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11 Active Learning Activities for your Business Class

Below are a few of my favorite Active Learning activities that I have used in my undergraduate courses. Most of these are focused toward Business related content, however some can be customized for other areas. I have additional items that I can share such as handouts for students, instructor notes, etc.

Also, if you have a favorite active learning activity you would like to share, please add it to the comments at the end of this article.

1. Card Game – Game Theory.

There are several options for using a deck of cards in the classroom. I like the Game Theory card game in which I found here: (Link). I have large classes and I can purchase several decks of cards at the local dollar store for a fun way to learn game theory other than the prisoner dilemma option.

2. Case Study – Several Topics.

This is one of my favorite “plan B” activities in my class (when I can’t find something a little more engaging). I locate a case study that is relevant to my topic and customize it to meet the needs of the class. I start by having the students individually read the case study. Then as a group, I have them answer questions related to the topic that I have prepared in advance. You can also add additional questions from the book test bank to the case study to make it more challenging. You can find case studies on any topic – my favorite topics include ethics and leadership.

3. Deal or No Deal – Prospect Theory or Risk.

Finding unique games to play in the classroom adds fun and increases engagement. For example, we play deal or no deal to demonstrate prospect theory. I invite one student up to the front of the class before I announce what we are playing. Then I tell the class that to demonstrate prospect theory, we will be playing Bonus Point Deal or No Deal. The one student that volunteered is the player and can get advice from the class. Their decision to continue or take the bankers offer is up to them. Whatever they end up with as bonus points (zero is an option) is what the ENTIRE class will receive. I came up with this idea by reading these interesting statistics on the Deal or No Deal game found here – (Link). NOTE: you will need to have access to ERIC – an online database to read this article. I created a PowerPoint template that I use to move us through the game. After each decision the student makes during the game, I ask questions of the ‘audience’ – “now if prospect theory applied in all scenarios, what would the players decision be here?”. I also bring in statistics from the article on women vs. men and risk taking. The students get really engaged and there tends to be a lot of ‘support’ from the audience as the players decision impacts all of them. This is a great way to get students moving and cheering and also a great way to get them to work together. I have an Excel file with the ‘bankers’ responses and I have a PowerPoint created to lead us through the game.

4. Communication Pyramid – Business Communication.

This is a unique activity in which you organize your students into a pyramid which signifies a typical tall organizational structure. The students are organized with one student in the front, one student directly behind the first and 3 – 5 students in the back row. The front student is the CEO, the second student is the middle manager and the back row of students are the workers. This hierarchy must be followed and students are only allowed to talk through email (in which we simulate using paper – text messages can be used as well). Each student receives an instruction sheet. The basic objective is to solve the problem, however only the CEO knows the problem and the objective. Each student’s instructions contain a set of symbols. The CEO’s instructions contain all the symbols with one extra. The CEO’s instructions tell them the objective of the game and the purpose to find the one symbol on their sheet that does not appear on any of the other student’s instruction sheets. They have to pass paper (email) with questions through the middle manager to get the answers they need. The middle manager will retype the message (write) and send it in their own words to the “workers” behind them. In almost every instance I have used this, the CEO’s fail to share the “purpose” of the activity as they assume all participants have the same information they have. This causes the ‘workers’ to feel left out and a little lost. The students learn that tall organizational structures take a great deal of work to ensure proper communication happens at all levels, and they learn that email is not always the best method to communicate. I will often run two or three teams at once, making it a competition to see who can figure it out first. Then we discuss how the teams differed in their communication style. I always like to pick on the CEO a little and ask the workers if they knew what the purpose of the activity was. I have not yet had a CEO that has shared the purpose. Then I have the CEO read the purpose on their instructions to the workers. We will discuss the importance of the “why” in business delegation and communication. As the middle manager, many times they are more in the dark that the workers. We talk about how this role helps in the communication process (if at all). I have all the instructions sheets available on my blog: http://higheredandbeyond.com

5. Penny Slide – Quality Control/Control Charts.

This is an excellent activity to get students up and moving and working together in a team. In this exercise teams of students slide several pennies on a table that has been marked with tape with different distances. This simulates the manufacturing of a product. Each student on every team is asked to slide a penny 10 times, then they are to document the distance of each penny. The assumption is that because we are using the same people and the same penny 10 times it should land on the same length each time? Wrong.. we discuss common cause variations vs. special cause variations in organizational processes. I also have the teams draft a control chart of their production rates and identify if their process is “in control”. You can also talk about reliability vs. stability. I have control chart templates and student instruction sheets if you are interested.

