Structuring Assignments and Setting Expectations

Individual Assignments

I tried to think through my class design, so that in the early sessions you set the stage for behaviors that then emerge naturally.


I structured the assignments in this class carefully. The managerial briefing assignment specifically lays out what to write about and what the main headings should be. For malaria, we didn't want the students to study the whole life cycle of mosquitoes. Instead, we wanted them to know the big issues involving malaria. Students could talk about mosquitoes, of course, but more important was the burden of the disease: how many people have it, how it's seasonal, who gets affected, what the consequences are, what the morbidity is, and whether the disease affects a particular demographic, such as children.

I asked students to imagine that they worked at a company that was about to enter a particular domain. What does the company need to know in order to make management decisions that might be related to entering that field? How much money should be spent? What is the size of the market? What are the different options for reducing the burden of disease?

With malaria there are many different ways to impact the burden. You could be preventing it by killing mosquitoes or preventing mosquito bites. You could be diagnosing malaria, treating it, or searching for a vaccine. Becoming aware of these factors helps students get into the systems thinking mode that comes into play later in the class.

This managerial briefing assignment was short, but useful both for the information provided, and as a diagnostic tool for me as an instructor to show where the students needed to expand knowledge. If students looked only at the biology aspect, I realized they hadn't looked at the disease through a management lens. In correcting and giving back the briefings, I could let the students know they needed to have this perspective. So it guided them through the course too, and ensured that in every case discussion, or in every team, there was someone there with more background.

So when we covered a case in class that looked at maternal health, we had a student specialist who had done a briefing on mortality and child birth. In the first few class sessions, we told those students ahead of time they would be called on in class. Then they realized they should be ready when we cover a case on their topic. I tried to think through my class design, so that in the early sessions you set the stage for behaviors that then emerge naturally.

Students were required to track their sources in case they ended up focusing their project on the area treated in the briefing. Another individual assignment was due at the end of the course. Students wrote a paragraph reflecting on what they learned.

Team Assignments

Iterations and Feedback

The way I designed the team project assignment could be quite irritating for students because they had three chances to iterate on it. I have learned that students often are so busy that they work on an assignment the night before it’s due and miss the chance to make it better.

For anything good, it has to be done once and then made better. A great way to do this is to get feedback on it and iterate. Many MIT courses don't give students a chance to iterate or tap into faculty and peer feedback. Or you get feedback after the grade is in, so there's no recourse. I feel strongly that multifaceted feedback is good for people because it helps them calibrate, and get over themselves. Somebody might give you something harsh, but another person will say something good, so students gain perspective and learn to deal with negative criticism.

Requiring three iterations of the slide deck forced students to turn in a draft and make revisions. Students had one-on-one feedback from the teaching assistant. When students gave their team presentations near the end of the course, they also had about fifteen minutes of spoken feedback from the special class guests. The other students voted on the best presentation and gave written feedback that was returned to the presenting teams within hours. Finally, students had one more opportunity to iterate before the end of the course, though most of them didn't take advantage of it.

Group Presentations

One good thing about having deliverables due early, even in draft form, is that it gets students thinking in a more integrated way earlier in the course, which is a good learning outcome. They realize that, to create the draft, they need to tap into many different areas, and think about how these pieces fit together.

To offset this a little bit, I structure the group project presentation quite carefully. I learned early on that when I gave written assignments students would sometimes skip sections. It was painful to have them add to or develop their presentation if I wanted them to address that issue at the end. So I created a blank version of the presentation in the form of a dummy PowerPoint deck (PPT), a very structured assignment with place holders for each of the major concepts.

I gave them this dummy deck along with at least six past examples of student projects, and then they were free to be creative. Students didn't have to follow the guidelines per se, but they basically had our rubric laid out to guide them, and it made grading easier. This was helpful for people who needed a lot of structure, and gave those who wanted more freedom a base off of which to work.

I think the ability to appreciate very specifically what works is an important piece of being a good manager...


One of the more complex constructs is a constant idea called the care delivery value chain (page 7 of the dummy deck). It is a difficult thing to apply, and also takes a little bit of learning to figure out how to use it. I had each team turn in a draft slide for the care delivery value chain early on after we covered the concept in class, so that they had this piece before the draft of the entire deck was due.

A narrative executive summary was required to accompany the deck, to be sent out to the students and special guests two days before each team’s in-class presentation. Reading their peers' executive summaries was a course assignment, so students knew that the documents would be distributed. It got them to pay attention because they knew everyone would be reading it. It also meant that we could have a much higher quality dialogue in the class because we all had the basic knowledge down, and we could talk about the interesting issues that the students pulled out from their analysis.

“You’re hired” Scenario

In class, the students acted out a scenario in which the team collectively played the role of a CEO, or someone applying to be CEO of an organization, and everyone else in the class played the role of board of directors. The CEO team needed to convince the board that they both appreciated what is great and amazing about this organization, and that they had a well-rounded set of ideas about how to make it better. In other words, I wanted them to be both appreciative and critical.

I think pairing those two skills is really important. Most academic discussions tend to be extremely critical, ripping into everything that doesn't work. I wanted the students to have the ability to appreciate the assets the organization has cultivated over time and design a strategy to protect and leverage the assets, whatever they are. One of our overall teaching goals at Sloan is to turn out people who manage well. I think the ability to appreciate very specifically what works is an important piece of being a good manager, and it cultivates more well-rounded managers in the end.