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Teaching Forum - First-year Business Students

A Journal of the the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Sunday October 26, 2008 Edition

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First-year Business Students
Initial Business Concepts and Attitudes

By William Wresch

Key Words:  misconceptions, business attitudes, economic knowledge, first-year students, business students, conceptual change

Abstract

Prior research has indicated that many students find business careers unattractive and have a number of fundamental misconceptions about basic business processes.  In an effort to determine how pervasive such problems may be, a survey was administered to nearly 600 students taking an introductory business class at a Midwestern public university.  Results showed that business attitudes among these students were more positive than prior research would have predicted.  Nevertheless, significant misconceptions were also found.  Students had fundamental confusions over profit, marketing, and human resources.  The same survey was repeated at the end of the course and found only limited change in attitudes or concepts.

Introduction

There is a long-standing concern that college students have misconceptions and errant attitudes about the main fields of business that either cause them to avoid the business major entirely, or cause them to begin their business studies with misconceptions that have to be overcome before important concepts can be understood.  Information systems professors consistently find that students avoid IS as a major because they "want to work with people," a surprising conclusion for IS professionals who think they work with people all day (Fox, et. al, 2001, 85).  Marketing professors complain that students think marketing is just selling, with one study finding 46% of students in a marketing class felt "marketing to be a poor business practice," with another 24% perceiving marketing to be a poor career choice. (Ferrell, 2004, p121).  Accounting professors worry that "the number of accounting majors is declining nationwide partly because of misinformation and myths about accountants" with their fellow students believing that accountants are "inflexible, unexciting, and detail-oriented" (Hunt, 2004, 147).  Meanwhile an economics professor looks at student skills and opines that "high school students' misinformation about some economic facts and their lack of ability to think rationally as economic analysis teaches put our economy at risk" (Rader, 1996, p5).  In sum, seemingly every business discipline feels it is misunderstood and poorly appreciated, while basic business concepts are lacking in students.

Despite these common concerns, we are enjoying a significant increase in the number of students who are choosing business as a major.

Table 1. Number of students graduating from U.S. Universities with a major in one of the Business fields.

Year

Students graduating with a major in Business

1996-97

225,934

1997-98

232,079

1998-99

240,947

1999-00

256,070

2000-01

263,515

2001-02

278.217

2002-03

293,545

2003-04

307,149

2004-05

311,574

Source – National Center for Educational Statistics

           

     From a low-point in 1996-97, there has been a regular and consistent growth in the number of US students graduating with majors in business.  While it may be true that students are selecting business as a major despite their misgivings, possibly seeking money in exchange for their happiness, at least one survey of business students found that projected earnings ranked just fifth in order of primary reasons for choosing a business major, far behind such motivations as "I am interested in this type of work," "Good job opportunities with this major," "Good fit with my abilities," and "To help me run my own business someday." (Kim, 2002, 30)

Literature Review

     Significant research has been completed on attitudes toward business careers among college students.  Much recent research has been focused on accounting as a potential profession and some of the student beliefs about accounting as being a routine, number crunching profession (Albrecht & Sack, 2000; Davidson & Etherington, 1995).  Hunt, Flagiani, and Intrieri (2004) attempted to determine where some of these attitudes may have originated.  They found knowing accountants provided the best source for positive attitudes about accounting, while movie and TV portrayals of the profession were less positive, but more positive than the result of actually taking an accounting course.

     A small number of studies have also attempted to understand the level of business knowledge students bring to their initial studies.  For instance, in a review of marketing knowledge, Ferrell and Gonzalez (2004) found 32.7% of students surveyed described marketing as selling.  The same survey found 46.2% perceived marketing to be a "poor business practice." 

     In the area of human resources, Stephen Robbins (2004) identifies a common misunderstanding that happy workers are more productive.  He blames that misunderstanding on Hawthorne studies at Western Electric and asserts that just the opposite is the case – that workers who are more productive on the job become happier with their jobs.

