#Take5 #103 Supporting compassion in students: reflections on using a charity as a case study assessment

This #Take5 is brought to you from Nilay Balkan, a lecturer in Marketing at the University of Glasgow. Nilay shares her powerful insights derived from using Charity Case Studies with Business students. This is a powerful and moving piece in itself – and it also reveals the benefit of keeping a reflective diary when we work – to see what emerges from our practice.

Compassion front and centre

illustrator of a person holding their hands in the shape of a heart

I’ve noticed there are certain attributes and skills that we are particularly interested in within business schools; communication, collaboration, creativity, for example. While undoubtedly important, these are rather project focused in that these attributes and skills support project management and completion. 

What about compassion? Compassion is often an afterthought – if a thought at all- in business schools. Are we missing out by not including compassion within our modules? 

 My experience would suggest that we are missing out. I used a real charity as a case study for an assessment and was pleasantly surprised at the outcome; students showed creativity, they became interested in using their business skills to help other charities and social issues, and questioned traditional business models. This blog will reflect on this experience and consider what I would take forward from this experience. 

The module and the charity

A charity was used as case study and students had to develop a presentation and report addressing the client’s (i.e. the charity) issues. Information packs were provided, which consisted of a client brief and a short video from myself (the lecturer) explaining the assessment and the different sections of the assessment. The module was Marketing Campaigns Development at The University of Glasgow (UofG). It is small cohort (typically there are no more than twelve students) and is non-honours class. This,  at UofG,  means the students’ overall grades did not meet minimum grade requirement so students will finish in their third year and not be able to complete a fourth year (honours year,  which is common at Scottish universities). The non-honours aspect is important to note for two reasons; one, students in this cohort are often academically weaker; two, students will enter the workplace after this year and are much more interested in gaining practical skills they can showcase in interviews. 

The charity used was based in Scotland and aims to support intergenerational practice in Scotland. An aim which was not focused on animals or climate – popular causes with our students – was a deliberate choice to encourage students to become more aware and familiar with wider societal issues. The main reason, however, for choosing this charity was because their marketing needs were transferable to  the industry; the charity needed to increase brand awareness and increase donation streams. These are typical marketing issues that students would be required to work with in the field. Thus, students are practicing practical skills and building confidence in these skills. This is even more relevant for the final year students who will be entering the workplace. 

Reflections on the module progress

 I kept an observation log for myself  which involved a check-in at weeks 2, 4, 8 and 10 to note down what I found to be challenging or successful as the module progressed and where I asked students their thoughts about the assessment. Below is a summary of my observations. 

image of a reflective log

Week 2 : resistance

Choosing a charity that was not a popular topic proved to have an initial challenge in that students were not interested in the charity or its aim, with one student being almost dismissive with a comment that it’s “a charity for old people”. Students did not see how the aim of the charity was relevant to their interests. I was not sure if this was a generational issue or related to the particular cohort, but there was an almost an ageist attitude there which was worrying. 

There was also an initial resistance because students did not see how they could answer the assessment question. This, perhaps, is a problem of business schools where much of our examples are often commercial businesses and students may not immediately see linkage between theories and third sector/non-profit organisations. In doing so, perhaps students forget these skills and knowledge can be used in different settings.  

I was not expecting this resistance. In response, I started to include the charity in class examples and put students into groups where they would discuss how a theory applied to the charity. This gave students the space to apply theory case study and recognise relevance to class materials. I also asked students to look at the charity’s website for any interesting event or news items. At the start of the lecture from week 3 onwards, I would ask groups to get together and share what they found. The purpose of this task was to create more familiarity with the case study and, hopefully, more interest in it. 

volunteers in an office

Week 4 : interested and seeing purpose 

illustration representing an inclusive society

I continued embedding examples of the charity into class examples and putting students into groups to discuss how the theory applies to the charity. The latter was particularly successful; the space to reflect made the assessment (and charity) less abstract for students. I also continued the practice of starting each lecture with the assessment groups sharing what they learnt or read about the charity, and this proved to be important for building a connection to the case study. Personally, it was satisfying to see the students see the significance of the charity’s work and achievements. The attitude from week 2 changed from “a charity for old people” to “the stuff they do is important”.

