Teaching a business survey course

I received an interesting email yesterday from a student in my first semester business survey course, challenging whether she was experiencing valuable learning. I thought this was a great opportunity to begin a conversation about pedagogy, how I choose to apply it in teaching a survey course and why I believe this approach is the most beneficial to first semester students.

Often taken in the first semester of a college/university program, a survey course intends to provide a broad overview of a subject area such as Business and Society, while leaving details to advanced courses taken later in a student’s academic career.

In almost every situation I have found it prudent to begin with the end in mind. Ultimately a business education seeks to prepare students for success in business. So when we speak to students after their first few months of their new careers what is their feedback? In my experience, the two most common sentiments expressed are:

  • How often they felt “lost” in their new job, or had been in a situation in which they “didn’t know what to do”
  • How much learning they experienced in the first few months of starting their job

How do we reconcile these two experiences? Namely, the experience of frequently feeling “lost” with the experience of learning so much? Perhaps the most relevant question of all is: How can we prepare students taking a first semester survey course to be successful in this circumstance?

I recently taught a lesson on developing a marketing plan, and in particular how to identify a target market. Consider the following two approaches for teaching this concept:

Information first, problem second

Suppose an instructor were to present the slides outlining the terms students would need to be familiar with. Students would inevitably read:

  • How to study and analyze potential markets
  • What a target market is
  • Types of markets (B2C vs B2B)
  • How to select a target market
  • How to apply the Marketing Mix (developing a product, place, promotional and pricing strategy)
  • How to segment our market, and the different types of segmentation for B2C and B2B markets

Next, the instructor would likely hand these terms out on a sheet and after finishing a slideshow presentation and guide students through the step-by-step process of creating a marketing plan for a company, usually after providing an example.

So is this the process our graduating students are learning?

When our graduating students report the immense amount of learning that takes place in their first few months, is this the result of having their boss or colleague take them step-by-step through each topic?

This certainly has not been my experience nor the experiences reported to my from my returning students, who describe much more self-directed learning. Information is not handed over and expected to be applied.

Is learning taking place using this approach?

Yes, but is this valuable learning? Will the terms be remembered once the students leave class? A week later? If no term sheet was to be provided, did we help develop our students ability to understand the problem that these terms are seeking to solve?

Is this approach appropriate in a survey course?

I firmly believe it is not. In a survey course, will discuss accounting concepts in one lecture, followed by HR in the next lecture. I believe a deep dive on terminology is not nearly as valuable is an understanding of how it can be applied.

A Problem-based approach to learning

On Thursday I provided my students with 4 business taken from the winter batch of YCombinator graduating companies. With only a 3-4 sentence description of each business and no previous discussion on the elements of a marketing plan I asked them in groups to discuss and describe who they would try to sell these products to (ie who is the target market?) and how. In the time of our class we only completed one company, Wallz who sells tiny blocks that can be stuck to walls to make designs.

Great learning took place in these groups. Here a few examples:

  • All groups identified a wide range of markets, far too many. When asked if the same approach could be used to market to each the groups were tasked to narrow their segment.
  • The descriptions of each target market were very broad, for example “kids” or “parents”. Groups were again tasked to be more specific and elaborated to markets such as “children between 7-13 years old.”
  • One group asked the question “could we sell to other businesses?” When I asked why this would be beneficial, another group responded with “we could reach more customers easily.” This led to a discussion of the pros and cons of selling this product B2B.
  • Another group found a brilliant use case for Wallz, however for a very small demographic. This again led to a great discussion of why it might be more beneficial to pick a larger demographic.

What were the results?

By the end of the class, students had discovered the material we were learning that day, without the need for terminology. Students had:

  • Explained why too broad of a target market was not beneficial
  • Explored different ways to narrow a target market, effectively discovering market segmentation (ie “maybe we should sell it near where it’s made.”)
  • Identified the two different types of markets (B2C and B2B)
  • Created a marketing strategy that involved solving the company’s distribution problem, while ideating the pros and cons of using a B2B strategy in this case
  • Learned the difference between a great use case for a demographic and what makes a demographic attractive
  • Discussed different marketing channels that could lead to sales, and some of the challenges of each

None of this information was provided to them, it was entirely reasoned out to help solve a provided problem. All this learning in addition to the learning that took place within groups that I wasn’t able to witness.

Most importantly, however, was that students worked in groups critically reasoning their way through a problem. They developed their communication skills, critical thinking skills, creativity skills and problem solving skills; among others. Next class we will apply new terminology to what we have learned so that my students can learn to speak the language of business.


In my class students are challenged to solve problems that they have not solved before. Before Thursday they had never made a marketing plan or conducted market segmentation and this inevitably led to many mistakes being made and much confusion. I think this is wonderful. The next time my students see a target market that is too broad I believe they will remember this exercise and say “we need to be more specific.” Or the next time they see a company struggling to distribute their products they will suggest a B2B approach and be able to outline some of the pros and cons - even if they struggle to remember the terminiology.

I hope that through problem-based approaches to learning my students start to become comfortable with the feeling of being lost, because we have practiced feeling lost in our classes, praticed finding creative solutions to the problems that put us there and learned that this feeling is normal and surmountable. When these students graduate, start their amazing new careers and undoubtedly at some point feel lost I hope they will have the confidence to accept this feeling and learn their way out of it as they did in my class.