     But by far the most concern expressed by previous studies is over the lack of understanding of profit.  William Rader expresses the foundational characteristic of profit quite succinctly: "Profits are a reward for risk taking and the signal to the economy about the direction in which our productive resources should flow" (1996, p5).  Yet a study by Baumann (1995) found that high school students see profits as synonymous with wages paid to workers.  They also believed that U.S. autoworkers were paid more than auto workers in Mexico because the cost of living is higher in the United States.  In his own studies, William Rader (1996) found that only a third of students knew that profits are equal to revenue minus costs, and less than a third knew that low income results from a lack of marketable skills.  He asserts they also do not understand the concept of opportunity costs or comparative advantage, both of which he sees as fundamental not just for business students but for any adult making daily choices.  He goes on to assert "Our high school students' misinformation about some economic facts and their lack of ability to think rationally as economic analysis teaches put our economy at risk" (1996, p5).

     Given this widespread confusion over fundamental business concepts, it seems helpful to review concept development.  How is it students come to believe what they believe?  One helpful description comes from Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky.  He posits a sequence of concept development from "complex" through "pseudo-concept," to "concept."  An example illustrates this sequence:

Table 2: Concept development sequence

Definition

Child's Example

Complex

The individual elements are associated with one another but not all are associated according to the same theme or significant traits.

Learning to label a canine a "dog" and then labeling any other 4-legged creature a dog.

Pseudo-concept

The individual elements appear to be unified but have internal inconsistencies.

Learning to label a canine a "dog" and then labeling any canine-like creature (e.g. fox) a dog.

Concept

The individual elements included in the set are unified by a single theme.

Learning to label a canine a "dog" and discriminating between dogs and other dog-like creatures.

(Smagorinsky, 2003, pp1402)

     Business professors would recognize many business concepts that have not made the entire developmental cycle and seem stuck as misapplied pseudo-concepts.

The source of concept formation is also of interest to Vygotsky.  He breaks concepts into two main camps: scientific and spontaneous (Smagorinsky, 2003).  Scientific concepts are learned through formal, systematic instruction.  No one learns the Pythagorean Theorem on the street corner.  But they do learn other concepts spontaneously through practical activity and social interaction.  Much is learned outside of school.

     An immediate observation most business professors would make is that much of what we teach can be addressed both through scientific instruction and through spontaneous interaction.  And in fact, given that students work in businesses and have been customers in businesses and have been taken through a host of businesses since they were old enough to leave the house, it would seem that most of what students know about business has come to them through many years of spontaneous interaction.  They may not know all the terms for things, but they have at least some sense of "supply and demand" and "opportunity cost" and "profit margin" long before we see them in class.  And, since they have learned all this informally, we should expect that many of their concepts will be misapplied or over generalized pseudo-concepts.  A fundamental question for us then, is which fundamental business concepts are being misapplied or misinterpreted.

     An important adjunct to an understanding of these misapplied concepts rests on theories of conceptual change.  This theory gives us some insight into why some misunderstood concepts seem so resistant to instruction.  Davis defines conceptual change this way:  "Conceptual change is generally defined as learning that changes an existing conception (i.e., belief, idea, or way of thinking). …. This shift or restructuring of existing knowledge and beliefs is what distinguishes conceptual change from other types of learning. Learning for conceptual change is not merely accumulating new facts or learning a new skill. In conceptual change, an existing conception is fundamentally changed or even replaced, and becomes the conceptual framework that students use to solve problems, explain phenomena, and function in their world." (2008)

     Davis goes on to explain the challenge this change effort poses in the classroom: "Teaching for conceptual change primarily involves 1) uncovering students' preconceptions about a particular topic or phenomenon and 2) using various techniques to help students change their conceptual framework."  

