Home Home | About Us | Sitemap | Contact  
  • Info For
  • Professionals
  • Students
  • Educators
  • Media
  • Search
    Powered By Google

Education and Training in I-O Psychology

Neil Hauenstein
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


The use of case studies tends to be associated with the business school curriculum rather than I-O psychology classes. Our guest columnist, Nancy Stone, discusses her modifications of the traditional case approach to teach organizational psychology principles. She describes the development and use of what she labels learning scenarios as a powerful learning tool. Im impressed by any exercise that will keep undergraduates in discussion mode for one or two class periods!

Changing topics, be thinking about colleagues to nominate for the SIOP teaching award. This will be the second year of the teaching award, which recognizes a sustained record of excellence in teaching (to quote from the award description) in either or both undergraduate and graduate instruction. If you are planning to nominate a colleague, and you have not notified him or her of this intention, do so very soon. Putting together a teaching portfolio for submission to the Award Committee is a demanding process. The same advice applies if you plan to nominate yourself for the teaching award. Let yourself know as soon as possible! 

Use of Scenarios to Enhance Undergraduates Knowledge of Organizational Psychology1

Nancy J. Stone
Creighton University


1 These ideas were presented in the panel, Strategies for Teaching Industrial-Organizational Psychology at the American Psychological Association Annual Convention in 2002, Chicago, IL.

At the undergraduate level, with the luxury of teaching industrial psychology and organizational psychology as two independent courses, it is possible for students to gain a great depth of knowledge about these two areas. In industrial psychology, given the nature of the material, it is possible to assign projects to the students (e.g., job analysis, selection, training). Having students perform projects in organizational psychology is more difficult than in industrial psychology because the field is more abstract, more holistic, and less concrete. It is possible, though, to develop scenarios, or short case studies, that require students to know and to apply their knowledge of the important concepts and that can lead to educationally beneficial group discussions. 
Scenarios can be used to help students (a) identify problems, (b) determine potential causes of the problems, and (c) develop solutions to the problem. That is, the students experience organizational concepts with these scenarios as industrial psychology students experience job analysis with a job analysis project. In addition, the scenarios can be used to address specific issues (e.g., learning, communication, organizational change), and to have the students integrate past and current course topics. 

Although some textbooks include case studies, and other resources make case studies available, I find that for my purposes these case studies are too long and the students do not connect with them or see the whole picture. The scenarios I write are shorter than most case studies (a paragraph or two). The topics of the scenarios are current situations familiar to the students, and I target a few specific topics we are currently covering or have covered in class. It is important to have questions after the scenario to help guide the discussion. Then, the scenarios are written and distributed to the students so they can study them and prepare for the discussion. Finally, I make sure I distribute discussion rules for the students to follow (e.g., no talking over another person, no repeating of ideas, having to build on another persons comments). Some examples of topics I use for my scenarios include restaurants (new in the area or expanding), class activities (e.g., talk about study groups), student groups, the university, community activities or changes (e.g., the development of a new convention center, river front development). 

Once the scenario has been written, students should be able to identify problems (or potential problems). I try not to make the problems too obvious so the students have to come up with the conditions for the problems. That is, the students have to learn to ask questions about the situation, to consider more than one possible explanation for the current situation, and to learn to justify their reasoning or actions. Once the class has identified a few problems, we work on determining the potential causes of the problems. The students can often come up with a number of causes of the problems, but they do not always link them to the identified problems in the first step. Thus, this requires that the students tie the causes to the identified problems. Next, the students come up with solutions. Again, students will often come up with solutions but fail to link the solutions to the cause or the problem. The discussion is structured to help the students link the solution, cause, and problem together. An example of one of my scenarios follows. 

Lets consider CAHR (Creightons Association for Human Resources). It is a struggling organization on campus. Through some activities, the organization has attracted a few members (1015), but involvement is low. The officers of the organization do not meet regularly, so there usually is a short agenda, if any. Because of this, CAHR often does not meet. Given that CAHR gives students the opportunity to meet with HR professionals, to tour various HR departments, and to go the monthly HRAM (Human Resources Association of the Midlands) luncheon meetings, it is baffling why there is not more interest in the organization. (Remember the definition of a small group and that a small group is a system).

Some of the questions I might pose to the students include: 
1. What is the purpose of CAHR? 
2. What type of leadership would be best?
3. Who has power and how may it or should it be implemented?
4. What type of decision making would be best to increase member motivation and satisfaction?
5. How could communication be changed to promote a more cohesive group?
6. What is the group structure and how does is affect the dynamics of CAHR? Also, how could it be changed to increase membership?
7. How should/could new members be socialized, which could increase motivation?

