BY RONALD SCHACHTER
DUDLEY, Mass.— Nicholas Barnes teaches an unusual array of courses at Nichols College, including "Business Law," "Information Systems," and "Learning to Lead." What they all have in common, however, is that each course requires students work in groups to ratchet up their educational experience.
"My classes heavily use group work," said Barnes, assistant professor of business and law. "My rationale is that there are things we can do in groups that are much more indicative of what life is like post-graduate. Employers will ask these students to work in teams. It's an important skill."
Barnes has plenty of company among other Nichols professors, in whose courses challenging group work has become a way of life and often a daily occurrence.
In Barnes's section of the required first-year course "Learning to Lead"—and in the almost two dozen other sections taught by other faculty—students spend much of their time solving leadership-related challenges based on real-life business problems.
In one exercise, for example, students take on the roles of corporate board members for café chain Starbucks, as they wrestle with the company's decision to serve paper cups with holiday colors but no Christmas message. It's an annual controversy that creates a social media furor on both sides of the issue.
With learning opportunities such as this, Barnes insists, Nichols students are making a quantum leap from a more traditional college education.
"When students and their parents think of a classroom, they may see a wizened professor delivering a lecture," Barnes said. "Our students prefer group work if they have that option. They're reaching a higher level of understanding than just hearing course material from the professor."
The group approach has become part of the physical infrastructure at Nichols.
"You can see it represented in our newest classrooms," said Barnes.
The design of oversized classrooms in the Nichols academic building, which opened in 2015, consists of small conference tables ringing the room, with students sharing ideas on laptops connected via wireless networking to an overhead monitor. While faculty can still teach from the front or center of the room, they spend more time moving from table to table, coaching students through their group activities.
That was the scene one November morning in Room 204 of the academic building, as students in Assistant Professor of Marketing and Business Communication Jean Beaupré’s "Media and Public Relations" class clustered at their tables. They prepared for mock press conferences at which they will address a current crisis in their assigned companies.
A group of four classmates in one corner of the room focused on the recent sexist behavior of two young male employees, an incident already reported in a major newspaper. After considerable back and forth, the team crafted a message to the press about immaturity, bad judgment, and its consequences: "These employees, if they want to revisit high school, won't do it at this company," the four agreed to state.
"When you work collectively, you see a wider field of information," said senior Gina Pacitto, a group member. "It gives you more of an open perspective to others."
"It's vital that people learn from each other," added Beaupré. "And I believe we need to be in proximity to each other in order to learn."
The team concept in the classroom reaches a new level in one of Assistant Professor Megan Nocivelli’s advanced marketing classes, where student groups conducted this semester a research project on how to attract millennial customers for the Busch Gardens resort in Williamsburg, Va. Separate student teams explore the buying trends of those potential customers, how they use vacations, and from where they get vacation advice.
One student group has created a survey distributed to millennial alumni from Nichols. Another group ran a focus group during Nichols Alumni Weekend earlier in the fall. And other teams have developed social media content and strategies that their Busch Gardens client could use to better connect with the millennial population.
"I want them to know what's going to be expected of them in the workplace," Nocivelli said of the group dynamics in her class. "Each student brings a strength and ideas, and the group builds on them together. The students definitely seem to get into it and have fun with it."
The real world is also the destination of students in the Nichols "Resort and Conference Management" course, one of the crown jewels of the College's Hospitality Management major. Each team plans an event for a real client. Recent accomplishments have included a Bingo night for more than 200 guests benefiting a foundation for young adults with cancer, as well as a 135-person fund-raiser for a local charity serving the homeless.
The final products have to reflect a consensus among the group members, according to Mary Trottier, associate professor of management.
"The challenge is coming to that consensus and the best possible solutions based on everyone's ideas," she said. "You can’t have a bunch of disparate voices contradicting each other."
Along the way, students in the class discover that the group experience consists of more than sharing and cooperation.
"The students learn real skills for dealing with their group when things are not going well, or if others aren't holding up their end of the bargain," said Accounting Chair and Associate Professor Bryant Richards, who co-teaches the "Resort and Conference Management" course. "You need to hold your teammates accountable."
Junior Ciara Ferland pointed out that working closely with other personalities poses a challenge.
"We're all such strong-willed people with great leadership skills," she said of her fellow group members. "It's about making accommodations with each other. At the end of the day, it's all about creating and completing a successful project together."
Lorraine U. Martinelle
Director of Public Relations and Social Media
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