HBS Professors – Do They Know?


To obvious as a way of entertainment during class...

Too obvious a way of entertaining during class…

During one of the last classes of my fall semester at HBS, we had a Martha-type guest in class (aka the case protagonist – read more about guests at HBS classes HERE). She had attentively followed the class discussion, and as we were about to get into the last 20 minutes of class, it was her turn to take the floor and share her thoughts and reflections on the case and the class discussion. She started by thanking the professor for the opportunity to speak in his class, and then she thanked us, the students, for the interesting class discussion, adding that she was delighted that ‘some of us had actually read the case and that others had taken the effort to read it during the class itself.‘ As I had been ill-prepared for that class and had read most of the case during class, I kind of felt targeted. But most of all, her comment made me wonder about something bigger: “DO THEY KNOW?” Do HBS professors notice all that’s going on among students during a typical 80 minute HBS class? Because in all honesty, it’s not all about paying attention…

To ensure full participation of students, HBS classes are meant to take place in low-distraction environments. The classrooms have no windows. All seats are facing toward the professor. And HBS professors are being coached to be as entertaining as possible. Also, technology is not allowed in class – this means no computers and no (i)phones. All notes should be made using pen and paper – except for the occasional finance class in which students are allowed to use their computers to build excel models. But despite all of this, students seem to be creating their own distractions.

HBS name cards - the perfect iPhone hiding place

HBS name cards – the perfect iPhone hiding place

First, there is this thing with smartphones. They are small and can easily be hidden behind the HBS name cards. A great way to check mails from time to time. The more daring students even play the occasional Candy Crush game. Then there are those that just love to play low-tech games. A common game featured in class is the secret word game – students agree on a secret word prior to class, say dinosaur. The first student able to use that word in a comment in class wins. Then there is the ‘building on John’s comment’ game. Students often build their own comment on what others have said earlier in class. The goal of this game is to build a comment on something that hadn’t been said – in casu John didn’t make any comment in that class, but students refer to a comment of his . It must be a great source of confusion to professors. Then there are those that try to sleep during class (aka recovering from last night’s party) in the most discrete ways. And finally, there is the more educational distraction of reading HBS cases in class instead of outside of class.

I am sure I have missed at least a dozen of other types of distraction. The point here is that it is not obvious for students to stay fully focused during classes that they are not particularly interested in or that are being taught by average professors. As such, everyone should do as he/she pleases, as long as it does not distract others around them. But I can imagine however that for professors, should they be able to notice of all these distracted students, these things must further increase the difficulty of teaching an HBS class. This in turn might lower the quality of the class and cause other students to loose focus as well. But then again, nobody said that being an HBS professor was an easy job. HBS professors, up to you to entertain us… and teaching us valuable lessons while doing so!

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