Observations on Teaching Consumer Behavior

ABSTRACT - This paper examines several aspects of teaching consumer behavior at the undergraduate level. Initially, course goals are delineated and the elective nature of the course is discussed. Students enrolled in consumer behavior are primarily marketing majors. Topics are covered in the following order: internal variables, external variables, and the consumer decision making process. Lectures, cases and discussion of articles are pedagogical methods used.


Patrick E. Murphy (1977) ,"Observations on Teaching Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 04, eds. William D. Perreault, Jr., Atlanta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 272-273.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1977   Pages 272-273


Patrick E. Murphy, Marquette University


This paper examines several aspects of teaching consumer behavior at the undergraduate level. Initially, course goals are delineated and the elective nature of the course is discussed. Students enrolled in consumer behavior are primarily marketing majors. Topics are covered in the following order: internal variables, external variables, and the consumer decision making process. Lectures, cases and discussion of articles are pedagogical methods used.


Teaching consumer behavior at the undergraduate level can be both a rewarding and frustrating experience. It is rewarding in the sense that students are eager to learn about the variables that influence consumer decision making. On the other hand, frustration can easily result because the subject matter is often viewed as being not relevant or applicable to marketing management decision making. The following discussion recounts the experiences of one professor at one university but likely many other instructors have similar feelings toward teaching consumer behavior.


The best method to discuss the goals of the course is to list the objectives that appear on the class syllabus. They are:

(1) To understand more fully the dynamics of consumer behavior and its relevance to marketing management.

(2) To comprehend the nature and complexity of the internal and external influences upon consumer buying behavior.

(3) To analyze the consumer buying process and its outcomes.

(4) To discuss relevant research articles within consumer behavior.

(5) To apply the principles discussed in class to actual case situations.

(6) To develop analytical and communicative skills.

Although these objectives are not meant to be exhaustive, they do reflect the instructor's viewpoint as to the most important aspects of consumer behavior. A few comments about these objectives are necessary. The critical words in the first objective are "dynamics" and "relevant". It is essential that students understand that consumer behavior is an interdisciplinary and ever-changing discipline. The "relevance" to managerial decision making, as previously stated, is a goal often not attained, but it is an ideal to strive for. "Complexity" is the key word in the second objective. The fact that psychologists and sociologists teach an entire course or courses on each of the variables (i.e., learning, culture, etc.) that are covered in one or two consumer behavior class periods must be conveyed to the students.

The other objectives refer additional focal points of the course. The analysis of the consumer buying process builds on understanding the various steps involved. Discussion of research articles is one objective that is extremely difficult to achieve. Undergraduate students possess neither the skills nor the interest to discuss research articles on consumer behavior. Application of the principles to case situations offers the students an opportunity to utilize the subject matter in a managerial fashion. Finally, the last objective is a very general one, but achieved through oral and written case presentations, class discussions and exams.


Since the consumer behavior course at Marquette is a marketing elective, it occupies no particular position within the curriculum. The only prerequisite for enrollment in the class is completion of the marketing principles course. Marketing research, marketing communications and marketing management are required courses for all marketing majors. Therefore, consumer behavior is not sequenced with these courses. One limitation of this lack of sequencing is that students possess differing levels of marketing expertise depending on the number of courses completed. An especially severe drawback occurs when students have not completed the marketing research course. Because of the elective nature of consumer behavior no conscious attempt is made to avoid overlapping with topics or tools covered in other courses.


Students taking consumer behavior at Marquette are typically a mixed group. Approximately two-thirds are Senior marketing majors. About ten percent of the students are journalism majors concentrating in advertising and another ten percent are majoring in General Management. A few come from Finance and Accounting specializations in the College of Business Administration and an occasional Liberal Arts student enrolls in the class as a free elective. This diversity of students tends to make the class particularly challenging for the instructor.

The aspirations of the students enrolled in consumer behavior are varied as well. Most are seeking entry level jobs upon graduation with business firms. Only a few are contemplating law school or business graduate school. Therefore, they seem to be a rather pragmatic group seeking real world application of the material.


