Tricky profs win awards

By Andrew Sedor

Two Haskayne professors have won multiple awards for deceiving their students.

Business professors Piers Steel and Daphne Taras created a controversial experiential learning tactic to make students have an emotional connection to labour unions.

The experiment was featured in the British Journal of Industrial Relations in Mar. 2007. The paper was also sent to business professors around the world in hopes that it could make the same connection to students as it did in Steel’s fall 2004 human resources and organizational dynamics class.

Taras recalled the experiment first started when she walked into Steel’s business class and told students he had been suspended pending an investigation and she was going to change some elements of the classroom.

“Students from last year had complained they had not been given the opportunity to earn the kind of bonus mark Piers has built into your course outline,” Taras had explained to her new class.

The eliminated bonus assignments would cost students up to four per cent of their grade she explained. Her second order of business was to make the final cumulative, which upset students who had already thrown out their notes. All complaints were dismissed by Taras and she told the students they could possibly gain some marks back by presenting good behavior and not complaining.

Taras repeated the experiment in four classes. The students in every class were understandably upset and started a petition within as few as six minutes.

Halfway through the petition Taras explained to the students it had been a hoax, and apologized for the distress she had caused. Then she told them they had just unionized in six minutes.

“You just found out what it feel’s like to be at the mercy of senior management decision-making,” Taras said to the class.

Taras then talked about what the students had just gone through, their reactions and how labour relations were still relevant. She said for the first time in a while students were listening intently.

Because the ethics of the experiment were questionable, Steel set up an anonymous questionnaire to see how the experiment affected students. One hundred per cent of the students responded the experiment was useful to extremely worthwhile. Ninety-two per cent of students said the experiment should be repeated, stating they didn’t have any ethical problems because what they had learned exceeded the cost of distress.

“I wouldn’t be mad about it because it is productive learning,” said second-year engineering student Asmin Chaudhry.

Still unsure about the ethics of the experiment, Steel and Taras attended the Academy of Management, the largest international conference in the field of management.

Taras explained their goal at the conference was to see what other professors thought of the experiment. To their surprise, it won the best paper in management education award.

Taras explained that although business professors from across the world have been sent the paper and told their students about the experiment, she believes the emotional attachment of having the students actually experience the experiment is missing, so the lesson will not be fully learned.

Steel and Taras have received positive feedback from university professors at Harvard, MIT, and the University of Atlanta, to name a few. Taras believes the paper has become a cult classic used by business professors around the world to show the importance of labour relations.

In total Steel and Taras have accumulated four awards from the experiment, including Taras’ excellence in education award presented to her by the Labour and Employment Relations Association of the United States.

“The odd thing is it was never meant to be an academic paper, it was just supposed to be a learning exercise,” said Taras.

According to Taras, 30 per cent of Canadians are currently in unions. Her hope is wary students will understand the importance of labour unions and will not patronize future employees.

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