An End of Semester Note to my Students

At the end of each semester, I provide my students with a closing note about the course. That note seeks to place the course, its content, and its requirements into a larger context. I do so, because I believe it is helpful for students to have one last opportunity to understand why they took the course and perhaps better identify what they gained from the course. Such understanding can perhaps reinforce learning for the long-term.

Below is the note to my spring 2013 students:

With the semester approaching its conclusion, it is a good time to share some thoughts and insights about the course. All of you have your perceptions. The range of those perceptions is likely quite large. Perhaps those perceptions have been skewed by the prism of one’s grade expectations.

Perception and reality are not always identical. In fact, perception and reality can differ dramatically.

In the larger context, there was more to the course than reading, lectures, assignments, the research paper, and grades. The true value of this, and any course for that matter, is the lasting knowledge one gains and the analytical framework one builds or reinforces.

The class provided some understanding of consumer behavior and exposure to broad array of investment, savings, and insurance products and services available in the marketplace. The course is part of a broader academic framework that empowers one to ask and understand the “why” as opposed to the “what.”

The knowledge from this course and the others one has taken at Lehman College is a starting point. That knowledge gives one an intellectual foundation on which to build one’s future. That building process never truly ends. Life is a journey of continual learning, as the world is not static. The world is characterized by continual change. In a changing world, there can never be a permanent resting place.

Therefore, as important as it is for one to have a sound understanding of what one knows, it is equally important that one possess a healthy appreciation of what one does not know. That balanced perspective can put one in a better position to begin probing the uncertainty inherent in the continually changing world in which we live.

One cannot automatically assume that tomorrow will be an extension of today. One cannot automatically conclude that what one does not know is irrelevant. One cannot select only the information that is most favorable to one’s interests, needs, or aspirations, while disregarding inconvenient, unpleasant, or contradictory information.

Although, one cannot fully or even largely know tomorrow until it is upon us as today, one can cultivate an intellectual framework or map that guides one into the future. Such a map can encourage one to raise the questions that need to be asked, identify the kind of information one needs to solve one’s problems or pursue one’s opportunities, find that information where it may reside—and not all useful information can be “googled” or found within the exploding universe of Apps on one’s smartphone—and tap that information to make choices. Such a map can give one the discipline to reflect back on the outcomes of one’s choices to understand what went well, what did not, and why. That information, experience, and discipline can allow one to make better decisions going forward.

The paper focused on one of the more important tasks one faces during one’s lifetime: helping one distinguish oneself in pursuing a career opportunity. In the contemporary economy, it is no longer enough for one to demonstrate competence. Firms demand more. They do so not by choice, but out of necessity in the demanding and often unforgiving global economy.

The technology, information, and communication revolutions and globalization have substantially reduced barriers to competition. Innovation and continual improvement are now the “new normal.” Employers have little choice but to recruit and retain people whom they believe offer measurable value.

It is true that vast and cheap computing power can help organizations mine ever larger mountains of data. But for all their power, computers are not a substitute for critical reasoning or human judgment. They are tools that aid judgment. Not much more.

Poor understanding of complex problems, imperfections in data, and cognitive biases can result in models that do not represent the world as it truly is. Reliance on such flawed models can lead to bad outcomes whenever reality diverges substantially from the underlying assumptions on which the models have been constructed.  

As a result, even as repetitive or intensive number-crunching tasks will continue to be delegated to ever more powerful computers, human resources will remain a powerful source of sustainable competitive advantage for the foreseeable future. Specialized skills, knowledge, or insight are difficult and costly to imitate. As a result, organizations increasingly seek employees with such attributes. They can only do so in an environment characterized by intense competition.

All of you have the ability to progress through your studies, receive your degree, and advance in your careers. The more each of you takes from your courses and the more each of you breaks down the artificial silos in which your knowledge (both from the courses you have taken and the experiences you have accumulated during your lifetime) resides, the more you will increase your prospects of realizing your full potential in all aspects of your life.

The purpose of this closing note was to give you a larger context in which to place the course. An ability to view things within a larger context will serve you well, even if you remain focused on the narrower and more immediate issue of the approaching final exam and course grade.

Good luck to all.

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