How to Engage Your Students With the 12-Minute Rule and Quizzes They’re Meant to Fail

Quick: In which Asian country is it customary to touch the elbow of your right arm with the fingers of your left hand when you are passing an object to another person?His unique resume—well-traveled background, engineer’s mind, one-time musical theatre performer’s flair—contribute to well-crafted and entertaining classes.Stumped? So are most of the students taking the cultural competency quiz Professor John Branch gives out near the beginning of his MBA-level International Marketing class at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. The average student gets just two of the ten questions right. But failure is the whole point of the exercise. “I’ve set the quiz so that it’s incredibly challenging,” says Branch. “And that is one of the learning objectives: that we know very little about other places.” He adds that, “the students get a kind of cognitive, emotional kick in the arse; they realize they’re not as smart as they think they are, especially when it comes to cultural competence.”Opening his students’ eyes to the cultural complexities of the world through a killer quiz—which he follows up with entertaining personal stories—is just one way Branch taps into his own far-flung and hard-earned cross-cultural competence to enrich his marketing classes. The native Canadian has five degrees from three countries—a bachelor’s in engineering, master’s in education and business, and doctorates in philosophy and education. He’s published more than a dozen books on higher education and taught at more than 40 business schools around the world, from Britain to Uzbekistan. His unique resume—well-traveled background, engineer’s mind, one-time musical theatre performer’s flair—contribute to well-crafted and entertaining classes. These, in turn, have earned him a raft of teaching honors, including the Sherwin-Williams Distinguished Teaching Award. He has also been named a Master Educator by Course Hero, an education technology company that produced a short film about him.He engineers every aspect of his courses, down to which students he’ll shoot the breeze with before class.University of Michigan marketing professor John Branch rebuilds the learning experience by taking a precision engineering approach to course design. Source: Course Hero.Branch is known for his logical, easy-to-grasp course design, for his engaging assignments like The Armchair Anthropologist, and for the way his classes seem to fly by—which doesn’t happen by accident. He engineers every aspect of his courses, down to which students he’ll shoot the breeze with before class. EdSurge caught up with Branch to learn more about his innovative teaching techniques, the 12-minute rule, and why designing a course is a lot like restoring a 1963 Porsche 356. EdSurge: What makes your classes popular?John Branch: I’d say it’s my entertaining style. I’m up at the front of the class crying and acting and being goofy and using self-deprecating humor. I think the students are entertained. In high school, I played sports, but another important part of my life was band and musical theatre. I was always kind of a performing kid. I would say my classroom is like a stage, and I’m performing on the stage. The other things students appreciate is how well-structured the courses are. There’s a very logical story that drives the overall course and each of the course sessions. That’s the engineering side of my brain. By marrying those two things together—the curriculum design, which is very engineering-like, and the classroom performance, which is very artistic—you get the John Branch combination.Tell me about your Armchair Anthropologist assignment.By marrying those two things together—the curriculum design, which is very engineering-like, and the classroom performance, which is very artistic—you get the John Branch combination.One of the failure points of international marketing is human beings’ inability to understand, appreciate, and exploit cultural differences. To explore cultural differences, the perfect situation would be for students to act like anthropologists and live abroad for a period of time. Instead, I ask them to try to explore cultural differences while sitting in their armchairs at home. Students love doing this because they are able to reveal and unpack differences across cultures that they’ve never thought about before.In one assignment from a few years ago, a student focused on Starbucks’ internationalization to Croatia, which failed to launch. Why did it fail? You could argue that it was strategic, but the student argued that it was entirely due to cultural differences. The student explored the culture of coffee, the culture of cafes, and the culture of leisure in Croatia and explained the failure of Starbucks through that lens of culture.
