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Prep MBAs Better—Skip the Lectures, Textbooks, and Tests

When entrepreneur and innovator James Stikeleather heard that MBA programs were lacking, he became a professor—and started stirring things up.


James Stikeleather, DBA

Professor, University of South Florida in Tampa

Doctor ofBusiness Administration, MBA, and BS in Computer Science

James Stikeleather was not always a professor. In fact, he worked for more than 40 years developing information and communications technologies for various technology companies, including some he founded, which eventually led him to Perot Systems and Dell, where he served first as chief technology officer and then chief innovation officer.

While at Dell, Stikeleather became concerned about the relationship between business and society, and the role higher education played in that relationship. “Being a die-hard capitalist, I wanted to understand how to improve capitalism and reduce its unintended consequences, like wealth inequality, environmental damage, and moral hazards to society,” he says. “That led me to return to school for my doctorate so I could better research this. At the same time, I was asked to be a trustee at USF [University of South Florida].”

As the lead trustee in the group working on the University’s strategic plan, Stikeleather says that what came home most forcefully “was the need to focus on learning (create an environment where the students can explore, discover, and apply new ideas) as opposed to teaching (here is what you need to know). From that it follows that learning skills and exposure to topics and ideas should be the focus of the class. Details and facts and most of what is covered in textbooks and lectures are only a Google search away. That means equipping students with the capability to assess and assimilate the results of the search.”

In that process, he discovered that universities were not sufficiently preparing students with the skills they need to succeed—in business or society.

That is when Stikeleather decided to leave Dell and become a professor. “Revolutions are best done from within,” he says. He earned his DBA, became an adjunct professor at the Muma School of Business, and, in 2017, set out to innovate in higher education.

Polling CEOs about MBAs

In the spring of 2018, Stikeleather agreed to teach three sections of Management Information Systems (MIS), a survey course in the MBA curriculum meant to introduce students to the role that information systems play in the workplace. He then formulated a unique approach for preparing for the course, based on his business experience. “The students are the product of the university, and the consumer of that product is businesses,” he says. “Someone is going to be hiring those students. So my idea was to do Marketing 101—go out and talk to potential customers.” He polled these customers—CEOs, COOs, CMOs, and CIOs—to ask them what they look for in graduating MBA students. He also surveyed them on the problems these executives encountered most frequently with newly minted MBAs. Their responses, and his own investigations, uncovered a few surprises:

A variety of thinking skills are needed

Respondents told Stikeleather that students are taught analysis—how to break something down into its smallest parts—but that was not as valuable skill as in the past, because new technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning excel at that, using data-driven decision making. The CEOs told Stikeleather, “Students need to be taken from analysis to synthesis—to look at the whole and see how the parts interact.”

Traditional convergent thinking (analytical, rational, quantitative, sequential, constraint driven, objective, based on specific details) needed to be supplemented with divergent thinking (creative, intuitive, qualitative, subjective, probabilistic, holistic, based on conceptual abstractions), Stikeleather realized. “One of my biggest challenges was to get students to understand that in the real world there is no one right answer,” he says. “A major theme was to equip students with the capabilities to address the wicked problems that are part of business today. This generated expectations such as nonlinear thinking (multiple simultaneous causes and effects), multidisciplinary thinking (rarely is a business problem just an accounting or marketing or HR problem), multidimensional thinking (economic, social, legal, health, education, media, policy, etc.), and adaptive decision making (introduced by the Cynefin framework, and referring to the fact that what works for a simple environment most likely won’t work for a complicated, complex or chaotic environment).”

Systems thinking and communication skills are falling short

Because the half-life of MIS information is short—it is basically obsolete in two or three years—executives ranked systems thinking (e.g., dynamic thinking, system-as-a-cause thinking, forest thinking, operational thinking, closed-loop thinking) and communication skills as more important than content mastery. They want employees who understand and can talk about underlying principles, especially as they relate to the business implications of new technology, and apply them in novel situations. They want employees who know how to gather, evaluate, and apply facts—not just recite textbook terms and concepts—and who then efficiently and effectively communicate their results.

