In his operations strategy research, Gérard Cachon examines what the most successful companies do differently and how their technological or management innovations deliver results. As Wharton’s newly appointed Vice Dean of Teaching and Strategic Initiatives, Cachon is now charged with finding and employing game-changing approaches that will ensure educational excellence across the school’s academic programs.
Cachon, professor of Operations, Information and Decisions (OIDD), has a good understanding of the student experience at both Penn and Wharton. He has taught the MBA core Operations Strategy class for 18 years and the undergraduate core Operations class for nine years. He also attended Penn as an undergraduate and graduate student himself.
Most recently, Cachon served as Vice Dean of Strategic Initiatives, taking on big-picture, cross-programmatic projects that required data collection and engaging large groups of stakeholders.
“During that time I worked on reevaluating both the undergraduate and MBA curricula,” he said. “Each one was a long-term process that involved over a year of talking to students and faculty to ensure that we were taking the right steps to move forward and improve student satisfaction.”
When that process was complete, Wharton needed to examine how students are taught and how the school could actively maximize its native talent. Given Cachon’s experience and research interests, he was a natural fit to lead the charge.
“It’s not that teaching excellence was ever not considered a priority at Wharton,” he said. “Wharton has always hired the best people, but there was an assumption that this exceptional talent would be solely responsible for creating that experience.”
Cachon’s goal is to better operationalize excellence. As such, he’s developed several key initiatives that are already underway.
“We’re taking a portfolio approach. As Vice Dean, I will be interacting with student organizations to open up more dialogue and establish some priority areas. We will reward faculty successes based on student satisfaction, and also reward faculty who go beyond the call of duty with innovative contributions that may not be directly measured by student satisfaction.”
Cachon has also created a Teaching Excellence Committee, comprised of senior faculty: Management Professor Sigal Barsade, Accounting Professor Jennifer Blouin, Marketing Professor Jagmohan Raju, and Finance Professor Michael Roberts. They will serve as the eyes and ears for the school to gather, promote, and disseminate best practices in the classroom.
Critical to the program’s success will be the development and deployment of a formalized mentoring program. By matching up subject-area faculty mentors throughout the school with younger or less experienced instructors, Cachon hopes to spur an exchange of support and advice. At the current time, faculty involvement is strictly voluntary, with information about the initiatives distributed at faculty meetings.
“We think we’ll see better outcomes if it’s not mandatory. Our hope is that once the word gets around our instructors will be eager to work with mentors and learn new approaches that can help them take their teaching to the next level.”
While there’s no one best measure for assessing the quality of teaching, Cachon says that excellence can be defined by two factors: How the teacher engages students in the classroom and how the teacher demonstrates the applicability of the material for use outside of it.
“That can be a matter of pedagogical techniques or a scintillating personality. The good news is that there’s no shortage of teaching excellence at Wharton.”
Data will be gathered in a number of different ways — by surveying students on their satisfaction levels and monitoring these results at regular intervals; by interviewing stakeholders and faculty across Wharton programs about the efficacy of learning in their classrooms; and by gathering anecdotal information through meetings with student groups. Much of this data will be made public through reports so that the school community can track changes as improvements are implemented over time.
Cachon sees no discernable differences in teaching quality between the undergraduate, MBA or Executive MBA programs. While he will be overseeing excellence across all divisions, the initial efforts will be focused on core classes in the undergraduate program.
“At Wharton, our goal is to create knowledge and disseminate it to students. I think that it’s important to not see teaching and research as necessarily opposed or as a tradeoff but as synergistic parts of what we do. Some of the best scholars are the best teachers and we want real-world problems in our classrooms. As a premier institution, we have to be excellent at both parts of that equation in all of our offerings.”
Wharton’s new facilities and their classroom innovations will bolster these endeavors with a built environment that supports learning.
“As someone who studies companies that are doing things differently, I’m excited to use innovation wherever possible,” Cachon said. “One of the things I’m most excited about is our classroom updates.”
That includes the recent introduction of Structured Active In-Class Learning (SAIL) rooms, which unlike traditional tiered classrooms, are flat and square with tables to encourage students to work in teams and learn from one another during activities. The physical architecture dispels the notion that the professor is there to deliver a stream of information to passively waiting students.
Just as often, though, Cachon anticipates that innovation will come in the form of pedagogy and ensuring that Wharton’s instructors have access to the latest thinking in education.
“Much of our work isn’t about whiz-bang technologies or facilities. We’re looking for teaching methods that encompass those two fundamentals of engagement and application in the most effective way.”
Empowering teachers is only one piece of the puzzle. Another is continuing to foster a culture of learning. To address the rising problem of distraction, the Teaching Excellence Committee will assess the use of personal technology devices in the classroom and make recommendations to the faculty accordingly.
“In most cases, we believe that individual professors are best positioned to determine the use of electronics in their own classrooms. Occasionally, it makes sense to have these devices so a blanket policy really doesn’t make sense at this time,” he said.
Of equal if not greater concern to Wharton faculty is a high-stress, over-committed student body. Cachon will be examining ways to emphasize the importance of present, active learning.
“At Wharton, we’ve never had a problem with motivating students, but we have to continue to address the fact that our students are extremely high achievers who are doing many things at once,” Cachon said. “We’d like to see them focused on fewer things so they can be more engaged in the classroom experience. This is more about a cultural shift and that could take time to accomplish.”
In some ways, Cachon’s newly created position signifies a circling back to Wharton’s core values and an ongoing commitment to best-in-class education—embracing innovation to stay ahead of the curve.
“My goal is to have these results ripple outward so that students tell their friends, colleagues and other prospective applicants that Wharton is the best business school because the classroom experience is truly transformative.”
— Elisa Ludwig
Posted: December 13, 2018