Faculty Focus


A Course Metaphor

Here’s an interesting way to refresh a course you may have taught too many times. Identify a course metaphor and use it to create a number of activities that use the metaphor to aid understanding of course content.

The author who describes this idea did not adopt it to refresh his course. He developed the approach to help students in a course with content they often struggled to master. The approach works with this issue as well. In this example, the course was marketing research and the metaphor was jazz.

For this approach to work, you need a metaphor that fits the goals and objectives of the course. Here’s how that worked with the jazz metaphor. “Within the improvisational jazz medium skillful performance requires full knowledge of (a) the context, (b) techniques, options and creative application of those techniques, (c) virtuosity and artistry, (d) creative listening to work with others in the group, (e) leadership (in whole or part), (f) confidence, and (g) … collaboration.” (p. 305). And those skills are consistent with marketing research requirements that call on professionals to “improvise and creatively weave through more complex information in a way that benefits decision making and the profession.” (p. 302) In other words, the jazz metaphor represents those understandings and skills that students need to develop in this course.

The approach is further explained with a couple of examples illustrating how this instructor used the metaphor in his course. They show how an approach like this might benefit students. However, the design and implementation of activities like this would also benefit an instructor looking for a way to make a familiar course different and exciting. This instructor introduces the metaphor on the first day of class. Students are divided into groups of five, with each student assigned an instrument (guitar, bass, piano, drums, etc.). They role-play, imagining that they are in an improvising band. After a very brief rehearsal, this “band” must play (and improvise) an easy jazz tune for the rest of the class. Students are encouraged to have fun; the instructor describes their performances as entertaining. Afterward, he has them discuss the similarity of skills needed by a jazz group and those needed in the marketing research process.

The metaphor is carried across a number of different classroom activities that are described in the article. When it’s about time for students to present their research, they are divided into small groups and tasked with generating a list of characteristics that make for a bad performance. Then students consider how a jazz player might approach making a presentation more interesting.

The success of an approach like this rests on finding a metaphor that fits your course. The author does offer some useful guidelines. You want one “that is easily understandable, translates well, is not contextually or culturally constrained, and therefore can successfully aid student visualization and action.” (p. 302) You also need a metaphor that connects with student interests. Although not all students like jazz, virtually all college students do relate to music. The author also reports that the more you use the metaphor, the better the students are able to apply it to course content.

The approach as it was used here was not equally successful with all students, but a number of student comments included in the article attest to its effectiveness for some. “At the beginning I was a bit put off when this guy started off talking about and playing jazz in a marketing research course. I mean, what planet was he from? But his method gradually won me over. Now I use jazz thinking in a lot of my courses, and other things as well.” (pp. 309-310)

Clearly this isn’t one of those quick-fix solutions, but, then, courses that we’ve been through many, many times aren’t “fixed” with a couple of new techniques. More often they need to be taken apart at the seams, redesigned, and reassembled as an entirely new garment, to explain with another a metaphor.

Reference: Mills, M. K. (2010). Using the jazz metaphor to enhance student learning and skill development in the marketing research course. Journal of Marketing Education, 32 (3), 300-313.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 25.1 (2011): 6.