     Davis also makes a very pertinent point about the relevance of conceptual change to the workplace.  "Conceptual change is not limited to the company level; it can also occur at the level of an entire industry.. .. Banks have been replaced by "financial centers." Employees of organizations are now considered "associates." Companies are beginning to view themselves as "learning organizations" instead of "corporations." These are not simply changes in terminology; the changes signify conceptual change."  (Davis, 2008)

     It would appear that an understanding of business students' initial business concepts – or misconceptions – and how those concepts change would be very valuable to business faculty.

     And attitudes?  The attitudes of college students have been studied extensively.  Alexander Astin's work has described which attitudes change, which don't, and what factors influence change.  While many of the attitudes he studies reflect the larger collegiate experience (do student attitudes change toward liberalism, feminism, environmentalism, life goals?), he does ask one question about college goals that we might see in business classes – "Is the chief benefit of college to make money?" (Astin, 1993, pp160-161)

     He finds that this financial orientation toward college is influenced by many aspects of college life.  Those aspects that promote it include living at home, majoring in engineering, not having many friends, watching a lot of television, working full-time while attending college, and being a member of a fraternity or sorority.  Aspects that reduce this attitude include talking with faculty, taking courses where students write (as opposed to taking multiple choice exams), taking foreign language courses and having a humanities orientation.

     His findings are a reminder to us all that attitude formation is complex and results from a host of influences students have experienced before and during their attendance at a university.  The three hours a week we have them in class may be overwhelmed by the many more hours they are spending at home, in front of the TV, or with fraternity brothers.

Method

     The complexity of concept and attitude formation leaves us humbled as we attempt to determine a range of business attitudes and concepts.  Nevertheless, it is worth the effort to gauge some of the most fundamental business concepts and attitudes our students bring to business classes.  To that end a simple two-page survey was created to review a range of student concepts and attitudes.  The survey consisted of statements intended to cover at least some aspect of all of the main business disciplines, and to address some of the concerns expressed by authors described in the introduction to this paper.

     The first 8 statements address profit.  Since prior research has indicated that students have little understanding of the concept, and since profit is a cornerstone of business, it seemed helpful to gauge student views from a variety of perspectives on this area.  Statements here included:

  • There should be an extra tax on companies that have profits above 10%.
  • There should be an extra tax on companies that have profits above 25%
  • Higher profits encourage investment in an industry.
  • If a company makes more profit, most of it should be given to the employees of the company.
  • Given the choice between producing either of two products, the company should produce the product that generates the greatest profit.

     The first two ask students if they think there is such a thing as too much profit (that should be taken away by the government).  Others ask for the purposes of profit.  Having 8 statements about profit gives us an opportunity to determine if student views are consistent.

     The next group of statements considers worker's pay –where it comes from and why it is at a particular level.  Statements included:

  • People should be paid based on the amount of work they do and the number of skills they possess
  • People should be paid based on the amount they need to live.
  • U.S. workers are paid more than Mexican workers because the cost of living is higher in the U.S.
  • The higher the profits of a company, the higher the wages it will pay its workers

     Again, the purpose of multiple statements is to determine when views on wages have become consistent and if they mirror misconceptions found in prior studies.  Additional statements follow on product pricing, principles of human resources, and the basic accounting equation.

     The final section of the survey has a distinct format and presents word associations to gauge general attitudes towards business careers.  The Accounting Attitude Scale developed by Nelson (1991) provides one model for such a survey.  It presents fifteen statements such as "The accounting profession is well-respected," and "accounting is just a lot of rule-memorizing," and "professionally qualified accountants interact with lots of people."  It uses a ten-point scale to differentiate student attitudes toward main features of the profession.  Since the current research was directed at all business disciplines and not just accounting, the AAS was not deemed appropriate, but it did provide ideas for a simplified, more general survey instrument.  Sixteen words commonly associated with business, some with positive connotations, and some with negative connotations were listed in survey form and students were asked to agree or disagree with each word as a descriptor of business careers.  Are such careers boring? Dynamic?  Prestigious?

