Marketing Professor Highlights Real-World Experience in Learning

“Just as I like to see how things play out in research, I like to see how they play out in teaching. Giving students course material with real-world applications makes it stick,” said Elanor Williams, Associate Professor in the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. Professor Williams teaches a course, “Consumer Behavior,” to undergraduate students, and will begin teaching MBA students next year.

Professor Williams’s research draws on her background in social psychology. It focuses on how consumers make judgments and decisions in social contexts, and why they fail to learn from their mistakes. Recent publications include “Delegating Decisions: Recruiting Others to Make Difficult Choices,” an article that appeared in a 2018 edition of the Journal of Consumer Research, and “Failing to Learn from Feedback: Inter- and Intrapersonal Roadblocks to Autonomous Learning,” which appeared in the book “Autonomous Learning in the Workplace.”

Professor Williams has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Yale University. She earned her Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Cornell University. Professor Williams completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Warrington School of Business at the University of Florida, where she taught MBA and other business Masters’ students. She then worked as a postdoctoral scholar and assistant research scientist at the Rady School of Management at the University of San Diego before accepting an assistant professor position in the Marketing Department at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. Professor Williams started in her current role at Washington University in 2019.

In an interview with the Teaching Center, Professor Williams emphasized how real-world, hands-on activities in class can bolster student learning. She also discussed how constant innovation in a course can keep material fresh for instructors.

How did you become interested in psychology?

I went to college with a placeholder major. I spent a couple years as a linguistics major, but I discovered that what interested me about it was what was going on in people’s heads. I took a psychology class just for fun with a friend my first semester, and discovered that my interest lay there. I kept going with it and by the end of college, I’d taken the bulk of my classes in psychology. I had to decide between being social psychologist or a clinical psychologist. It turns out I’m more interested in things that anyone might encounter in their life than certain conditions or situations.

What led you to transition from psychology to marketing?

Some of it was practical. The social psych Ph.D. program at Cornell is a blend of social psychology and judgment and decision making . That combination is perfect for business schools, and marketing and management in particular. I think aver half the people with social psychology degrees before and behind me went to business schools after Cornell.

Another part of it is, I like focusing on the consequences of things, which applies to marketing as a field. Social psychology can sometimes be very theoretical, focusing on what might happen in people’s heads instead of focusing on how choices might impact people’s behaviors outside the lab. I really like to see how decision making plays out and how it might matter when it comes to making a purchase, or interacting with other people.

Still, I haven’t entirely moved past my social psychology background. “Consumer Behavior,” the course I teach at WashU, is a great class for just that. It’s essentially Intro Social Psychology for marketers. It walks you through consumer decisions from start to finish.

Some of your research focuses on why consumers fail to learn. How do you apply this concept in your teaching?

People make mistakes all the time, but they often don’t use those mistakes as information. A way I apply that concept in class is through one-on-one meetings with students. They come to me and say they’re having trouble studying, and I get them to do that analysis. Often, you have to interrupt their pattern to help them become more productive. Many students aren’t taught how to study, so having them figure out their approach is something that could benefit them. They’re often used to doing things without considering alternatives.

How do you integrate real-world experience in your teaching?

Just as I like to see how things play out in research, I like to see how they play out in teaching. Giving students course material with real-world applications makes it stick.

When I was teaching at Indiana University, there was a community engaged learning group there as part of the center for teaching and learning on campus. I happened to stumble upon them and it inspired me to implement a real-life final project in subsequent courses. Not only do students get to try something out, they have real-world stakes and context. The project is taking what we discussed in class and applying it to nonprofits.

There are many benefits to this approach. Nonprofits often do not have marketing departments. Students feel like the ideas they suggest have a good chance at being put into practice, as opposed to supplementing the marketing department at a for-profit business. I think it makes the students feel really good that they’re contributing and helping. It also helps increase their sense of community in St. Louis.

Why is hands-on experience important in your teaching?

