Class Participation

“It is very difficult to find the number of years of its lifetime that a chicken can actually lay eggs. I googled it and guess what, Google does not know the answer either, so how can we be expected to?” -Sectionmate’s comment made during the Optical Distortion MKT case.

Often the scariest part of the case method, class participation, at least initially can unnerve even the toughest of people. Is effective participation an art or can it be learned? What goes on in a student’s mind as he/she is cold called? How can one not used to the process get good at it?

As the professor started our TOM case, Fabritek, 1992, I realized with a sinking feeling that I had gone the first four classes without being able to open my mouth even to clarify a doubt, let alone comment on something intellectual. As the professor started with “So, how many mechanical engineers do we have in class?”, I found myself looking frantically at the case summary one of my learning team members had tried explaining to me that morning and wishing desperately that I had done something else in undergrad. As the class fell silent, I looked up and noticed the professor looking straight at me. Trying my best to look nonchalant while at the same time deciding between holding his gaze and looking down at the floor and the pros and cons of either scenarios, it took me a full five seconds before I realized that his comment “Lavanya, can you tell us something about the casting and the milling processes?” was addressed to me.

I had had several nightmares about being cold called, but none that required me to remember anything about mechanical engineering. I thought I was leaving all that behind by coming to business school. As I sadly realized, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I mumbled something about molten metal and molds and rotating cutters on a spindle before the professor reluctantly opened it up to the rest of the section. As I reflected on class that day, I decided that I had to do something about my class participation (or the lack of it). So I set out to get some ammunition on the whole process by talking to ECs who have been there and done that. Here is what I have found.

Cold call
Getting cold called for a case, as long as it does not need you to start talking about undergrad, is a gift. It’s easy and usually does not involve getting into the details of the case like numbers etc. So, next time you are cold called, lay down the high level concepts of the case and sit back and enjoy watching the rest of your section trying to get into the conversation.

Quantity Vs Quality
For the first couple of weeks, it’s more about quantity than quality. This is the time when everyone is well-prepared and trying to get their points across, so it’s probably not a good idea to wait to make that one highly relevant comment as the chances are good you will end up not being called on at all in the sea of raised hands. As the term goes by, the section falls into a predictable pattern and the professor has figured everyone out, so it becomes easier to time the comments and ensure a balance between frequency and impact.

Time spent Vs Participation output
The ideal time spent per case is 1.5 to 2 hours for effective participation. Any time spent above 2 hours is not going to give you any extra benefit in terms of class participation. For the cases that you have not spent enough time on, it’s better to get the comment in early on the easy and evident points.

Good Vs Bad comments
While the definition of a good comment varies by subject and case, as a general rule comments which advance the discussion, infer from someone’s observation and challenge someone’s conclusion with evidence are good while comments which take the discussion back to a point discussed 15 minutes ago, restate an existing comment or take a lot of air time with little substance are bad comments. Also, though funny comments (like the Google comment) generally don’t get extra points, they help lighten up the mood of the section and are good for everybody.

Listen actively to the current nature of the discussion and if the professor asks a question, make sure your answers are relevant to that question. If the professor wants to know if someone has a different point of view, don’t raise your hand unless you do have a different point of view.

Personal stories/experiences
If you have a personal experience highly relevant to a case, shoot an email to the professor the previous night informing him/her about it, so you can get called on at the right time. Recognize however that professors have different operating schedules and send the mail at least by 10 p.m. the night before instead of 2 a.m.

Peer feedback
It helps to have a section mate keep track of your comments and offer feedback. It can be used as a means of calibration and regulation of airtime/quality/quantity mix of your comments.

Some general don’ts
Be wary of the number of times you use terms like ‘slippery slope’, ‘It depends’, ‘I haven’t had much experience in the industry but.’ etc., as they are generally not very sky deck friendly. Also, don’t keep your hand up when someone else is commenting or the instructor is speaking to the class.

Lavanya Manohar is a first-year RC student in Section A. When not trying to decipher three different cases in a day, she likes to blog and watch movies.

September 28, 2009
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