Academic journal article Education

A Class Exercise to Teach Practical Considerations in Use of Mathematical Models

Academic journal article Education

A Class Exercise to Teach Practical Considerations in Use of Mathematical Models

Article excerpt


Students majoring in Management Information Systems (MIS) are required to take a course in Decision Support Systems (DSS) as part of their information systems core at this university. In a typical course on DSS, students are taught about use of mathematical models for solving large complex problems. They learn about the power, efficiency, robustness, and effectiveness of such models. While it is easy to teach about the theory of models, it has been this instructor's experience that it is considerably harder to help students understand practical issues surrounding model use. Many different kinds of issues need to be brought to student attention if they are to get a balanced view of model use in solving real problems. For example, what kind of tradeoffs are encountered in real situations that compels an analyst to look at the possibility of using heuristics over optimal approaches? What is 'sensitivity analysis' and why is it important for implementation of models? These and other issues surround the important question of model use. It has been my experience that a teaching strategy of lecturing about these issues does not in general help the student understand the issues or their importance. A class exercise was developed and used to help students understand the practical issues surrounding model development and use.

Two things would happen when a class exercise is used. First, students would be engaged in a cognitive activity during part of a class period as opposed to being passive listeners continuously. Second, they would be expected to evaluate the material to discover important lessons. The first strategy is known in the literature as 'active learning' while the second strategy is called 'discovery learning'.

Active learning has been widely used in academia and training for a long period of time. Learning becomes active when students use their minds during the learning process. Over two thousand years ago, Confucius suggested that people forget what they hear, but remember what they see and understand what they do. Active learning is thus learning through doing. Silberman (1995, 1996) describes many strategies to incorporate active learning in courses and training sessions. Wassermann (1994) confirms the widely held belief that opportunities to engage students actively in analyzing complex situations promotes their habits of logical thinking. Meyers and Jones (1993) believe that active learning helps students to become self-directed life long learners, an ability they will need many times in adjusting to the continuous changes that they are likely to encounter in their work places and society.

Discovery learning basically refers to a process where the student discovers the knowledge that would otherwise have been presented to her via a process of lecture. Any activity which requires students to discover knowledge is inherently a mental challenge for them and usually succeeds in keeping their attention focused on the task at hand. An excellent reference is the book by Massalias and Zevin (1983). Smith and Lusterman (1979) suggest that in discovery learning, the teacher's role is primarily to help students think, question and evaluate for themselves.

First, we present a discussion about the nature of the course. This is followed by a discussion about the specific class exercise and how it was conducted. A discussion is presented of an analysis of student work. This is followed by details of the class discussion about the exercise. Finally, we summarize the benefits and drawbacks of this approach.


A course in Decision Support and Expert Systems is required of MIS majors at this AACSB accredited regional university. It is emphasized in the course that development, implementation, and use of computer based information systems to support managerial decision making is likely to be a major responsibility of MIS students in practice. …

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