How University of Central Florida grew to 1300 students by changing the teaching methods of their Integrated Business Program

Thursday - February 10, 2022

From Paul Petrone, LinkedIn-er, Author of “How I Found Peace: 14 Revelations That Cleared My Mind”

Here’s a few things you won’t see in any class that’s part of the University of Central Florida’s Integrated Business Program, which launched in 2016 –

  • A textbook.
  • A professor lecturing to the whole class for more than 15 minutes.
  • Tests of memorization.
  • Solo assignments with specific instructions.

Here’s what you will see –

  • Online resources, watched before classes, not during.
  • Mandatory attendance, although no credit given for attendance.
  • Students in teams, working together on ambiguous problems.
  • Coursework on topics like sales, presenting and writing strong emails.

In the four years of the Integrated Business Program’s existence, it’s grown in popularity each year. In 2020, it had more than 1,300 students – making it the most popular business major at UCF, the second-largest public university in the US – largely because it has the second-best placement rate of any business major at UCF, only behind accounting.

“When we launched this, it was met with a healthy amount of skepticism,” said Jim Gilkeson, the man who has led the program since its inception. “That skepticism has pretty much all gone away.”

Why has it been so successful? Because, according to Gilkeson, the goal of the Integrated Business Program is not to create “22-year-old experts.” Instead, it’s to arm students with foundational skills that span across any business, like critical thinking, presenting and leadership – so graduates come out of it ready for the working world.

How the program started – a new offering for at-risk students.

Before 2016, UCF was consistently seeing business students who struggled in their specialization also struggle to graduate on time and find a job after school. For example, if a business student specialized in accounting but did poorly in accounting courses, they were unsurprisingly unlikely to graduate in four years and then get a job as an accountant.

Rather than continuing this trend, UCF now requires business students who want to specialize in a specific area to maintain a strong GPA in courses in that specialty. That means, if you want to specialize in accounting, you have to maintain a B-average in accounting courses.

But that left an outstanding issue – what about the business students who didn’t maintain the B average in their specialty? Well, enter Gilkeson, who was given the mandate to create the new program in 2015, with it launching in the spring of 2016.

He started scoping the program by doing something he considers rare in academia – “we went to the outside and asked for help.” Specifically, he asked successful UCF alumni what they wished they learned in college; he also asked large Florida employers what skills recent graduates tend to lack. 

Neither group mentioned a specific hard skill. Instead, both groups highlighted soft skills as the biggest gap; namely teamwork, leadership, written communication, presentation, critical thinking and the like. When hard skills were named, they were business processes that span industries and job titles, such as project management and sales.

Additionally, Gilkeson did research into pedagogy and quickly realized lectures were “one of the worst ways to convey information to someone else.” And, he wasn’t a big fan of textbooks either, as they weren’t continually updated and they were generally limited to one perspective – the author’s – and one subject.

Based off that, the Integrated Business Program was born. It featured:

  • Professors with extensive business experience.
  • A completely flipped classroom, with almost no lecturing.
  • An emphasis on foundational soft skills.
  • A focus on team assignments, not solo ones. 
  • A set of required courses (project management, sales, human resources management, data driven decision making, etc.), not a bunch of options or electives.
  • Online learning resources, including LinkedIn Learning, which are continually updated, cover many topics and feature a diverse set of perspectives.

“We are training students for the jobs that exist today, not the jobs that existed 30 years ago,” Gilkeson said. “We aren’t creating specialists, nobody hires a 22-year-old expert. We want students to be nimble.”

It started as a program for at-risk students. That’s since changed, as the Integrated Business Program has quickly become one of the most sought-after majors at the university.

A look at the program today – demanding, intense and well worth it.

The UCF students we interviewed fully admit – the Integrated Business Program is demanding and, at the start, even intimidating. For a population used to sitting in a lecture hall and taking notes, it’s a completely different experience, with attendance required and fast-paced team projects done in each class.

“At first, it was a big difference from what I was used to; it was a big change from the usual college course,” student Gabriel Santiago said, who worked various business jobs while earning his degree. “But I started seeing how much more applicable it was to what I was doing in my job. It really prepares you.”

“The program has been different than what I expected,” fellow student Melissa Thomas said. “You need to be prepared to do the work of four people. But it provides such meaningful life and work experience.”

For a good example of what it’s like, take a look at Professor Shelley Maccini’s class, Data-Driven Decision Making. Maccini – who like most of the faculty in the Integrated Business Program, spent most of her career in the private sector – gives students two group assignments each class.

The assignments start with some dataset – say, for example, a company’s sales numbers for the first quarter of 2020. From it, students get together in teams to analyze the data, see what story it’s telling and then make a recommendation based off of it.

Students make their recommendations via a presentation to the entire class. Classmates and Maccini then give real-time feedback on that presentation.

Tools like Microsoft Excel and even Tableau are often needed to analyze the data, but they aren’t taught in the class. Instead, students are expected to master those tools on their own from online resources like LinkedIn Learning.

“I find it easier to use LinkedIn Learning than trying to learn something like Excel in a lecture,” Santiago said. “This way I can watch the video, pause it, and practice as I go along.”

By the end of the class, students are more confident in their ability to analyze data, Maccini said. But they are also more confident in presenting and selling their ideas.

The strengthening of those soft skills is often what sets Integrated Business majors apart from other college students. An example that illustrates the point – Gilkeson said he had a man who runs 27 Enterprise-Rent-a-Car locations around Orlando join his advisory board unsolicited.

Why? Because, three times in a row the man looked to fill a position in his management training program, and three times in a row the standout candidate in the applicant pool was a graduate of UCF’s Integrated Business Program. The man was so impressed, he wanted to see how it was done – and joined up with Gilkeson to further improve the program. 

Not that Gilkeson or his students were surprised by that story.

“The program is not for everyone,” Thomas said. “It’s demanding, you learn a lot quickly. But, if you were to interview 30 graduates with 30 different degrees for a job, an Integrated Business major would shine the most.”

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