From past experience, I discovered that the answers students gave did not necessarily flow logically from the problem to the solution. In fact, sometimes students would tend to respond with only one or two options that they knew well, as opposed to identifying the problem and then logically developing the solution. For example, I might ask what type of leadership would be most effective in this situation. A student might reply that a task-oriented leader might be best. The problem with this answer is that the student has not justified the response by connecting the answer to the problem within the scenario. Thus, I tend to begin with a discussion of what the issues are in the scenario. 

Therefore, I begin with a fairly concrete question. What are the problems identified in the scenario? Usually, students can identify that involvement is low, there are few or no meetings, and there is little interest. I will write these responses on the board under the rubric of Problems or Issues. Then, I ask the students what some of the possible reasons for these problems might be, and we focus on one issue at a time. This is when I remind them that CAHR is a small group and there are reasons why people join groups (we have already discussed this in class). That is, people join groups in order to meet goals. This leads us into a discussion of the purpose of CAHR. That is, what are the goals of CAHR? (There are hints in the scenario suggesting networking, for example.) 

After the students have identified at least one goal of CAHR, I am likely to return to our identified problems and ask the students what the possible causes are for the problem. For example, I could ask the students what they thought were reasons for the probleminvolvement is low. At this point the students usually can come up with possible reasons. That is, the students will indicate that the members of CAHR have goals of networking and learning about HR and that these goals are not being met. Thus, on the board next to Problems I have written Causes under which I have listed, not meeting goals, next to low involvement. The students and I will work through two or three identified problems and their possible causes. 

Once the students understand the problems and possible causes, then we return to the question, What type of leadership would be best? Again, the students might say task-oriented; however, now the students can justify their response by indicating that the task-oriented leader is needed to ensure that the members of CAHR can network with professionals and learn about HR so that the goals of the members are being met. 

One problem that arises in the process described above is that students often ignore theory. That is, I want the students to tie in the theories of leadership as well. Thus, I will ask the students to explain their response in terms of a leadership theory. That is, what theory can explain why being task oriented will help the members meet their goals and will be good leadership? This question might lead to silence. Normally, I will give them some time to ponder the question. If I am not getting any response after a while, then I ask the students to list off theories of leadership, which I write on the board. Thus, this often leads to a brief review or discussion of leadership theories. After the discussion on leadership theories, the students are better able to identify at least one theory (e.g., path-goal theory) that supports their decision to use a task-oriented leader. At this point, the students should have a better understanding of what the problem is, what a possible cause of the problem is, a possible solution, and how to justify their solution. 

Next, we might move to the question about power. Again, it might be necessary to review before proceeding. I generally start with the more general questions and then become more specific if the students are having trouble answering. This helps give me an understanding of the students grasp of the material. That is, I might ask what the power issues are in this scenario. If the responses are few or not quite right, I will ask more specific questions such as what power is, what are the different types of power we discussed, and who can have power. 

Once the students have an understanding of power, we go back to the original list of problems. Returning back to the issue of low involvement and the cause of not meeting ones goals, the students will often argue that an expert power base is needed in the leader. That is, the leader needs to be an expert in knowing how to complete the necessary tasks that will result in the members reaching their goals. 

I use this process of asking more general questions first, returning to the underlying problems and causes, and asking more specific questions to guide the students in their thought processes when I address other topics such as decision making, communication, and group structure. These scenarios tend to work well periodically throughout the semester whereby the students start with simpler scenarios in the beginning and have more complex scenarios by the end of the semester. The simpler scenarios in the beginning of the semester give the students the opportunity to learn the process of working with these scenarios and how to analyze these situations. Depending on the depth and amount of material one wants to cover, the discussion of a scenario can easily take a 50-minute class or two. I find that these scenarios help the students pull the material together. 

In summary, in order for the scenarios to be effective, they should be written and distributed to the students so they can refer back to and reread the situation. The scenarios should also be descriptive enough about the situation without being too long so the students can grasp the situation but also have room for the students to consider various possibilities when discussing the solutions. Given that some undergraduates have limited work experience, the scenarios should also describe a situation with which the students may already have some familiarity (e.g., student groups, the university, the universitys town or city, sport teams). Finally, it is extremely important that discussion rules are distributed and followed in order for the discussion to be productive.

April 2004 Table of Contents | TIP Home | SIOP Home