Textbooks and study materials are expensive and time sensitive

On top of the polling results, Stikeleather found that available study materials and textbooks for MBA students did not contain information on many contemporary issues, and they often did not discuss business impact or real-world applications in the way business discusses them. Also, not only were the better textbooks expensive—$200 to $350 each—but Stikeleather knew they would be out of date within a few years. “Frankly,” he says, “I was disappointed by the costs.”

So how do you handle challenges like these? Start by rethinking everything.

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“To quote Confucius, ‘True wisdom is knowing what you don’t know.’ We spend a lot of time getting students to know things, but being effective in the world is knowing how to figure out what you know that is wrong, finding what you know you don’t know, and always being aware that there is even more you do not know you don’t know. This requires learning how to truly think, regardless of subject.”

— James Stikeleather, DBA

Course: ISM 6021 Management Information Systems

Description: An introduction to the fundamentals of information systems including an examination of information technology terminology and concepts, alternative methodologies for developing information systems, and the application and impact of information technology in contemporary organizations.

An overview of Stikeleather’s approach to course redesign

With the CEOs’ input in hand—and his own research into best practices from thought leaders (see sidebar)—Stikeleather set to work reshaping his course. His focus points:

  • Classroom design. Most “lecture” content would be delivered online, with “homework” activities and concept review (studying) collaboratively occurring in the classroom.
  • Course materials. Stikeleather wanted to find appropriate, up-to-date materials for the course. Also, students would ideally receive three times the information they would have encountered in a typical MIS course.
  • Stikeleather noticed that just because students passed a test, that did not mean they could apply the material covered. He also found that standard grading procedures were demotivating or stressful. Lastly, he notes, “You do not take tests in the real world. You produce work product that is evaluated, not only on its content but also in how efficiently and effectively it is delivered.”

Here is how he pulled it all together.

Lesson: Building a course without books, lectures, or tests

To introduce students to systems thinking in this introductory-level course, Stikeleather divided the coursework into eight modules and assigned an eight-week long group project centered on a case study. Each course module contributes to the case study and requires what Stikeleather calls “impressive use of the course material.” The material was also organized to expose and encourage students to pursue new ways of thinking that was applicable to other courses and their careers beyond just MIS content.

Create an e-book on Canvas

To address the needs of an inverted (flipped) class approach and eliminate the need for physical textbooks, Stikeleather developed online course materials and posted them on USF’s learning management system—Canvas—effectively turning it into an e-book. Stikeleather wrote some of the materials from scratch and also shared videos and articles that he found on the Internet. This approach also allowed him to insert hyperlinks into his online materials any time a concept or word was used for the first time. The hyperlinks lead students to a combination of definitions, explanations, and tutorials. These hyperlinks are especially helpful to the international students, who often find more terminology to be new. They also enabled pointers to more depth and examples that were just one click away if students wanted to explore and discover on their own or were not sure of their understanding of the material.

For areas where Stikeleather wanted to expand or enhance the material, he created mindmaps or directed presentations using Prezi and Focusky. Some examples include his mindmap about change; Prezi materials about data, information, and knowledge and also about thinking in systems; and Focusky presentations about succeeding in the course, orienting to the course, an overview of the course and why to take it, why do a reflection, and MIS ethics.

Now Stikeleather has a dynamic electronic book that students can go through at their own pace and, if interested, can use to dive into subjects in more depth. It also allows the professor to adjust and update the material as needed, based on students’ responses and industry changes.

4 Sources of Inspiration

Stikeleather says he found inspiration for his course redesign in these writings:

  • Bain, K. What the Best College Teachers Do. Harvard University Press, 2004.
  • Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., and McDaniel, M. A. Make It Stick. Harvard University Press, 2014.
  • Emiliani, B. Lean Teaching: A Guide to Becoming a Better Teacher. CLBM, LCC, 2015.
  • Eng, N. Teaching College: The Ultimate Guide to Lecturing, Presenting, and Engaging Students. Self-published, 2017.

Accelerate learning with self-study

In addition to the group project, each of Stikeleather’s students is assigned one self-study project, and they have the option to complete additional ones for extra credit. The content covered in these projects is outside of the Canvas course material, including topics such as the causal loop diagrams and actual programming projects.

The self-studies are supposed to take one hour, but Stikeleather has found that students typically get so absorbed in the material that they report spending substantially more time on them. There is no test on this project; students simply report what they learned, using a rubric to guide them.