6. M & M’s Production Activity – Quality and Inspection.

Because of the cost of this activity, I only do it with smaller groups or classes. I purchase a small bag of M & M’s for every 2nd student in the class. I have them team up in pairs and hand a bag to each team. I give very detailed and specific instructions on how to open the bag, how to ‘produce’ each M & M, my expectations on how to move the M & M from the bag, etc. The second person in the pair is the inspector. I tell the students that I am only interested in my teams producing red M&M’s. They are only to produce red ones. I have the teams ‘produce’ 10 red M&M’s. Of course very few red ones are actually produced. I document these and give encouragement to do it again. Results are similar. Then I threaten them to do better – I tell them that they will fail this activity, and possibly the class, if they don’t start producing as I expect (simulating a management style here). They start producing more M&M’s, of course the results are the same. Then I show encouraging management posters in Power Point. Encourage them with words like “There is no ‘I’ in Team” “Quality is our Mission”, etc. (we have had these posters in our office at sometime.. :)). I then ask them to produce their M&M’s again, logging their outcome… of course the results are the same as the previous two activities. I use this to initiate a discussion on the value of inspection, the impact of management on the process, etc. We then talk about management theories and styles that actually do work in organizations.

7. Organizing Data Exercise – Balanced Scorecard.

In this activity I ask students to organize data into a balanced scorecard format. We select a topic we all know – for example the school they are attending. We talk about opportunities the school has to improve. I document this list on the board. We then identify four main categories of the business/school, for example – Financial, Customer, Business Process, Learning and Growth. You can adapt any categories here and there are plenty of examples of Balanced Scorecards on the internet to model from. We then talk about strategy – Objectives, Measures, Targets, Initiatives. Next, the students identify 4 main ‘opportunities’ from the board, one for each of the categories. We use each of these to fill in the objective, measure, target, and initiatives that can be done in support of that opportunity. Finally, they will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the measures used. This can be done as a large class discussion/activity, or with small groups and have them compare at the end of the class the scorecards.

8. Self Assessments – Several Topics.

Self assessments are a great way to engage the student by having them evaluate their own perspectives or skills in a topic area. For example, using Fiedlers Least Preferred Coworker scale to identify what type of leader they are. Or having them answer questions related to diversity to help them assess hidden biases they may have – I found a great set of questions here for that purpose -(Link). I then read back the answers and most students are very surprised by the answer. We then compare scores with each other, discuss the results – surprises, etc.

9. Current Events – Several Topics.

I like to find current events or newspaper articles and remove the ending/outcome from the article. I break the class into teams and have them evaluate it and decide how the situation could be resolved using different leadership techniques. For example, how would a scientific manager handle this situation? Or would a telling or participative manager work best here? Another great event to review is the NASA Challenger issue to talk about Group Think. For my business law class I like finding strange law cases, remove the decisions, then have the students use their knowledge of the materials they were asked to read prior to class to identify how the cases were decided. For a great activity in business communications I will find the same news article on Fox News and on MSNBC (for example) and identify the differences. This is also a good way to demonstrate how to be critical when evaluating online information.

10. SWOT Activity – Internal and External Strategy Analysis.

One common activity related to organizational strategy is to have the students perform a SWOT analysis. I often have them perform the analysis on the school they are attending as most have several opinions and are familiar with it.

11. Videos – Several Topics.

I love watching this video of Steve Jobs (Link) and have a discussion on how Apple is organized… are they a tall or flat organization. How does that structure align with their corporate strategy? Or watching this video that someone created on the stages of team development (Link). I will then ask the students to evaluate their own team (active learning team/sports team/etc.) and identify where they are at on the list. Or bring humor into the class and have fun watching this fun video on GroupThink (Link) . There are several groupthink active learning activities out there. One I found recently was to ask 5 students to come to the front of the class and give them all unmarked containers of plain flavored yogurt with the labels removed. Prior to the start of class however, I have already talked to 4 of the 5 students that volunteered. I told the 4 students that I was going to ask them to come to the front of the class and have them taste plain yogurt. However, when I ask them what flavor the yogurt is, I want them to answer strawberry. The fifth student that comes up will not be coached and will not be aware of this. In most cases the fifth student tasting the plain yogurt will answer strawberry because the four prior to them did. Finally, another favorite video to show is David Letterman talking about his transition to GE (Link). We then discuss the differences in the corporate culture between NBC and GE. What are some of the objects signifying the different cultures?


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