Moreover, the space to reflect on applying theory to the charity increased awareness of the practical application of class materials and its relevant to the real-world marketing issues. Thus, the assessment gained a purpose in the students’ eyes; it wasn’t theoretical anymore and, as one student put it, “it’s so cool that someone is actually going to use this!”. Students took pride that this assessment would be used by someone and not forgotten after being marked. 

Week 8: compassion and confidence

I continued with the activities in week 4 ( embedding the charity in my class examples, space in the lectures for group and class discussions about the charity).  By week 8, the students were familiar with the case study and this had the effect of creating mor compassion towards the charity’s aim. Class activities were interactive, and receiving feedback and comments from fellow students and myself boosted student confidence that they were capable of tackling marketing problems related to the assessment and case study.  By the week 8 check-in, students told me they were excited about the assessment and believed they could answer the question.

Week 10: enjoyment 

This was two weeks before the assessment submission. The common theme among the students was how much they enjoyed the process; one student described the assessment as “fun” and students mentioned they learned much about the issues the charity was involved in.  Students showed care towards these societal issues.  

Text reads "Let's have fun today".

Reflections on the outcome

The outcome of this experience could be categories into three outcomes;

  • Increased student care

The class discussions and the assessment shows that students Understood the challenges faced by the charity, which increased empathy levels towards the difficulties charities. Additionally, I could see in the class discussions that students showed an increased interest in a more inclusive society. For example, one class discussion had a student question the lack of dementia friendly public spaces. This interest in a more inclusive society  aligns with SDG goal 11. 

  •  Increased interested in “compassionate business” 

This is a term used by one of the students. The class discussion showed an increased awareness that business can be, and should be, compassionate. Students were, additionally, demonstrating that they could see transferability between their marketing class materials and how they could support or help causes, even within a volunteering capacity. Some students mentioned an interest in working for the third sector. 

  • Increased creativity 

The Resource limitations faced by the charity challenged the students’ assumptions and the limitations encouraged students to find different solutions. This creativity came across the assessments . Moreover, the classroom discussions had students question traditional business models and encouraged creative business practices. 

What I would take forward from this experience 

There are lessons learned from this experience that I would take with me for future modules. In sharing them, I hope you will also benefit from my experience and reflections. The main takeaways for me have been;

  • In future, I would have the charity attend the first lecture or record a short video and give a written brief. This would have helped create a connection to the charity as giving a written brief only may have been too abstract for the students.   
  • Using a less popular topic was a good choice as it encouraged students to learn about issues they may not have considered before. 
  • Finding ways for students to build connections to charity (or case study in general) is important for student engagement. The class discussions and pre-class preparatory work encouraged this connection to develop. 
  • Most of my class examples were based on the charity in an effort to help students understand theory and its application to the case study. In hindsight, this was not necessary to focus intensely on the case study. In fact, using a more diverse range of examples would have been more beneficial to showcase theory application to different sectors and organisations.
  • As mentioned before, this is an academically weaker cohort. The class discussions on how to apply theory to practice supported student learning and boosted confidence in their ability to answer the assessment. 
  • The most successful activity I found was asking students to look at the charity’s website each week before the lecture and share a news item or something they learnt about the charity. The benefits of this were threefold; one, students went beyond superficial reading to complete the assessments; two, students learnt more about the societal issues within the charity’s scope; three, students could be guided by what stories interested them and the direction of their marketing solutions were guided by their own interests, which increased motivation towards the assessment. 

The overall experience was positive – despite an initial resistance at the beginning! Students enjoyed the module and became engaged with the class materials. Additionally, I saw an increase in students’ compassion, with more compassion towards the issues supported by the charity, challenging traditional business model and wanting businesses to become more compassionate. This is encouraging for business schools. Finding ways to embed more compassion into our curriculums is important as business schools become more aware of the importance of including more SDG goals and the role they can play in supporting more inclusive and sustainable work practices.

About Nilay Balkan

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I am a lecturer in Marketing at the University of Glasgow, and previously worked as a Business Advisor before joining the University of Glasgow in 2020. I’m interested in scholarship in marketing and management subjects, and particularly interested in developing students’ industry skills.  My current research is about students’ perception of blended learning in supporting their learning experience. If you have any questions about this project or would like to reach out, please feel free to email at nilay.balkan@glasgow.ac.uk.

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