challenging students, supporting students: reflecting on the HR simulation

Have you ever read the research of Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi? He's the director of the Quality of Life Research Center at the Drucker School of Management (and he must know that the spelling of his name overwhelms people, because his bio on that site is labeled about Mike.)

Csikszentmihalyi's research over the last few decades has examined the role of flow in human life. Flow is a state of consciousness in which our attention is fully invested in the task at hand, and when we are in flow, time seems to disappear or to stand still. When we are in flow is when we do our best, most creative work. Flow is a natural high.

I don't often think about it this way, but my purpose as a teacher is to create the context in which my students can engage in learning management in a such a way that they experience flow. When I can do this -- when I can balance the challenge that students experience when they encounter new concepts or practice new skills against the support that they receive from me, from each other, and from their learning context -- that is when students get turned on to management. If they have that experience often enough, then they will become intrinsically motivated to learn more, and to pursue mastery of the field of management.

Of course, it would help a lot of I had had this revelation in August, rather than in November. There are signs in many student blog entries that the balance of challenge and support is out of whack. This is especially true with regard to the HR simulation. (Click through to read more.)

(With thanks to the Mutual Improvement Blog, which linked to this post on self-awareness and staying engaged, which, in turn, linked to this Kathy Sierra entry on keeping users engaged, which reminded me of what I had learned long ago, and then forgotten, about the research on flow.)

Here are some indicators that students have felt more challenged than supported, at least in the first few quarters of the simulation:

Obviously, we are headed into a period when students feel less overwhelmed by the complexities of the simulation; however, if their current comfort level has emerged simply because they have decided not to take it seriously as a learning opportunity any more, then we have missed an opportunity.

I had never thought about it from the point of view of flow theory, but the implicit design of MGMT 250 is a "sink or swim" kind of design. At the beginning of the semester, we overwhelm students with bureaucracy, choices to be made (on their grading contracts), and a very fast-paced learning environment. Those who keep their heads above water then find that soon after midterms, they have swum halfway across the lake, but that for the rest of the swim, the water is shallow enough that they can touch bottom. For many, they don't have to swim in the second half of the semester -- they just have to put their feet on the bottom of the lake and wade, hip-deep, to the finish line in December.

From the point of view of flow theory, this may not be an optimal use of time over the semester. If we overwhelm students with challenges, they will not experience much flow early in the semester, and they may learn to think of MGMT 250 as a chore, rather than as something that they might intrinsically enjoy. Later in the semester, when the course design creates more opportunities to experience flow, students are constrained by the rising level of challenge in their other courses. They may not have time to splash about and enjoy themselves in the shallows of the second half of our swim across the lake we call "Managing Organizations and People I".

Professor Poonamallee proposed something radical for her section of MGMT 250, which she is designing now and will teach in spring 2007: that half of one class session each week be used for a class-wide discussion of the quarterly industry reports from the HR simulation. This would allow students to make sense of what is happening in their own simulated company not just by using their own company's outputs, but also by comparing their actions and results with the actions and results of the other companies in their industry (aka section).

My initial reaction was that this would make the simulation less realistic; in essence, we would be encouraging students to make use of "industrial espionage", since in real life, the HR department at one company would not have access to details of decisions made in the HR departments of other companies, and their impacts on performance measures, in real time. This reaction was completely hypocritical, though -- when I first took over running the HR simulation from Professor Cardon, two summers ago, the first thing I did was run an entire industry worth of companies by myself, conducting intentional experiments so that I could understand how different actions in the simulation were connected with changes in the performance measures. Only after I did this did I construct my theory of how the simulation mirrored reality, and in what ways it was unrealistic.

I think Professor Poonamallee's instinct is a wise one. My hope is that next semester, students will be less overwhelmed at the beginning of MGMT 250, and less jaded and cynical at the end.


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