MURFREESBORO — When you enter this second-floor classroom inside the MTSU Business and Aerospace Building, you quickly notice that it’s the well-dressed students — aspiring future managers — who are running the show.
Professor Jackie Gilbert observes intently as they busily discuss last-minute PowerPoint details for her EXL 3610 Principles of Management course, which she has transformed into a “flipped classroom” of students teaching students.
Gilbert has incorporated the concept into her Experiential Learning, or EXL course, which gives students real-world job skills through hands-on experience.
“What I’ve found during this process is that students … when they are put in charge, can run the show,” Gilbert says. “My students are the stars. I’m just the person behind the curtain. When the instructor stands to the side, students can do the extraordinary.”
Throughout the semester, eight teams of students get their turn at teaching a chapter; on this day, Team 6 is teaching the chapter on strategic management. Students Jennifer Kern, Kenya Terry and Matt White serve as “presenters,” while classmates Tylar Adams, Harrison Burkle and Kyler Robinson act as “observers.” Another group of students, Team 7, will later offer 60-second PowerPoint presentations on related concepts.
Holding up a copy of Fast Company magazine, Kern begins by explaining that her team gleaned information from current articles specifically addressing strategic management. The class of 30-plus students, who are also expected to actively participate over the next hour, soaks it all in. Both the teaching teams and the classroom participants are being graded.
“We found over 50 articles written on that topic alone, about strategy and about implementation,” Kern tells the class. “This is important; this is current. And now we’re going to give you the academic basis behind the current principle.”
With a bird’s-eye view at the back of the lecture hall is special guest John Blank, executive vice president and managing director of the Franklin, Tenn., office of DHR International, an executive search firm. Beside him sits Michelle Bobbitt, assistant professor of marketing and chair of the Management and Marketing Assessment Committee in the Jennings A. Jones College of Business at MTSU.
A seasoned recruiter who’s seen his share of job candidates, Blank will provide some real-world observations for the class. Bobbitt is observing to possibly use the “flipped classroom” technique herself.
The “flipped classroom” is among the teaching approaches encouraged by the university’s Quest for Success initiative unveiled in October by MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee and Provost Brad Bartel. The reform effort calls for innovating curricula across all disciplines, specifically identifying “flipped classrooms” as a technique that lets teachers spend more class time interacting with students.
With name cards in front of them, Gilbert’s students listen to their special teachers, asking questions and sharing their own insights as points of discussion. The group debates the strategic “misses” by struggling companies such as Blackberry and Blockbuster and the strategic “hits” of others such as Google, Apple, Netflix and Southwest Airlines.
Students incorporate games, skits, class participation and student feedback to improve the quality of their presentation, Gilbert said. During the last portion of the class, the professor answers questions, clarifies concepts and tries “to bring in new material that is current,” she said.
“The flipped classroom is a process where students are co-collaborators with faculty in a learning process,” Gilbert said. “There’s no place to hide in my classroom.”
Terry, a junior from Memphis, Tenn., majoring in industrial organizational psychology, explains the benefits of the “flipped classroom” process after her presentation.
“I’m going to the book, I’m learning the material, then I’m teaching everyone else. I’m showing them that I’ve read the material and that I know it. And the teacher supports me,” she said.
“I find that’s it’s more interesting. It’s better than just sitting in a classroom and listening to a teacher giving you a lecture.”
Gilbert says her goal is to give her students usable skills valued by employers, such as the ability to interact within a diverse team and work with other teams to accomplish projects as a collective. Experiential learning for her classes, she says, forces students to hone their presentation skills.
Gilbert points to another EXL class she taught last spring that gave students an opportunity to travel to Nissan America’s Franklin, Tenn., headquarters to give competing presentations on corporate civility policies.
While nerve-wracking for the students, the Nissan executives told them that such presentations are now the norm for workplace managers. Gilbert says the students learned that “this is something that they’ll be expected to do.”
During the strategic management class in MTSU’s Business and Aerospace Building, guest observer Blank interjects thoughts throughout the presentation, then shares professional insights and wisdom with the students at the conclusion, pointing to the importance of strong communication skills, teamwork and attitude.
“Attitude and reputation will follow you through your career,” Blank tells the class, adding that they shouldn’t discount the impact that a personal touch can have on their careers. Simply writing a personal note or making a phone call, rather than overrelying on emails, to communicate makes a difference, he notes.
Opportunities such as internships, though they traditionally don’t pay well, can also provide valuable experience to catch the attention of job recruiters.
“You guys have great skills,” he says, adding how impressed he’s been with the depth of knowledge displayed by Gilbert’s students.
“Give yourselves credit that you’re learning a lot of good stuff. … Don’t be afraid to reach out to people and say, ‘Here are my skills. I think I can benefit your business.’”
He asks the class if they have any questions for him. One student immediately asks, “Do you have a business card?”
The flipped classroom demands hard work, just as it does from traditional classroom teachers. The student teachers meet multiple times outside class, even on weekends, to prepare their lesson plans. Gilbert provides feedback to ensure that their classmates will get the correct information.
After lesson presentations, the entire class is quizzed on the material. The presenting students formulate the questions.
“We’re feeding off of each other,” presenter Terry explains after her stint at the front of the classroom. “I’m learning more. It helps me to realize that I don’t know everything and that I can continue to grow in my major and learn from other people.”
Her co-presenter Kern, a senior from Mt. Juliet, Tenn., majoring in organizational leadership, agrees. The New Orleans native, who is in her mid-40s, says being a nontraditional student gives her an opportunity to bridge a generation gap within the classroom and eventually within the workforce.
“I’m learning from the other students as well,” Kern says. “I’m learning from the ‘Millennials’ and the younger students about how they react to things, how they look at different things and what their perspectives are.
“I may look at an issue in one way as an older Gen-Xer, and some of the people in the classroom see it differently, then it helps me. It broadens my understanding of people knowledge and how different generations learn.”
Carol Swayze, director of the EXL Program, takes a few minutes of the class period to tell the students how they can earn the designation as EXL Scholars. It requires at least 16 credit hours of EXL coursework, including one credit hour from an “e-portfolio” class through the EXL Office during a student’s senior year.
“I’m really impressed with the way Dr. Gilbert has brought this flipped classroom concept into an experiential learning class,” Swayze says. “We can tell students are learning what they need to learn.”
Earning the designation also requires an on-campus service or leadership component, where a student leads or plays a significant role in a project or fundraiser, and at least one external service activity off the MTSU campus.
“EXL courses are generally going to have that external component anyway,” Swayze says, adding that students’ final step is to apply for EXL Scholar status during their next-to-last semester before graduating.
EXL Scholars are recognized during commencement ceremonies, and the designation is notated on their transcripts for potential employers. MTSU developed its EXL program 10 years ago and implemented it in fall 2006. Each of MTSU’s eight undergraduate colleges is now involved, faculty participation grows annually, and hundreds of students have earned the EXL Scholar designation.
“It’s a difficult process, because it takes them out of their comfort zones,” Gilbert says of her experiential learning class, “but I think ultimately they find it very beneficial, because they realize when they are managers they will be expected to delegate projects, to interact with other teams, to solve problems and be in a leadership role.
“The EXL experience prepares them to do all of those things.”
For more information about MTSU’s Experiential Learning program, contact Carol Swayze at 615-898-5542 or email Carol.Swayze@mtsu.edu. You can also visit http://www.mtsu.edu/exl.