Teaching for Laughs

Quantitative analysis doesn't have to be dull. Michigan professor Hyun-Soo Ahn's classes are a case (study) in point

BusinessWeek asked business undergrads to tell us about their favorite professors. Here's another installment in the series.

The teaching assistants of your Operations and Management Science class start passing out study guides, a dreadful reminder that you have a difficult test coming up. A copy arrives at your desk, but the cover page is the poster for the movie Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, and the head of your OMS professor is sitting atop Harold's body. Yes, there is still a test to take, but the chuckle relieves some of the pressure and keeps you on your toes.

This is the philosophy that professor Hyun-Soo Ahn of the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business uses to keep his students engaged and alert. It's also one of the things that helped him rank among the top professors in BusinessWeek's 2007 survey of undergraduate business students. "He's very in tune with his students," said recent graduate Ashley McEvoy. "He could sense when we were fading and would break into a joke or a funny story to get us back into it."

Ahn's BBA course is a rigorous part of the core curriculum with grades based on exams, participation, and various assignments, including case write-ups. His OMS class meets twice a week for an hour and a half, but students say the time flies by because of Ahn's ability to keep students entertained and alert.

Making the Boring Entertaining

Many of Ahn's jokes and anecdotes relate directly to the material. For example, having lived in Phoenix for some time, Ahn tells students about his trips to Las Vegas and his observation of celebrities playing roulette. He goes into detail about betting patterns certain celebrities use and how their patterns change when they are intoxicated. The point is to teach students about independent trials, and how one outcome is independent from previous trials.

"There is a stereotype that quantitative analysis is boring and tedious with few hands-on applications," Ahn admits. "To break the stereotype, I like to use live and vivid examples and applications students can relate to and create an environment where students are not afraid to be wrong."

Humor is one of the many tools Ahn uses to "lower the barrier" between himself and his students. Another is introducing material from pop culture or sports to make lessons relevant to students' lives. Like most of his Michigan students, he is an avid sports fan and designs one of his case studies around statistics he gets from Major League Baseball. Ahn uses the numbers to dispel some of the conventional myths about baseball, including the supposed advantages of richer teams over poorer ones. "His teaching style is fun and the things he does in class are applicable to real life," said another one of Ahn's students, Rachel Okeda. Ahn's efforts earned him a 2006 BBA Teaching Excellence Award.

Ahn wins over students by repackaging information into subjects they care about and infusing his entertaining personality into the lectures. While you are likely to get a laugh or two out of his class, his ability to convey material that's sometimes hard to digest is no joking matter.

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