Replace testing with self-reflection

Students are not tested in Stikeleather’s class, because he found that passing the test did not necessarily correlate with understanding the material deeply. To assess students’ ability to apply what they have learned, Stikeleather uses written reflections as assessments in between modules. His specific questions on what the reflection should include:

  1. What did you learn? (what)
  2. Why did it resonate with or bother you? (why)
  3. How might you apply the material in a real-life situation? (how)
  4. What is the significance of the material in your life, career, or education? (so what)

Stikeleather also uses the video discussion platform Flipgrid. Using the tools on this site, students create short videos in response to a prompt from their teacher. They can also view and reply to one another’s videos. Stikeleather says there is typically a steep learning curve, as students struggle to organize and synthesize their thoughts into such a brief time frame (videos are 90 seconds to three minutes in length)—but, at the same time, the exercise seems to help with content acquisition and application. This was part of developing efficient and effective communication capabilities among the students and to move away from the tendency to deliver death by PowerPoint. In addition to these FlipGrid “elevator pitches,” students were assigned “one-pagers” designed to be scanned by an executive and cause them to take action, make a decision, or ask for more information. They were also asked to produce “six-pagers,” made famous by Amazon, to net out all the issues for a decision-making meeting.

To assess class participation and “homework,” Stikeleather uses Canvas to monitor students’ page views and time spent logged into the course—as well as their iterations on the material. The statistics show whether students are putting forth enough effort. The reflections let the instructor know if the material is being understood.

Make grading strategies reflect the business world

In the work world, revisions are expected. Most projects go through several iterations and are changed based upon feedback from one’s superiors. So in Stikeleather’s course, do-overs are both allowed and encouraged.

If an assignment does not meet the specifications identified in its rubric, it is rejected, returned, and the student is instructed to resubmit a revised version. All assignments can be resubmitted until they are accepted.

The semester grade is based on a points-accumulation model—much as a year-end review is used to assess an employee’s overall progress. This way, students can work on self-study assignments of interest, not only on the case study and reflections that are required. Each assignment and activity has a specific point total, and extra points are awarded for work that goes beyond expectations. Total point levels are tallied to determine final grades—500 for an A, 400 for a B, and so on. Students can continue working to accumulate points until they get the grade they desire or the course ends.

Student feedback

Many students report that they were terrified in the beginning but truly understood the material by the end. The grades are, in Stikeleather’s words, “surprisingly good.” Sixty percent of the class has received an A, and the rest received Bs. Even more important, the students really got excited about being able to make the content and concepts their own. The FlipGrids, Stikeleather says, allowed them to organize their own thoughts as well as see the thoughts of others in the class. The reflections allowed them to see how they might use the ideas as opposed to just figuring out what the professor wanted to hear. “I think they were also excited, or at least motivated, over how much control they had over their own learning.”

Almost all of the students had significant work experience, and many commented that things that had not made sense at work began to make sense when they used the concepts they were learning. “Seeing a class as ‘practical’ is exciting for students thinking about future job prospects,” says Stikeleather.

Students have reported that the point accumulation structure relieved them of a lot of stress, which allowed them to focus on learning rather than getting a specific grade. They almost universally considered the self-reflections to be the most valuable part of the class in terms of content mastery. A number commented that the reflections caused them to see their jobs and the companies they worked for in a new light, and they were able to apply what they were learning right away.

Feedback from Stikeleather’s students demonstrates their appreciation for his methods and their enjoyment of the class:

“After this course, I am certain that I will not be looking at businesses in the same way. When facing a problem, I will be wondering how a systems thinker would analyze, synthesize and find valid solutions. I also feel that I am better prepared to deal with various complex problems in the more strategic way.”

“We can learn without tests. Actually, we learn better without tests. The best way to see if we really learned something is reflecting about it and seeing how we can apply the new knowledge to our personal life or career.”

“The class of MIS was very different from rest of the classes this semester due to its new and unique learning style. The process of learning was different in the sense one was not expected to memorize anything but to learn how to think and learn about the topic and ideas and explore the contents of the course and implement it in daily life. I also liked the way Professor taught throughout the semester where he focused on the learning through thinking and implementation.”

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