     In all sections of the survey, students were forced to present an opinion. They could take one of 4 positions.  They either strongly agreed, agreed, disagreed, or strongly disagreed.  No possibility was allowed for "neutral" or "no opinion."

     The survey was administered in four sections of Introduction to Business at a public regional comprehensive college in the Midwest.  Each section enrolled nearly 150 students in a lecture format class.  In order to gauge the amount of conceptual change that occurred over the instructional period, the survey was administered twice – once during the first meeting of the class, and then again during the final week of the course.  Two of the sections were held during a three week interim session in January, and two of the sections were conducted during a more traditional fourteen week semester.

     Students in the course were mostly first-year students, but some were upper classmen.  Most were business majors, but the course also attracts students from many other majors who want at least some background in business.

Hypotheses

Given this long-standing concern about students' business understanding and attitudes, it seems helpful to ask two fundamental questions.

  1. What are the current attitudes and understandings of entry-level business students, and
  2. Do those attitudes and understandings change during an initial course in business?

With the help of nearly 600 students enrolled in an "Introduction to Business" course, an attempt was made to determine an answer to both those questions.

Findings

     Table 1 summarizes the results of the survey.  1 corresponds to "Strongly Disagree," while 4 corresponds to "Strongly Agree", so rising numbers indicate an increased tendency to agree with the statement.  2.5 is the midpoint, so numbers below that indicate at least modest disagreement with the statement, while numbers above 2.5 indicate increasing levels of agreement.

      The first column shows initial scores for all for sections – 589 students.  The next column indicates average change for students who took the test on the final day of the three-week January interim course.  Asterisks indicate which changes were statistically valid at p<.05.  The next column displays changes for students in the 14-week full-semester class.  Since there was some student attrition in each of the sections, the results show T-test results for those students whose pre- and post-test scores could be matched.

     Statistical significance was determined by applying Student's T-Test to the means of the pre and post-tests.

Table 3: Survey results

How well do you agree with these statements about business?

N = 589

N= 258

N= 240

pretest

3- week change

14-week change

There should be an extra tax on companies that have profits above 10%

2.03

0.04

0.19*

There should be an extra tax on companies that have profits above 25%

2.615

0.02

0.13

If a company is able to purchase supplies for less, it should pass on the savings on to customers.

2.745

-0.16*

0.17*

Higher profits encourage investment in an industry.

3.335

0.17*

0.21*

If a company makes more profit, most of it should be given to the employees of the company.

2.48

-0.1

-0.02

If a company makes more profit, most of it should be given to investors.

2.545

0.21*

0.21*

A company should produce the product that generates the greatest profit

3.265

0.18*

0.1

Products should be priced based on the customer's ability to pay.

2.48

0.31*

0.23*

People should be paid on the amount of work they do and the number of skills they possess

3.325

0.01

-0.02

People should be paid based on the amount they need to live.

2.07

0.09

0.21*

All companies in America should be required to provide health insurance to their employees.

2.965

0.08

-0.10

US Workers are paid more than Mexican workers because the cost of living is higher in the U.S.

2.495

0.33*

0.14

The higher the profits of a company, the higher the wages it will pay its workers.

2.325

0.14*

0.17*

If sales of a product begin to fall, you should drop the price of the product.

2.81

-0.19*

0.27*

It is important to please all your customers

3.19

-0.06

0.06

You should price a new product by determining your costs and adding a desirable profit margin.

3.175

0.01

0.02

As a business owner you should learn what your customers value.

3.635

0.06

-0.09

If you make your workers happy, they will be significantly more productive.

3.475

0.05

0.04

No matter what the background of your employees, they all want the same things from you.

2.27

0.01

0.10

To get ahead in business, it is important who you know.

3.08

0.20*

0.03

It is important that you make sure all your employees have a challenging job.

2.64

0.31*

0.27*

You calculate your net income by subtracting costs from revenues.

3.065

0.21*

0.05

How well do you agree that these words describe business careers?

