URI marketing professor wins national award for innovative teaching

KINGSTON, R.I. – Sept. 6, 2018 – Christy Ashley, associate professor of marketing in the College of Business at the University of Rhode Island, likes to shake things up in her classroom.

“I am not afraid to try new things in the interest of continuous improvement in the classroom,” said Ashley. “There is a bit of overlap to the way I approach teaching and the way I approach research – I experiment to see what affects desired learning outcomes.”

Her approach paid off this summer when Ashley, of Narragansett, earned Pearson Prentice Hall’s Solomon-Marshall-Stuart Award for Innovative Excellence in Marketing Education, presented at the American Marketing Association’s summer conference in Boston in early August. She had twice been runner-up for the annual award.

“Christy is the epitome of what you want to see in an instructor in a university,” said Hillary Leonard, URI associate professor of marketing and area coordinator. “She is not interested in simply engaging students, she wants them to achieve meaningful learning outcomes – and her learning outcomes are not the basic easy outcomes but those that truly integrate theory, application and discovery-based experiences.”

Ashley’s winning idea was implemented in her capstone Strategic Marketing Management course. Most of the students are already well-grounded in the subject, having taken at least three advanced marketing courses along with interdisciplinary study in such business fields as finance, management and accounting. The course’s goal, she said, is taking the students’ knowledge and applying it to marketing decision-making and an understanding of how marketing decisions affect profits and losses.

It wasn’t that the course was broken, she said. But her spring 2017 class was unusually large. And it was mostly made up of second-semester seniors with graduation in their sights.

“That can be a challenge with second-semester seniors,” said Ashley. “A lot of the time, graduating seniors are doing group projects in other classes and they’re also managing jobs or internships. So you don’t always get their A game, so to speak. We try to find ways to get them as engaged as possible.”

She also had concerns about students’ ability to distinguish between real and fake news and the prevalence of surface-level examples during class participation, during which students could report the headlines but could not discuss the news in detail. She attributed the shallow responses to students using social media as a main source of news.

Her answer – turn a class assignment into a game. Think fantasy sports. But instead of tracking players’ statistics, students would follow marketing-related news about brands.

Ashley, in her fourth year as a research professor at URI, came up with the idea for Fantasy Brand Leagues thanks to her nephew. When he was 13, he competed in a geography fantasy league in middle school. His team of countries wasn’t doing too well – news of a war was scoring a lot of points for an opponent’s team. But, Ashley said, he was into the project and he was talking about geography, not soccer or lacrosse.

“I wondered if it would work with marketing,” said Ashley. “I think marketing is really interesting and exciting, so if students are able to have conversations about it outside of class and think about what it means and how these different things apply, that should help them.”

Her concept was straight forward. The 54 students in the class were split into leagues, with each student drafting from a list of the top 100 international brands – minus ringers such as Google and Facebook that Ashley had removed. Given two weeks to do research, each student drafted four brands – a fifth was picked midway through the 10-week season – and could trade with opponents, or exchange a weak-performing brand for one not selected

Points were scored as students tracked marketing-related news on their brands using the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Positive news – such as an acquisition or new product – could earn six points per “play.” Students could also penalize opponents three points by reporting negative news – such as a product recall or lawsuit.

Students were required to make one “play” a week – for their team or against an opponent’s – and limited to six a week. With each play, students had to submit a brief report listing the brand, a link to the supporting story and indicate why the news was positive or negative for the brand’s marketing strategy.

“If you think about the learning objectives, it was clear what I wanted,” said Ashley, who received her doctorate in marketing from URI in 2006. “I wanted them to engage with the content; I wanted them to be prepared with lifelong learning; I wanted them to come to class with examples where they actually read the material and they could distinguish between real news and fake news.”

Some leagues were very competitive, she said, with teams using all their plays each week to score points or target opponents. “They would collude with each other – which I wasn’t expecting – but they’d say this person is really doing well so I’m going to use my penalty against this team,” said Ashley.

At the start of the semester, fewer than half the students said they read a newspaper at least once a week. By the end, it was 100 percent, and students’ knowledge of marketing news went beyond the headlines. Students were also more engaged in class exercises about current events, she said. “And over time, I observed that they were better prepared to discuss and make decisions about current marketing challenges on the fly in class, which is what’s going to be expected of them when they go into the marketplace.”

The culmination of the project included the creation of an infographic, where students used charts and graphics to tell the story of one of their brands. Graduates later told Ashley that their knowledge of infographics impressed their boss.

Ashley was twice selected runner-up for the annual award for marketing education innovations while a faculty member at East Carolina University. She believes other faculty would be interested in learning about the Fantasy Brands assignment because it is a novel approach that could be adapted for other level marketing courses or focused on a particular context, such as retail brands.

She plans to use the exercise for a second time this spring and has come up with a number of adjustments, including an online draft to save time and stressing the importance of pre-draft research. “It becomes a question,” Ashley said, “of what makes it a good learning experience versus what just makes it different or novel.”