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Opinion: How to improve Carlson’s finance curriculum

Yes, this is relevant to all students.
Image by Wejdan al Balushi
Evaluating the dynamics of Carlson’s most popular major.

Tinker toys, coloring, Excel, picture books and third-grade math.

Ask the average non-Carlson School of Management student what they think business classes consist of — they would likely respond with some variation of these activities. 

While business students are an easy target for such jokes, there is perhaps not a single group parodied more than the finance bros. 

Having spent the past three and a half years among their ranks both in the classroom and, unfortunately, in social settings, I can attest that most of your assumptions are somewhat justified. 

While it would be easy to poke fun at the predictable social behavior of a finance bro, I instead want to address the lectures, assignments and curriculum they partake in. 

Contrary to what the campus-wide stereotypes say, finance and other Carlson students are capable of thinking critically. However, there are issues, which apply to almost all college classes, hindering their ability to do so.

Let me set the scene for those unfamiliar. 

In the typical finance lecture, there is an abundance of computer screens displaying either daily crossword puzzles or sports gambling odds. When students are not focusing on either of those, they can often be found overthinking or even forgetting the answer to a rather basic question.

Upper-level required and elective courses often span only seven to eight weeks, giving students limited time to develop an extensive understanding of a particular concept. Final grades are mostly determined by one midterm and one exam, which, with a few days of cramming, are easy to obtain solid grades on.

The most critical issue is the lack of useful practical applications. 

These courses spend considerable time discussing overly broad theoretical concepts and teaching students how to do calculations, which every financial institution in the world has software for. Simple concepts are over-complicated, and students are inadequately prepared for both internship interviews — which may ask about concepts that the curriculum has yet to cover — and entry-level roles. 

In a field such as finance, this is a problem. 

Frank Beil, a senior lecturer in finance and accounting, said theory in finance is not always based on practice and therefore does not always apply. 

“In finance, you have a lot of formulas right now, but it doesn’t teach you to think critically in a situation,” Beil said.

Obviously, giving students a theoretical basis for the concepts they learn is essential. 

“I do think you need to cover the theoretical basis before you can get to the point of extending it to a real-life situation, which tends to have a lot of subtlety and a lot of complication as part of it,” said Lisa Kline, a senior lecturer in finance. 

This should be done at the very beginning of the curriculum, though. Instead of rehashing foundational principles through lecture slides filled with bullet points, students should be taking the theoretical basis and hardening their understanding through consistent practical application. 

The optimal method to do this, both in a business school and in most fields, is the case study approach.

Former Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria said case studies teach students how to apply theory to real scenarios as well as extract theory from real scenarios.

Nohria said preparation, discernment, bias recognition, judgment, collaboration, curiosity and self-confidence are seven vital meta-skills (long-lasting abilities that allow someone to learn new things more quickly) acquired from these assignments. 

Case studies also force students to be actively involved in lectures, which is currently a challenge for many professors at Carlson. 

To address this, Carlson should focus on hiring or exposing students to industry professionals who have exposure to various situations and challenges. Industry professionals turned professors can apply their experiences and solutions in a way that career academics cannot, enabling them to better respond to the spontaneous nature of in-class case discussions.

Above all else, case studies prepare students for the unpredictability of on-the-job situations.

Beil, who has accumulated decades of experience in the financial world, advocates for this teaching style.

“The market doesn’t behave like a theory,” Beil said.

Of course, there are certainly caveats to this type of learning. It is also important to note that this viewpoint is solely mine, and, as with every student, the extent of the benefits of college heavily depends on the effort given. 

Upon reflecting on my experiences as a nearly graduated finance student, there are certain aspects of my Carlson education I wish would have been different. 

Unfortunately, 56% of Americans feel similarly, according to a Wall Street Journal and National Opinion Research Center poll. They feel like the cost of a college education is not worth it. 

Determining valid criteria for whether college is actually “worth it” is almost impossible. Considering the vast resources of the internet, which now gives everyone free access to entire curriculums with the click of a few buttons, if students are not given opportunities for practical application or gaining relevant job-oriented experiences and connections, then it is hard to say it is worth the money. 

The curriculum should offer students unique learning opportunities that cannot be replicated outside of a college environment. In Carlson, and specifically within finance, there is a glaring need for such opportunities.

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