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You’ve been restoring classic cars since you were a teenager. How does that hobby inform your teaching?I’m an engineer, which means I assemble things from first principles. In the case of cars, I don’t like to do Band-Aid fixes. With the 1963 Porsche 356 I’m working on now, I am taking every nut and bolt off that thing and I’m dipping the body into a tank of acid, so it goes right down to the metal. And it’s from that bare metal shell that I can begin to rebuild. Now do I rebuild it so it’s exactly the same as it came off the factory floor? On the contrary, I like to take new technologies and new ideas and apply them to my vehicles. For example, the car originally had drum brakes, but I’m installing disc brakes. Similarly, when I’m building a course, I take it right down to its shell. I start with the idea of what do I want the students to learn from this course, how many students do I have? What are the new technologies, ideas, or learning theories that I could apply to this course? And then I build it up. And I rebuild it in some form every time I teach it.. . . when I’m building a course, I take it right down to its shell.John Branch restoring a 1963 Porsche 356. Source: Course Hero.Among the new ideas I’ve applied to my classes over the years is the flipped classroom, where the students learn theory at home and practice it with the professor in the classroom. I also incorporate parts of the EU’s European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System, or ECTS. Among other things, it provides an extremely straightforward system that allows a professor to design courses that stipulate exactly what the student needs to do and how long it ought to take. It’s based on learning hours rather than classroom hours. Students really appreciate being able to plan their time around that.In what other ways does applying a precision mindset to designing a course improve the student experience?What Is Course Hero?Course Hero is an online learning platform where you can access course-specific study resources contributed by a community of students and educators. As an engineer, you are aiming for perfection but are given constraints. The classroom has constraints in terms of physical layouts. Our classrooms are U-shaped, and there are alleyways at 10 o’clock and two o’clock. I can go up and down those alleys, but there’s a group of about 15 students who sit between 10 and two, and that means I can never get right up in the grill of of those students three rows back during class. So I have to think about what I might do to resonate and get a little bit more personal with those students. So before class begins, and before students have sat down in rows one or two, I might make my way into the middle of those rows out of the 12 o’clock position and go chitty chat and shake hands and talk about music or this and that. That’s a way for me to overcome the physical constraint of the classroom so that I can make a personal connection with all the students throughout the semester.Professor John Branch and students. Source: Course Hero.How do you keep your students engaged?So, all told, a ninety-minute session is not really ninety minutes; it’s 15 six-minute activities.There is a theory in pedagogy that suggests that human beings cannot focus their attention on a single activity for more than 12 minutes. So I have adopted the 12-minute rule, though I think I’ve actually pushed that down to the eight-minute rule or even six-minute rule. Let’s a say I have a 90-minute course session. There will never be any single activity in that ninety minutes that lasts more than six to eight minutes. So, my students are always kept on their toes because we might start out with a quick review of the last session, which will take about three minutes, then we’ll jump into a discussion of the reading, and then we’ll go to a mini case, then we’ll switch over to a mini lecture, then we’ll do another exercise. So, all told, a ninety-minute session is not really ninety minutes; it’s 15 six-minute activities. Students will say, “Crikey, that class flew by and we did so much!”What is an aspect of your teaching that is more performance than engineering?One of my performance shticks is constant repetition. There’s a funny thing I do when I teach introduction to marketing. The definition of marketing is very simple: it’s going to market. In order to get students to remember that—and they will remember it forever—I jokingly Pavlovian condition them. I ring a bell, and I say, ‘Repeat after me, ding ding ding! Going to market! Ding ding ding! Going to market!’ After about five times I just ring the bell, I don’t even say ‘Going to market,’ and they all repeat, ‘Going to market!’Why do you not keep office hours?For me, office hours listed on the plaque outside your door or listed on the first page of the syllabus sends the message, “Here are the hours when I want to see you, students.” I believe a better message is, “If I’m here, I’m yours.” My office hours are any time a student needs to see me, and I’m in town. Shoot me an email, and I’ll screen capture my calendar for you. If there’s an opening, I make it work for the student.When Failure is the Right AnswerProfessor John Branch gives this cultural competency quiz to his MBA-level International Marketing students at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “Failure is the point of the exercise,” he says.1. Which language is the only language in Central Europe not to have Slavic, Roman, or Germanic roots?2. In which country is the Universal House of Justice, the supreme governing institution of the Bahá’í Faith?3. In which country were the compass and spaghetti invented?4. What do the stars on the Australian flag represent?5. In which Asian country is it customary to touch the elbow of your right arm with the fingers of your left hand when you are passing an object to another person?6. Which former host of the Winter Olympics now ranks as one of the world’s leading recipients of remittances (the transfer of money by foreign workers to their home country)?7. In which North African country was the music style rai created?8. Which small Central Asian country celebrated recently the 1000th anniversary of its national folkloric tale Manas?9. Which native North/Central American tribe differentiates between older sister and younger female siblings with the words kiik and inci?Bonus: From which language does the French word bistro originate?Quiz answer key: 1. Hungary2. Israel3. China4. Southern Cross constellation5. Mongolia (although South Korea and parts of India also have this social custom)6. Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina7. Algeria8. Kyrgyzstan9. MayaBonus: Russian