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Formulas Without Understanding February 22, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Education, Management & leadership.
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I’ve just started my second year teaching courses in supply chain management and operations management at two local universities. It’s been a long time since I was a teaching assistant as a graduate student, and my time outside the academic world has taught me a few things about educational objectives and what students really should be learning. One of the things I’ve noticed in my business classes is a tendency of some teachers and textbook authors to focus on formulas that give a “right” answer. I think that’s a mistake, and when we do that we’re not helping business students or their future employers.

I started out as a math major, and I’ve got two degrees in the physical sciences, so I can appreciate the attraction of formulas. They describe relationships between variables. They can convert observations or data that are known into things that cannot be directly measured. They provide some level of predictability in an otherwise chaotic universe. They give an answer, and that suggests order and certainty.

My issue with formulas is that they don’t necessarily lead to understanding. What does a college student really learn when they simply plug numbers into a formula? Do they understand the result? Does it make sense? Can they interpret it? Do they know when the formula applies, and, more importantly, when it doesn’t? When should they reject the “right” answer and do something different? This last question is especially important in the study of business, where many of our formulas are based on approximations and the results are open to interpretation. OK, maybe not in accounting and finance.

I think what I should be doing is helping students to develop sound judgment and critical thinking. I still assign problems with formulas, but I’m putting more emphasis on interpretation and extrapolation. It doesn’t take a lot of talent to punch numbers into a calculator or even set up an Excel spreadsheet. The next generation of business leaders needs to learn how to deal with the ambiguity that’s outside the ordered world of formulas.

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