Coverage of the topics begins with an overview and discussion of comprehensive consumer behavior models. Next, the intrapersonal variables affecting consumer decision making are analyzed. An examination of the interpersonal variables follows. Using this material as background, the steps of the consumer decision making process, including post-purchase evaluation, are traced. Finally, topics such as brand loyalty, perceived risk and adoption and diffusion of innovations are covered in the balance of the semester. The inter and intrapersonal variables need further amplification.

The order of discussion of the internal variables is as follows: motivation, learning, perception, personality, attitudes and attitude change. This sequence seems logical since each variable covered builds upon those that precede it. In other words, for learning to take place an individual must be motivated; perception requires both motivation and learning, and so on. Analysis of attitudes and attitude change then make more sense if the student first achieves a thorough comprehension of the other variables. About an equal amount of class time is spent on each of the intrapersonal variables with attitudes receiving the most attention and personality the least.

In examining the external variables affecting consumer behavior, the order is determined by the size and impact of the group on the individual. Culture is the first variable covered because it represents the largest social group and has only tangential effect on the individual. Since several social classes exist within a given culture and exert a more direct influence on consumer purchasing behavior, they are the second external group which are discussed. Thirdly, reference groups are typically smaller and play a prominent role in shaping buying decisions. Because the family is the smallest social group affecting the consumer and also has the most pervasive effect on the individual, it is the final interpersonal variable analyzed. Once again, approximately an equal amount of class time is devoted to each topic.


A combination of methods are utilized by this instructor in teaching consumer behavior. To introduce any topic area a lecture is given. The format of these lectures generally begins with a definition or definitions of the variable or topic followed by relevant theoretical background. If measurement of the variable is important such as for attitudes, social class, etc., alternative approaches to measuring the variable are presented. Attention is then directed to other sub categories or classifications (i.e., subcultures, learning process elements, etc.). Finally, in every instance a concerted effort is expended in providing appropriate marketing implications.

Other pedagogical tools used include class discussion and case presentations. Class discussion revolves around a few interesting research articles (Allison and Uhl, 1964; Cohen, 1967, etc.). As mentioned previously, undergraduate students unfortunately are not equipped methodologically nor do they possess the interest to engage in meaningful discussion about these articles. A more successful approach seems to be to use articles (i.e., Libman and Lawson, 1976; Paterson, 1976) from current periodicals such as The Wall Street Journal or The National Observer for discussion purposes. Case presentations are conducted by teams of three to five students. They are required to orally present one case before the entire class as well as submit the written case analysis.

In evaluating the performance of students, a midterm and final exam are the major vehicles used. Although class discussion and the case analysis account for approximately twenty-five percent of the grade, they are not adequate barometers of an individual student's mastery of the course material. The midterm exam is given after completing the discussion of the intra-personal variables. The final exam then covers the remainder of the semester's work. Both exams follow an essay format with emphasis given to understanding and applying the topic areas. Typical questions ask the students to show how a particular variable is or is not useful for market segmentation purposes or to give the marketing implications of various learning theories.


The preceding discussion has focused on one instructor's approach to teaching consumer behavior. A few important points warrant reiteration. Course objectives are transmitted to the students, in the syllabus at the beginning of the term. Rigidly defined coverage requirements are not necessary because consumer behavior is not sequenced into the regular marketing curriculum. The majority of students enrolled in the class are marketing majors. However, the presence of many outside majors as well as an overall lack of research interest preclude in-depth analysis of the subject matter. Topics covered span the traditional intra and interpersonal variables, the consumer decision making process, brand loyalty, perceived risk and diffusion of innovations. Pedagogical methods utilized include lecture, discussion of articles and case presentations. Finally, students are primarily evaluated by two essay type exams.


Ralph I. Allison and Kenneth P. Uhl, "Influence of Beer Brand Identification on Taste Perception," Journal of Marketing Research, 1(August, 1964), 36-39.

Joel B. Cohen, "An Interpersonal Orientation to the Study of Consumer Behavior," Journal of Marketing Research, 4(August, 1967), 270-278.

Joan Libman and Herbert Lawson, "The Family, Troubled By Changing Mores, Still Likely To Thrive," The Wall Street Journal, 41(March 19, 1976), 1+.

John Peterson, "The American Dream: Sour?" The National Observer, (January 10, 1976), 1+.



Patrick E. Murphy, Marquette University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 04 | 1977

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