I always make it a priority to do hands-on activities in class. One of the things I really want to get across is that these are concepts that apply to most people. A lot of the class is about understanding the world from someone else’s point of view. Doing hands-on activities gives students the sense that concepts apply to them, and makes it easier to imagine them happening to someone else, too. It also has the benefit of having them think a little deeper about the idea and really apply it to something. And it’s more fun and keeps them engaged in class.

For instance, one of my recent activities looks at overconfidence. I have students do an estimation quiz and give their confidence intervals around the answers. It turns out that almost everyone makes the interval too narrow. They should get 90% of the correct answers in their intervals and they get three out of 10, or even two. They’re overconfident. From this activity, students have evidence that it’s not just other consumers who are affected by overconfidence; it affects them, too.

What has been one of your favorite courses to teach, and why?

I only taught “Marketing Ethics and Public Policy” once before, but I may end up revamping it into a marketing for social good class and teaching it to MBA students next year. The course talks about the psychology behind decision making with a bent toward, how do we construct choices for consumers that help them live better, healthier, happier lives? The answers are complicated. It’s interesting to grapple with this question and to instill in students the fact that marketers will benefit from considering what is in their consumers’ best interest. People in marketing often teach from the point of view of the business, so it ends up being consumer neutral rather than consumer focused. My course encourages students to consider that there are ways to benefit your business and the consumer, too. I like being the one who gets to tell them that. I’m looking forward to how this will play out next year.

What is one of the resources that has most impacted your teaching?

“Teaching What You Don’t Know,” by Therese Huston. It’s framed as book for instructors who get thrown into a class because it needs to be taught, which happens to a lot of people. But even if you aren’t going through that, the advice is helpful. The book tells you how to manage a classroom, get people engaged, and get feedback in a way that doesn’t crush your spirit. It was helpful to me starting out and I still use things from the book in my teaching. It’s very readable and helpful with worksheets in the back. I modeled one of my student evaluation forms on one I found in the book. It’s hard to get feedback from students, especially while you’re still teaching them. The evaluation is structured around giving students ways to suggest things they’d like to change to improve their learning, which is more constructive for them to think through and me to process.

Who are some of your favorite teachers, and why?

I still think about Mr. Kuzel, my sixth grade teacher. We had student mailboxes, and he always made sure I always had extra math activities in there because he knew I was ahead of the rest of the class. He made sure I wasn’t bored and gave me extra challenges. It was a minor thing that really stuck with me as a thoughtful thing for him to do.

At Yale, there was an introduction to English composition class my freshman year, but I tested out of it. When you do that, you get to take the Drama in the English Language and Novel in the English Language. Both of those professors were so dynamic, fun, and interesting, and great at leading discussions. The classes stuck with me even though I didn’t end up becoming an English major. I enjoyed those classes, felt like I learned a ton, and was pushed to analyze things in a way I hadn’t been before.

Also, my two main advisors in college, David Armor and Geoff Cohen, were influential. They saw whatever it was In me that was a good fit for graduate school and nudged me to make it happen. They encouraged me to move forward in the field and offered support and recommendations.

What advice do you have for aspiring educators?

My dad is also a professor. This is his last year teaching; he’s about to retire. It’s been interesting to watch him as he’s gotten closer to retirement. He loves teaching, but he hates grading—that’s actually a lot of why he’s retiring. But he’s really going to miss the students and the classroom. Part of what has kept him with that particular feeling despite the grading is, he’s always innovating. He got involved with the SoTL group on campus in the last few years and keeps adding new features to his classes, even though he’s taught them for more than 40 years. It’s kept him from feeling bored and helped him see students’ responses in a satisfying way that he didn’t necessarily anticipate before he started.

I’ve taught Consumer Behavior on and off for a decade now, and I could easily teach the same thing each time, but it wouldn’t be satisfying. I’m always trying to make it better. You need to stay engaged with the class to keep it fresh and interesting to you as well.

Interview has been condensed and edited.