Problem Solving Through Model Application: One Approach to Teaching Consumer Behavior

Stephen J. Arnold, Queen's University
ABSTRACT - Student desires and instructor experience result in a consumer behavior course with one overall goal. The course objective is to illustrate the solution of real world problems through the systematic application of middle range behavioral models and theories. This paper provides both the rationale behind this objective as well as the detail on how it is achieved.
[ to cite ]:
Stephen J. Arnold (1977) ,"Problem Solving Through Model Application: One Approach to Teaching Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 04, eds. William D. Perreault, Jr., Atlanta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 268-269.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1977   Pages 268-269


Stephen J. Arnold, Queen's University


Student desires and instructor experience result in a consumer behavior course with one overall goal. The course objective is to illustrate the solution of real world problems through the systematic application of middle range behavioral models and theories. This paper provides both the rationale behind this objective as well as the detail on how it is achieved.


The School of Business at Queen's University is probably not unlike other colleges and universities offering a consumer behavior course. A Bachelor of Commerce program currently enrolls 800 students while an additional 200 students are enrolled in the Master of Business Administration program. A doctorate program has been approved but not yet implemented.

As one of six optional marketing courses in the Bachelor of Commerce program, consumer behavior is presently restricted to 30 fourth year students. One result of this restriction is that the students enter the consumer behavior course with either a psychology or sociology course taken outside of the School and at least two inside behavioral courses. In addition, the students are required to have taken at least two other marketing courses prior to the consumer behavior course. This restriction tends to make the student a marketing major.

Surveys conducted among these students identify certain desired course attributes. Not unexpectedly, the students want small, interesting and stimulating classes. They equally emphasize, however, a managerial orientation as well as applicability to the real world.


Factors other than curriculum and student desires shape a consumer behavior course. One factor is the instructor who designs the course according to his own particular background and experience. In that consumer behavioralists share a vide range of backgrounds and experience, it appears necessary to briefly describe the background of this instructor in order to better understand the rationale behind the course.

One important instructor characteristic is education. In this instance, a B.Sc. at the Royal Military College was followed by a M.B.A. and Ph.D. at the Faculty of Management Studies, University of Toronto. The Ph.D. major was in marketing while the minors were in management science and applied statistics. Course and outside readings in the consumer behavior, psychology and social psychology literature led to the present behavioral orientation. The writings of the humanistic psychologists were particularly influential.

One observation made as a result of this program of studies was that middle range behavioral theory and models can be used to explain and predict a wide range of marketing and consumer behavior phenomena. A good example of this application is found in Hike Ray's use of learning models to gain insight into consumer new product "romance" order effect, sleeper effect and several other phenomena (Ward and Robertson, 1973).

This observation on the utility of behavioral models was reinforced with research experience. An investigation into retail food store patronage, for example, was facilitated by Fishbein's attitude model and Maslow's need hierarchy theory. A cross cultural analysis of Canadian and American consumers was guided by the sociological models of Rose and Lipset. Similarly, a brief presented to the Canadian Radio and Television Commission on the subject of subliminal advertising was based upon a perceptual model.


The outcome of this experience and awareness of student desires was a consumer behavior course with one overall objective. By the end of the course, the student with minimum information about a consumer problem should nonetheless be able to generate, first, a series of hypotheses about action the consumer might take in order to solve his problem, and second, approaches that a decision maker might take in order to help the consumer while at the same time meet the decision maker's own objectives.

By consumer problem, it is meant the difficulty the consumer faces in attempting to satisfy a need. By decision maker, it is meant the representative of manufacturer, merchant, government body or other organization that potentially can satisfy the consumer need.

The hypotheses about the consumer and approaches of the decision maker are derived by systematic progression through a series of behavioral models in order to see what each one says about the problem. Additional information about the problem beyond the minimum that can be provided simply helps the student test his hypotheses as well as select the decision makers appropriate course of action.

In reaching this overall objective, other goals should be obtained. For example, the student's implicit behavioral model should be refined or even replaced by models and concepts which have demonstrated empirical verification as well as the other features of good theory. Furthermore, research derived as part of the decision maker's suggested approach to the problem should he more oriented to the testing of specific questions than to the rediscovery of the basics of consumer behavior. Finally, the student through demonstration and practice should better be able to see how problem solving in the real world can be accomplished through application of the consumer behavioral models.


Lecture/discussion and case analyses are the primary pedagogical methods used to attain the course objective. In the lectures, an attempt is made to describe the essential elements of each model as well as illustrate their application. Where possible, reference is made to the assigned text readings and discussion questions (currently Kerby, 1975). Commercials and films such as Eye of the Beholder are also used to aid the explanation. Where relevant, the instructor's own research is introduced to provide one more illustration of the model application. Subliminal advertising, for example, always proves to be one particularly interesting issue for the student.

Case analyses as the other primary pedagogical method serve to provide further practice in model application. The models discussed to that point in the course are systematically reviewed to see what each says about the case problem as well as what it indicates might be a decision maker's possible course of action. Inherent case issues not susceptible to the behavioral analysis are not emphasized. Several of the cases in the currently assigned Blackwell et al (1969) casebook, for example, have important methodological issues. These questions, however, are dealt with only to the extent that the behavioral models provide insight.

Of the twelve cases analyzed during the term, three are designated for writeup and submission. These three cases count for 80% of the student grade if the participation score is greater than the average score on the three cases or 100% if it is not. The score awarded in each case writeup reflects the student's success in using the case materials.

The approximately equal time allocation to the lectures and case discussions is reflected in Table 1. This table also indicated the topics covered in the 13 weeks of class meetings.




Some comment on the success of this approach to teaching consumer behavior is probably appropriate. From the instructor's point of view, the course objective is being met. By the end of the course, an average case writeup contains forty double-spaced pages of useful ideas and analysis.

An interpretation of the student's point of view concerning the course is obviously quite subjective. However, on the basis of course evaluations, it is probably fair to say that the students are satisfied with and pleased about the course. If one area was to be improved, it would be to somehow inject more of the excitement and enthusiasm that this instructor has observed in his marketing research courses where there is a real world project or assignment. Perhaps exercises designed to replicate findings from the consumer behavior literature might provide this improvement.


Roger D. Blackwell, James F. Engel and David T. Kollat, Cases in Consumer Behavior (Hinsdale, Ill.: The Dryden Press, 1969).

Joe Kent Kerby, Consumer Behavior: Conceptual Foundations (New York: Dun Donnelley Publishing Corporation, 1975.

Scott Ward and Thomas S. Robertson, Consumer Behavior: Theoretical Sources (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973).