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Engaging Students on a Personal Level

Business professor Jim Burns quickly learned that cramming content didn’t work, so he focused on students instead. Read his story.

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by Jim Burns in Blog, classroom management
January 11, 2020 5 comments

Bombing the Guest Lecture

After more than 30 years as an executive in Silicon Valley, I was thrilled to get the opportunity to teach Business 70 at my alma mater, Santa Clara University (SCU). As part of my onboarding, I jumped at the opportunity to guest lecture one class prior to teaching the full ten-week course. I was provided with the 45 PowerPoint slides that accompanied the course book. Concerned that the text omitted important information, I added yet more content. I even timed myself a few times as I practiced the presentation out loud. How am I ever going to get through this in 105 minutes while having an interactive discussion?

It turned out I didn’t come close to covering everything, even though I felt like I was racing through the material. I had 15 minutes set aside to cover the time value of money, for instance, and I wasn’t able to even start that section. The students look puzzled, and the excitement of this life-long dream emerged into fear that I would be a total flop.

For the ten-week course, I am expected to cover economics, marketing, operations, financial markets, human resources, ethics, entrepreneurship, organizational structures, employee motivation, etc. with the aid of a lengthy and rather dry textbook, and still have time to impart key wisdom not covered in the text! How is that possible?

That’s when I read Teaching College by Norman Eng . . . twice. And my fears turned back to excitement. I had experienced many of the pitfalls he described in my guest lecture, such as overreliance on somebody else’s materials, not leading the lecture with something that engages them, and not thinking like an advertiser. I laid out a plan to ensure I didn’t become that dreaded professor.

Here is what I did . . .

The Survey

Dr. Eng, as a former marketing executive, stresses the importance of knowing your target audience. So, I gave students five minutes to fill out a brief survey about themselves at the end of the first class, which included questions like:

  • Why did you choose the business school at SCU?
  • At the end of this class I want to be better able to _____.
  • Do you have a strong feeling about what you might want to major in? If so, what? Do you think this class could provide clarity for you on your decision?
  • Are you interested in focusing more in the tech industry than others?

During the second class, I shared the anonymized results, which were amazingly consistent. Nearly all students picked this school for its reputation, small class size, and Silicon Valley location with a strong interest in tech firms. I shared a chart showing how many intended to major in finance, accounting, etc. and how many were undecided. Sharing these results built a common purpose for the students in the class and also sent a strong signal that their professor cared about their interests.

The Agreement

On the first day, I reviewed my syllabus, which was shaped by Dr. Eng’s ideas. I informed my class that the big challenge of the course was the vast amount of ground to cover. My promise to them is that we wouldn’t consume all class time regurgitating the book and the hundreds of business terms in it. Rather, I would focus on the most relevant items they will need to know to land a job and be successful in business. I promised to provide them personal examples of dilemmas I encountered and that they likely will encounter too. In return, they had to read the chapter, review the ‘abridged’ lecture material (more on this later), and submit a question related to the reading on Canvas (the online learning management system) at least 30 minutes before class.

The Question Submission

There were many reasons to have students post a question before class. First, it is hard to ask intelligent questions without doing the reading, so this process holds them accountable. Second, posting questions in advance provides a voice to those who are too intimidated or shy to participate. Finally, class time is used more efficiently as I dedicate more time to questions that students raise most.

In the end, I was blown away by the quality and intellectual curiosity of their submitted questions. Roughly 80% would submit a question before each class, and if submitted at least 30 minutes before class, I responded. Over 95% of them took just a few minutes to answer, as the questions were straightforward. Sometimes I replied: “Great question; we will cover in class today.” For the very few that required lengthy responses, I chatted with them after class. Some stated that “the materials were pretty straightforward” but wanted to understand more about [TOPIC XYZ].” I could tell they looked through the materials. The questions were often personal, like: “I am thinking of majoring in marketing. Where are most job opportunities?” Their questions helped me build individual rapport, and once again sent the message that I care about their success.

Class Time

Going over questions during class time was just the first step. Since I didn’t feel the need to cover everything, I made it a goal to spend more time creating fresh content. I posted slides—minus speaker notes, videos, and class exercises—on Canvas before class to help students focus. Class time would then be dedicated to videos and exercises that supplemented their reading. There was no need to cover every bullet point of the slides, as they were pretty self-explanatory. It liberated me to add more in class “color” and engage in rich class conversations. Furthermore, the abridged slides also helped students study for tests.

So, what did students think? I just received my student feedback and scored 4.6 out of 5.0 in my first quarter teaching. For context, most first-time professors for this course score around 3.5. Those that have taught for five plus years typically score from 4.0 to 4.2. As for students’ comments, they truly warmed my heart. Some of my favorites:

  • “Really cares about his students. Gives great real-life experience.”
  • “He is the definition of an excellent professor that you can easily approach and talk about anything related to business.”
  • “Love Professor Burns. He’s truly a great guy that wants the best for the students.”
  • “Professor Burns makes the class pretty fun and does not only stick to the textbook. Favorite and most interesting teacher I have had at SCU so far!”

I hope this post helps new instructors and professors focus less about stuffing content (as I once did!) and more about getting their students involved and learning. Maybe it will give veterans something to think about as well! If you have any comments or questions, I welcome them below.


Jim Burns is currently an independent consultant for technology firms and an Adjunct Professor at Santa Clara University. He has over 30 years of experience in high tech companies like HP including CFO, COO and general manager roles.

Connect with Jim at http://linkedin.com/in/jim-burns

5 Comments
  1. Craig l says:

    Jim, thank you for sharing your experiences. We all know the feeling of trying to do our best the first time teaching and thinking, “I need to insert more stuff!” Your idea for the question submission and how you make your class more productive for learning was very helpful! Thanks again.

  2. Jim B says:

    Thanks Craig. Have a great weekend!

  3. Eugene says:

    Jim this is an excellent reminder for me to revisit Norman’s Teaching College. We start the new semester Monday and although I’ve implemented several ideas I got from my first reading, I’m going to see what else I can integrate this year!
    If you haven’t checked out Dr. Eng’s book on Presentations, you should do so before you revise your next set of slides, it’s really worthwhile!

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Thanks, Eugene! Keep us posted on what you do.

  4. Claudia Chaufan says:

    Great post, and very inspiring, thank you!

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7 PROVEN STEPS TO PLANNING, TEACHING, & ENGAGING YOUR STUDENTS

A Quick-Start Guide

GET IT NOW