accelerate learning.  “Turbo-charge” the class discussion.  Show a process or method to be used in preparing to discuss a case study.

§  Serve to squeeze in ideas in a short space of time.

§  Free up time for other interesting discussion topics.  Might help to lift the richness of case discussions to a higher level.

§  Can help to sustain substance of the curriculum at a high level.

§  Control the message a bit: no right answers, but many wrong ones…here’s what to watch out for.

§  Generally, support the learning objectives for the module or course.

 

§  Learning “sticks” when it is acquired through problem solving.  Tech notes might short-circuit the self-discovery through problem solving.

§  Might conflict with learning objectives.

§  Disconnects the student from the “real world,” tilts the tone of learning from practice to scholarship.

§  Might create dependence or passivity.

§  Must be tailored to the readiness of the student and the position in the course.

§  Different students experience tech notes in various ways—using tech notes is not guarantee of general learning.

§  Too easy to use a good note in the wrong way.  Different tech notes serve different purposes: a) “this is how you bake the cake” versus b) “these are the ingredients, now you decide how to bake.”

§  Cannot truly substitute for the richness of student-faculty interaction.

§  We want to promote students to think critically about the world, not just accept conclusions.

§  Can take students into minutiae before they master the “major muscle movement.”

 

 

  • If we must use them, should we assign them for reading before or after the class—or even, maybe embed a technical presentation within the case for the day?  The answer depends on the learning strategy that the instructor adopts and the instructors learning objective for the session.  Exactly what will be the growth to be achieved that day?  Sometimes, students’ struggle with solving a problem can help motivate learning the tools and concepts embedded in a tech note.
  • How much should we rely on technical notes in our curriculum?  At Darden, perhaps a quarter of the learning materials we distribute students are didactic presentations of one kind or another.  Clearly, tech notes are a major component of the student learning experience at a case method b-school.  The colleagues in our session seemed to believe that the mix of cases and technical material was about right.  One said that what mattered was not the bulk or mix of learning materials to students, but rather, what happens in the classroom.  Another pointed out that most of our tech notes are tailored to marry with our case studies and that such tailoring has a huge benefit. 
  • What is happening in our environment that might drive the greater use of technical notes?  Colleagues cited changes in program design (such as shorter course lengths), rising expectations of mastery for MBA students, and smarter students. These factors might contribute to both students and faculty feeling the need to include more tech notes to supplement the face-to-face sessions.

 

Colleagues ended the session by concluding that our use of technical notes needs to be driven by learning strategies, for the program, for individual courses, and for individual class sessions.  It is easy to get over-reliant on didactic material, at the expense of deep learning from human debate over chewy dilemmas.  Plainly, the tech note is a useful tool, but one to be used thoughtfully.

 

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