Teaching Consumer Behavior

Rebecca H. Holman, The Pennsylvania State University
ABSTRACT - This paper presents my personal philosophy of teaching consumer behavior (undergraduate students) at The Pennsylvania State University. Goals of the course are discussed in light of the place of this course in the undergraduate curriculum. Such goal definition is in part due to the type of student who normally takes this course. The design of pedagogical tools to complement the above goal statement and topics covered in the course is examined.
[ to cite ]:
Rebecca H. Holman (1977) ,"Teaching Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 04, eds. William D. Perreault, Jr., Atlanta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 270-271.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1977   Pages 270-271


Rebecca H. Holman, The Pennsylvania State University


This paper presents my personal philosophy of teaching consumer behavior (undergraduate students) at The Pennsylvania State University. Goals of the course are discussed in light of the place of this course in the undergraduate curriculum. Such goal definition is in part due to the type of student who normally takes this course. The design of pedagogical tools to complement the above goal statement and topics covered in the course is examined.


The Marketing 230 course here at Penn state (mislabeled "Buyer Behavior" due to data processing requirements) is an upper division undergraduate course. It has as a prerequisite, one of our introductory marketing courses. Business students enrolled in the course will necessarily have taken most of the business "core" courses including micro- and macro-economics, first year of accounting, two quantitative business analysis courses, introductory management, and so forth. Non-business students normally will not have such a homogeneous background having taken our introductory course which has no prerequisites.

In planning course content, the assumption is made that the student has had exposure to economics, some form of statistics, and some behavioral science course (the latter a requirement for any bachelor's degree at Penn State). For several terms, this assumption was tested and only a few exceptions were found. Naturally, it is assumed that the student has working knowledge of standard terminology used in marketing, derived from the introductory course. (This is an unreasonable assumption only in a few instances, although our students are probably typical in their reluctance, at first, to apply information gained in one formal course to another course.)

Marketing majors are specifically encouraged to schedule Marketing 230 as soon as possible after completion of the business core or declaration of a marketing major. This reflects the belief by Penn State Marketing faculty members that the course has a basic nature that is most beneficial to the student if taken prior to other marketing electives. This, however, is not a requirement and majors are free to schedule the course as late as they wish, or even not at all.

The only other consumer behavior course offered at Penn State that may be scheduled by undergraduate students is Marketing 430, Selected Topics in Consumer Behavior, which may also be scheduled by Doctoral and M.S. students. If taken by undergraduates, Marketing 430 is treated as a transition course to graduate school. Thus, for the majority of the students, Marketing 230 takes on the aspects of a terminal course in consumer behavior.


Over the past two years there has been an increasing number of non-business as well as non-marketing majors taking the course. Students from the College of Human Development majoring in Fashion Merchandising or Individual and Family Studies are frequent enrollees. Their degree plan requires some consumer behavior course and majors are encouraged to enroll in marketing courses. Other non-business students include majors in Advertising, Speech Communication, and occasionally Food Science students (majoring in Restaurant and Hotel Management). The proliferation of non-marketing majors enrolling in the course reached a peak last spring when two-thirds of my students had non-marketing majors. This, of course, has necessitated the addition of more sections. This term (Fall, 1976) we offer four sections; in Winter of 1974 we offered one.


My personal goals for the course focus mainly on making the student aware of his own abilities as a naive student of consumer behavior. This is based upon the notion that these students will shortly leave the university environment and be forced to learn about consumer behavior unassisted. Such learning will continue whether or not the student has had a consumer behavior course while he was in school. What I can perhaps best do for him in the course is to make him aware of the process he uses in learning about consumers and maybe to suggest some other processes for learning.

Some of these other processes include, of course, formal research. I like to present the students with a variety of research techniques as is evidenced by the readings in Kassarjian and Robertson (1973). I ask them to evaluate these studies vis-a-vis their own experiences of the world and in terms of how the research impinges upon their task as a future marketing manager. They become aware of the dynamic quality of formal research in consumer behavior and hopefully regard the "facts" presented as theory (tested or not) which is subject to modification and change as more information is gathered.

Such an approach, I believe, requires a radically different orientation by the professor conducting the course. With this view, the professor does not play the role of the authority figure, disseminating information to students. The professor becomes instead one source of information about the topic in an environment overloaded with information. The textbook also is just one source, and these two are perhaps the least important sources in the long run. Consumer behavior, not a static field, but vitally active in research, is least best served if the knowledge available from professor and textbook is regarded as definitive by the student. Thus, in defining topic areas and designing pedagogical tools, I find it imperative to approach my contribution as a tentative one and to plan to stimulate students to look at themselves, then at friends, and finally at other impersonal sources for insight into processes underlying consumer behavior.


Areas covered in this course may be divided into three groups: study of individual processes (perception, information processing, personality, learning, attitudes, etc.); study of group influences upon the individual (reference groups, social class, culture, etc.); and non-traditional approaches (innovative ideas, future studies, futurizing, etc.). The first two of these are derived from existing research and may he seen as implicit organizing variables in most textbooks. (Economic influences upon decision making are not covered by me due primarily to a priority decision and lack of adequate time.)

The last area mentioned above is, I feel, essential in achieving my stated goals. Roughly two weeks are set aside for activities with little lecturing from me, and without textbook reference. This is necessary because it provides the student with an opportunity to practice those activities that he must engage in after graduation. The operationalization and content of these class days becomes evident upon examination of the pedagogical tools employed in those two weeks.


For the current term (Fall, 1976) the student has written six short essays which examine his own consuming processes. The assumption underlying these assignments is that knowledge of self is a necessary condition to knowledge of others. The student is also required to structure his observations in terms of formal theory presented in class or in the reading assignments.

It is felt that these essays serve as personal case histories of consuming behavior and are thus more relevant to the student than other case studies. The process of writing gives the student exercise in interpretation not found in the process of analysis of cases written by others. For this reason, the only reading assignments covered empirical research and theoretical pieces.

As a culminating activity the student was asked to search for some statement about consumer behavior made by a non-marketer. One week was organized for student presentation of the statements. This exercise served two functions. First, it opened up to the student a large variety of information about consuming behavior not available traditionally. In other words, news magazines and contemporary novels provide valuable insight into contemporary behavior not always available in textbooks. However, these two sources may be very relevant for the businessperson outside of the University environment.

The other function of this activity is for the student to become aware of a perspective that is decidedly different from that of the typical business student. The perceptions of non-marketers may be radically different from those of marketers. The successful manager, of course, must be sensitive to such differences. It is believed that an activity as defined above would achieve a degree of appreciation of some other's point of view.

The success of this project has not been assessed yet. However, similar topics in the past have been favorably received. This term the discussion of future has been limited to a week; in prior terms it involved more time, and contained specific activities directed at understanding the dynamics of thinking about the future. Other pedagogical tools have also been devised to achieve the stated goals. They are not discussed here due to space limitations.


My particular philosophy of teaching Marketing 230 at Penn State has been summarized above. This in no way is meant to reflect a "Penn State Marketing philosophy" or anyone's views but my own. However, it is unfair not to mention the influence of other faculty members in shaping my particular approach. Not only was I influenced by my teachers at The University of Texas at Austin, but have been involved in much meaningful interaction with the other Penn State faculty members. Such interaction is ongoing and thus the "shape" of my teaching is less than firm, shifting somewhat with every class. Therefore, the above statement must be seen as time dependent as well.


Harold H. Kassarjian and Thomas S. Robertson, Perspectives in Consumer Behavior (Glenview: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1973).