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Four Ways to Be a Better Teacher

Haas School of Business professor Sara Beckman teaches the most popular MBA course at UC Berkeley. Here’s her curriculum on the ABCs of teaching and learning through experience.

There’s nothing explicitly tough about Sara Beckman. The Haas School of Business professor is chatty, playful, and expressive, exuding the casual confidence of a popular teacher who stays in touch with dozens of former students. But make no mistake: Beckman is not a big softy. She just happens to think that students learn best from empathetic and collegial instructors, not hard-line jerks. Her attitude is rooted in a deep-seated philosophy that teaching — in the classroom, on the playing field, in the boardroom — isn’t about ego and top-down brain dumps.

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“I try to be a real person, not the professor,” Beckman says. “If I want to change the way students think, I have to engage them at their level. That becomes harder and harder as I get older and older.”

At 44, Beckman hardly seems to have trouble relating to students. She coteaches “Managing the New Product Development Process,” the most popular course at Haas for the past two years. Each semester, students clamor to land 1 of 50 spots on the class roster, which contains equal numbers of engineering and business-school students, and which included participants from the California College of Arts and Crafts last year.

During the 15-week semester, cross-disciplinary teams of four or five students come up with a product idea and take it through to first-pass prototype. Every year, projects vary from practical to pie-in-the-sky products. One team recently introduced a completely spill-proof coffee mug. Another group developed electronic fingernails that change color with the touch of a wand. However curious and compelling, these finished products serve just one purpose for Beckman: to teach experiential learning.

“I want students to learn that the product-development process is more complex than they think,” she says. “And while it’s not a stated purpose, I also would like them to learn something about themselves and how they perform on teams.”

Faculty members and students alike admire Beckman’s teaching approach. Last April, she received Berkeley’s annual Distinguished Teaching Award, one of the university’s highest honors for professors. Despite Beckman’s reputation as a tough grader, students still award her high marks at the end of each semester. In the past three years, 93% of students rated Beckman a 6 or higher on a 7-point scale, and of those students, 61% rated her a 7.

In a recent Fast Company interview, Beckman talked about her product-development course and shared her best-in-class tips and techniques on teaching.

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Listen for as long as you lecture.

I strive for a fifty-fifty split between lecturing and experimenting. I try to create a reasonable amount of sharing time, because face-to-face interaction tells me what students are thinking about and where they’re coming from. By rubbing elbows with my students, I can make my lessons more relevant to their personal experiences and their knowledge.

Work teams to extremes.

I can’t separate the product-development process from the experience of teamwork. In the product-development process, students think about and agree on every nitty-gritty customer need together. Building a real team, not a lackluster group, is the only way to collectively understand the customer.

Fundamentally, this class is about teams. If I were to improve the course, I would place more emphasis on teams, even though some students complain that I focus too much on teamwork. Now, there’s someone who doesn’t get it!

Play games.

How do you maximize learning in a short amount of time and still emerge with a deep, internal body of knowledge? Put simply, experiential learning. Simulation games and hands-on exercises give students a chance to interact with and focus on the subject matter both inside and outside the classroom. In the “beer game,” for example, students simulate a supply chain that delivers beer — what else? — to the marketplace. The experience teaches them the difficulty of optimizing inventory levels and customer satisfaction at the same time.

Carve out think time.

Here’s my dilemma: I teach an hour-and-a-half course that meets twice a week for 15 weeks. How do I get my students to reflect on their lessons? I make personal, process-oriented reflection a real priority by setting aside time for it. Ultimately, you have to slow down to accelerate learning.

Here’s one way I encourage students to reflect: On the last day of class, students come in with five Post-it notes — scribbled on each one is a lesson that they learned from their team project. I collect the notes, type them up, and then hand them out at the end-of-semester trade show, where teams debut their products.

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Many of the lessons mirror real market realizations: Successful projects have clear mission statements. They maintain focus from the beginning. They understand their customers and their marketplace. They capitalize on their team dynamics. And in the end, success comes down to one thing: people.

Christine Canabou (ccanabou@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company staff writer. Contact Sara Beckman by email (beckman@haas.berkeley.edu).

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