Hana Johnson records students’ comments on a whiteboard during a class discussion. (Photos by Caleb Rainwater)

Smaller Classes Mean Active Learning for Next Carson Cougs

By Becky Kramer

A fast-moving discussion about Amazon is underway in Hana Johnson’s Introduction to Business class.

Johnson, an assistant professor at the Carson College of Business, has challenged students to think about ways Amazon has been a disruptor in global business. She’s running out of space on the classroom whiteboard for their answers.

The students have charted Amazon’s path from online bookseller to a $1 trillion company, discussing Amazon’s ground-breaking use of technology and logistics, the company’s impact on traditional brick-and-mortar retailers, and Amazon’s recent entry into the grocery store market with Whole Foods’ purchase.

Now, the students are moving on to Amazon Prime and why it’s strategic for the company to offer streaming services as part of the $119 annual membership.

This isn’t your typical college lecture class, where students sit quietly and take notes. By the end of the 75-minute session, most students have spoken up. Part of their grade depends on their class contribution.

“We’re trying to change the culture of learning,” says Johnson, a faculty member in the college’s Department of Management, Information Systems, and Entrepreneurship.

As part of a focus on teaching critical thinking and soft skills, the Carson College is rolling out smaller class sizes with more active learning. The goal is 70 students or less for each of three Introduction to Business sections.

“When you have 200 people in a class, they are in an auditorium taking notes,” says Debbie Compeau, the college’s senior associate dean for faculty affairs and research. “When you have 70 students in a class, you can have a discussion about a problem a business is facing. You can ask students, ‘How would you solve this problem?’”

Smaller classes part of Next Carson Coug initiative

Jessica Richards

The smaller class sizes grew out of the Next Carson Coug initiative, which seeks to sharpen graduates’ readiness for the workplace.

“When we talked to the people who hire our graduates, we heard a recurring message: They lack soft skills,” Compeau says.

“Employers told us that students’ technical skills were just fine,” says Tom Tripp, senior associate dean for academic affairs. “But as a whole, they lacked the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively, and they didn’t have that professional polish—the ability to understand workplace norms and abide by them.”

Addressing the deficit requires an approach where students can’t coast by on passive learning, Compeau and Tripp say. Smaller class sizes are part of the solution. They give students more opportunities to practice their public speaking and critical thinking skills.

Class attendance has increased

This year’s Introduction to Business classes have ushered in a number of changes for students, including assigned seating, name tags, and fewer distractions. Laptops, phones, and other electronics must be stowed away, unless they are required for a specific class activity.

Attendance was at 80 percent or higher during the fall semester, compared to the 50 percent that’s typical for freshman classes. The classes incorporate case studies from the Harvard School of Business. In order to talk knowledgably in class, students have to keep up with homework assignments and readings.

“Students are getting that it’s important to show up for class and to show up prepared,” Debbie Compeau says. “Those are behaviors we want to encourage.”

Along with learning business concepts, students are gaining confidence in speaking up, says Joe Compeau, clinical associate professor in the Department of Management, Information Systems, and Entrepreneurship.

“Learning how to present your idea in a coherent manner, discuss it, take feedback, and do that all spontaneously requires practice,” says Joe, who also teaches Introduction to Business.

Fear of having the wrong answer keeps many students from speaking up in class, he says. But in a class of 70, it’s less intimidating.

“Students discover that if they’re wrong, it’s not the end of the world,” he says. “The class moves on to the next idea, and they’ll get a chance to present another idea at a later time.”

Garth Mader spent most of his career at Nordstrom and Amazon before coming to work at the Carson College. He did some corporate training in his previous work, and the opportunity to teach smaller classes appealed to him.

“I can literally walk to the back of the room in a class of 70, have a conversation with the students there, and the class follows along with me,” says Mader, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Management, Information Systems, and Entrepreneurship. “You can’t connect with individuals that way in a larger audience.”

Jared Geier

Mader says he’s pleased to see the gains his Introduction to Business students have made in expressing their ideas in front of a group.

“For many, speaking out in a group setting is a difficult skill to learn,” he says. “Giving students opportunities to develop that confidence through practice will help them through their job search process. It will help them succeed in their first job, and it will help them throughout their careers.”

Good reviews from students

Jessica Richards, a sophomore from Kennewick, is in Johnson’s class. She gives it good reviews.

“When she first said we’d be graded on class contribution, I thought, ‘OK, I’d better talk every day,’” says Richards, who is majoring in hospitality business management. “But I’m not really shy about speaking up.”

Contributing regularly in class motivates Richards to stay on top of homework assignments. And she enjoys the Harvard case studies, which make the business concepts more real to her. Without the real-world examples in Johnson’s class, Richards says she’d have a harder time following the concepts behind the numbers in the Accounting 230 class she’s taking this semester.

Jared Geier, a sophomore from Bremerton, appreciates the lively student discussions, which help him stay focused in Johnson’s class. Geier also knows he’ll be hearing new material in class, not a lecture that repeats information from a textbook or a PowerPoint presentation he could find online.

“This is different, for sure,” Geier says. “You have to come prepared every day.”