Teaching modeling to business students

“Modeling is one of the fundamental ways in which human beings understand the world.” [1]
– Stephen G. Powell

business modeling classes

In the spring of 2015, for the first time in a number of years, my teaching schedule included two business modeling classes that focused on optimization models. My previous experience was at the graduate level. Now I would be teaching both graduate and undergraduate students.

The tools used today to solve optimization programs are very different from the graph paper I used when first learning to solve linear programming models as part of an undergraduate engineering course. With the availability of user-friendly software, what was once a skill taught by engineering departments is now part of the business school curriculum.

Since my introduction to optimization, there has been a significant shift in the environment for students. It began in the 1990s with the introduction of readily available software packages to solve these models. Powell describes this change in a 1997 column:

“Dan Fylstra (designer of Solver in Excel) points out, more copies of a spreadsheet package with a built-in linear and nonlinear solver are sold every month than there are management scientists in the world. My MBA students routinely set up and solve optimization and simulation problems that I could not have solved (in less than a week) when graduating with a Ph.D. in the early 1980s” [2].

These readily available software packages have changed the skills required for students. In another shift, analytics has drawn more attention to the value in these skills, increasing the pool of interested.

Each of the recent times I have taught this class the enrollments have been near or at the maximum allowed. This, I believe, is due to the popularity of business analytics, which has led to increased student interest in business modeling classes. The result is a broader variety of student backgrounds; not necessarily self-selected based on strong mathematical backgrounds as compared to the student skills level five to 10 years ago when I first taught business modeling.

The majority of undergraduate students taking my class are managerial sciences majors who take broad ranges of courses, including such topics as human resources and operations. The graduate students are approximately 50 percent MBAs. The rest are from a variety of areas including masters in managerial sciences and actuarial sciences.

In addition to the benefit to students of learning optimization, this increased interest in what can be classified as a math-based, critical thinking class is encouraging for other reasons. According to the 2013 Skills Outlook from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [3]: “Proficiency in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments is positively and independently associated with the probability of participating in the labor market and being employed, and with higher wages” (page 24).

A common definition of problem-solving is: “The process of working through details of a problem to reach a solution. Problem solving may include mathematical or systematic operations and can be a gauge of an individual’s critical thinking skills” [4].

Classes such as business modeling provide excellent opportunities for students to learn these skills – skills that are desired by hiring managers, but are often not found in students. In a study by U.S. Harris in 2013, only 41 percent of hiring managers not looking for STEM majors say recent graduates are completely or very prepared to solve problems through experimentation.

Based on the above information, the way I teach business modeling has evolved to better match my students’ skills and focus on problem-solving not just tool usage. In addition to teaching optimization, other important issues that need to be addressed include:

  1. Vary the math skills of students and provide additional explanation and support for students with weaker quantitative skills.
  2. Teach students to develop good spreadsheet skills. This is stressed in lecture and with explanations of the pitfalls of poorly constructed spreadsheets, including examples of good and bad spreadsheets.
  3. Teach how to de-bug a model, including sanity-checking your answer.

Addressing these issues has caused me to rethink how I conduct my class. One action that has helped address some of the above issues is asking students to bring their laptops, thereby allowing us to create the models together. This requires students to get their hands dirty and see if they really understand what we are covering, allowing us to resolve minor issues that might turn in to major frustrations if they wait to resolve them at home.

Another way that I have tried to address some of the above issues came about in response to students’ requests for more example problems. After introducing topics, class time is devoted to working out problems; unfortunately, there isn’t time to increase the examples in class. Just giving more textbook problems doesn’t seem like a good solution. I have been working on developing some games for students to “play” to reinforce the concepts and give them feedback during the process instead of just at the end of the game/model when the model is solved.

Learning to perform optimization is a great skill. Equally important is the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that can be learned in such a course. My goal has been to provide an environment to help students who may view their math skills as not strong enough to succeed in developing the skill of optimization, and therefore increase their math and critical thinking skills; skills that will help them succeed in their future careers.

Wendy Swenson Roth ( is a clinical assistant professor of managerial sciences at Georgia State University.


  1. Powell, S. G., 1995, “The Teacher’s Forum: Teaching the Art of Modeling to MBA Students,” Interfaces, May-June, pp. 88-94.
  2. Powell, S. G., 1997, “The Teacher’s Forum: From Intelligent Consumer to Active Modeler, Two MBA Success Stories,” Interfaces, May-June, pp. 88-98.
  3. OECD, 2013, “OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills,”
  4. Business Dictionary, 2016, “problem solving,”
  5. Powell, S. G., 1995, “The Teacher’s Forum: Six Key Modeling Heuristics,” Interfaces, July-August, pp. 114-125.
  6. Powell, S. G., “Teaching Modeling in Management Science,” INFORMS Transactions on Education, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 62-67.