Lisa Cohen

Desautels Faculty of Management

What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?

I try to mix it up a lot—lectures, discussions, small group activities, case analyses. For example, I use clickers to get students to reveal things about themselves that they are not necessarily comfortable doing by raising their hands. A question like, “How many of you have a parent who has lost his or her job?” will get much better clicker response rates than old-fashioned hand-raising. Responding to clicker questions seems to make students think through their responses, which works well for stimulating discussions.

Since 20% of their mark is based on participation, my students really need to join the classroom conversation. For people who are having difficulty, I work with them closely and will give them questions in advance. I also regularly break the class up into groups of four or five for certain activities, such as developing and presenting a recruiting strategy for a particular position.

How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?

Again, I use a variety of strategies. One of these is impromptu design exercises, which are worth 10% of the grade. For instance, I might ask them to individually prepare three interview questions they might ask a set of job candidates for a position described in a case. Another 10% are for two short case write-ups where they need to identify an existing Human Resources (HR) problem, explain its background, and make recommendations. To make sure that they understand what I expect, I have them do a practice write-up first.

They do a job-analysis project where they investigate a position they’re interested in, such as a CEO, an investment banker, or an HR director. They have to shadow a person in this position, interview that person, talk to people who work with that person, and then write a summary report and provide recommendations to improve the design of the job or the HR practices around it. To get them engaged in this project early, I have them design and present posters for the positions.

For the last piece they do a small-group project worth 40%. They need to find a real organization and examine an issue that this organization is facing—one that’s “keeping its managers up at night”—and propose HR-related solutions. It’s a multi-part assignment that usually runs to about 20 pages. The project also includes an ungraded team contract and presentations, which I grade based on the quality of the students’ critiques of their peers’ projects rather than the presentations themselves.

What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?

I teach them a lot of basic organizational and HR concepts such as staffing and employee development techniques. For example, they need to understand that people are the most important asset in an organization and that how you treat employees has a lot to do with what they will accomplish for you and whether or not you will be able to follow your organization’s strategy and achieve your goals. Regarding staffing, I give them pointers such as when they ask questions in a job interview, they should be hypothetical-behaviour questions. While they may know that in theory, I stress the importance of applying it in practice.

I also focus a lot on data. What makes good data? How can you gather that data? How can you understand whether your HR systems are working and how would you assess their effectiveness? I also make them gather data for all of their projects. In the final project we look at how to evaluate the success of an HR initiative. That’s important because within an organization, employees are an important investment, so students need to know how to keep them and ensure they are effective.

How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?

The textbook and the readings I use are research based. I assign a lot of articles from the Harvard Business Review and many written by Malcolm Gladwell, who manages to make social science real. I also talk a little about my own research into jobs and job design, such as studies I’ve conducted on why certain tasks come together in certain jobs when that evolution was not necessarily part of a logical, planned process.

As well, I present interesting research findings and poll the students with clickers to test their assumptions and to get them thinking and talking. I’ll present the set-up of a study and ask them to predict the findings, especially when the answer is counterintuitive. For instance, I’ll ask things like, “Who should be more highly paid, animal-care workers or childcare workers?” Most people believe the childcare workers earn more because it’s a more important job, but in reality the animal-care workers do.

What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?

They need to work to find their own voice. I could give them all my materials but they’d still struggle because everyone teaches differently. For example, some professors like to talk a lot in classes, while I don’t. They just have to try different strategies and approaches to see what works best for them.

What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?

Do the readings even though you won’t be tested on them. Study with other people so you can discuss and apply what you’re learning. Force yourself to participate in the class even if it’s uncomfortable. While a cliché, it’s still true that what you get out of any course is directly related to what you put into it.

Why do you teach?

It is my job to create knowledge and to share that knowledge. Early in my career I had a lot of trepidation about teaching because I wasn’t taught how to do it. Over time, it’s become much easier. People often ask, “Do you like teaching?” and I say, “Yes, when it goes well.” It’s a great feeling when I walk out of a class and I see the students interacting in a really positive way. That makes it all worthwhile.

Photo by Owen Egan

Contact Information
Email address: 
lisa.cohen [at]

[New faculty members] need to work to find their own voice. I could give them all my materials but they’d still struggle because everyone teaches differently.

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