Bureaucratic

2.76

0.13*

0.01

Dynamic

3.19

0.20*

-0.02

Challenging

3.39

0.18*

-0.05

Financially rewarding

3.265

0.13*

0.05

People-oriented

3.41

0.15*

-0.08

Task-oriented

3.34

0.12*

-0.06

Money-oriented

3.32

0.16*

-0.04

Team-oriented

3.43

0.11*

-0.10

Creative

3.235

0.14*

-0.01

Stable

2.685

-0.02

0.13

Prestigious

2.935

0.22*

0.05

Fair and equitable

2.63

0.20*

0.18*

Interesting

3.215

0.22*

0.01

Difficult

3.05

0.19*

0.02

Ethical

2.76

0.12

0.11

Boring

1.725

0.06

0.13

Discussion

With any collection of data this large, there are many observations that can be made.  But four observations seem most salient.

Concepts of Profit.  In many respects, students show an understanding of profit more mature than prior research would lead us to expect.  They know that profit is calculated by subtracting costs from revenues, they know that profit encourages investment in an industry, and that companies should produce the products that generate the most profit.  But in other respects, they appear to have the internal inconsistencies that Vygotsky characterized as "pseudo-concepts."    For while they believe that profit draws investors to an industry, they do not understand the implications of that migration and so want to tax profits away.  They seem to have some target profit they see as ideal.  They disagree (slightly) that there should be an extra tax on profits above 10%, but they agree that profits above 25% should be subject to an extra tax.

     In general, students' mixed understanding of profit was not impacted by attending the course.  After the course they more strongly agreed that profit encourages investment in an industry, but they also still agreed that profits above 25% should lead to an extra tax.  The one instance of change that might signal a maturing understanding of profit came in the question of where to direct profits.  Initially, students were essentially neutral in whether most profits should go to employees or investors (2.48 v 2.54).  At the end of the course they were less in agreement that most profit should go to employees, and more in agreement that it should go to investors (2.42 v 2.75).  Since these are young people who have only experienced the business world as employees, even this modest change in attitude demonstrates real growth toward a more mature understanding of profit's role in business.

Other Business Concepts.  Student understanding of the wage function seemed generally in touch with pervasive business attitudes, with students believing they should be paid based on their skills rather than their needs, but they did want health insurance provided by all companies and expect that company profits would be reflected in their pay. 

     Their marketing concepts, on the other hand, seem primitive.  They make no differentiation between customers, but wish to please them all, believe you can set prices independent of the market, while also believing that prices should be dropped when sales begin to fall.  Their first marketing course should be an eye-opener.

     Similarly, their understanding of human resource practices seems derived from their personal work experience.  They think jobs should be challenging and bosses should keep workers happy.  As young people preparing for a career in business, these approaches seem appropriate for workers like themselves, but may not be extensible to the general working population.

Change.  While many of the changes from pre-test to post-test were statistically significant, that does not mean they were significant in any practical sense.  As a group, students may have moved a tenth of a point toward agreement or disagreement, but they did not change from one side of the question to another.  If they thought businesses should be charged an additional tax for higher profits at the beginning of the course, they did not disagree with that position at the end.  Whatever movement occurred was always slight.  As was noted in the description of Astin's work on attitudes, students participate in courses as part of a complex set of interactions that include television viewing, parental discussions, and fraternity experiences.  The forty-two hours of business instruction that these students received often led to marginal changes, but no dramatic changes resulted from course instruction.

     One interesting outcome of the study is the difference in change between the 3-week and 14-week classes.  Each involved 42 hours of instruction, and used the same lecture and test materials.  One instructor taught only in January, and one only in the spring, but one instructor taught both in the interim and in the spring.  In short, the classes were very similar, but they seem to have had different impacts on students.  The changes measured from pre to post-test were larger and more statistically significant for the January students, especially in regards to attitudes.  It appears the intensity of the shorter, more concentrated January class had a positive impact on students.

Attitudes.  The large number of authors excerpted in this paper's introduction should take heart from general student attitudes.  Table 4 sorts words to describe business careers from high agreement to low agreement:

Table 4:  Ranked Order of Business Career Descriptors

Team-oriented

People-oriented

Challenging

Task-oriented

Money-oriented

Financially rewarding

Creative

Interesting

Dynamic

Difficult

Prestigious

Ethical

Bureaucratic

Stable

Fair and equitable

Boring

           

     They would no doubt be happy to see that "boring" was at the bottom of the list with students generally disagreeing with this description of business careers.  They agreed that business careers were team-oriented, people-oriented, challenging, and even prestigious.  As previously noted, the January classes moved toward an even more positive view of business professions, while the spring students held steady.

Discussion

     It is hard not to see these results in a positive light.  These students have better attitudes towards careers in business than some business leaders have feared, and while their understanding of basic business concepts was somewhat muddied, they were right about much that is fundamental.  While they are somewhat inconsistent in their understanding of profit, this is a common problem shared by us all.  Even after completing a business or economics degree we may believe at one level that profit serves an important market function, but we may still become upset over the profits of Exxon.  Few of us are entirely consistent in our beliefs.

     The one disappointment for professors is the limited change in concepts and attitudes at the end of the course.  While some changes were statistically significant, most were not.  We would all like to think that we make significant changes in the outlooks of our students, and maybe we do, but only a limited number of those changes were visible after forty-two hours of instruction.   Conceptual change theory is helpful in understanding this situation.  Davis reminds us that when students bring concepts to class, we are asking them to shift or restructure existing knowledge and beliefs – a task that may be difficult.

     Our classroom response can be informed by the conceptual change instructional model initially proposed by Nussbaum and Novick (1982).  They suggest instructors follow a four-step process in addressing such misconceptions:  Reveal student preconceptions, discuss and evaluate those preconceptions, create conceptual conflict with those preconceptions, and encourage and guide conceptual restructuring.  A detailed description of this instructional process is beyond the scope of this paper, but now that a number of business misconceptions and their persistence have been highlighted, recourse to this instructional model seems advisable.

     As with any research, there are a number of cautions to consider when reviewing the results of this survey.  While this survey indicates that many students had an initial improvement in basic business concepts and attitudes, we know that attitudes are not stable over the course of a college career.  In a fairly frightening study done in the U.K., Marriott found that accounting students developed progressively worse attitudes to the accounting profession the more accounting courses they took (Marriott, 2003).  It would be useful to repeat this survey with these students when they were seniors to determine if such disappointing results held for this group of students as well.

     It is also worth restating the primary characteristic of these students – they were interested enough in business to take an introductory business class.  Therefore we cannot suppose that these attitudes were common across all first-year college students. 

     Additionally, we know these were the attitudes of one group of business students at one point in time in one location in the world.  It would be interesting for additional research to consider how much these attitudes and concepts differ across cultures and over time.

Sources

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Baumann, E.K. (1995) A comparison of economic problem solving skills in experts and novices.  University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee: Doctoral Dissertation.

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Davidson, R.A. & Etherington, I.D. (1995). Personalities of accounting students and public accountants: Implications for accounting educators and the profession.  Journal of Accounting Education, 13(3), 425-444.

Davis, J. (2008). Conceptual Change. http://projects.coe.uga.edu/epltt/index.php?title=Conceptual_Change

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Nussbaum, J. & Novick, N. (1982).  Alternative frameworks, conceptual conflict, and accommodation: Toward a principled teaching strategy.  Instructional Science, 11, 183-200.

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Smagorinsky, P, Cook, L.S., and Johnson, T.S. (2003) The Twisting path of Concept Development in Learning to Teach.  Teachers College Record. 105,8, pp. 1399-1436.


CopyrightUW System

William Wresch, Ph.D., is Professor of MIS and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs in the College of Business at UW Oshkosh.