Purpose The purpose of this paper is to present an educational approach to elevating problem-solving and numeracy competencies of business undergraduates to meet workplace demand. The approach is grounded in the theory of constraints following the Decoding the Discipline model. The authors investigated a cognitive bottleneck involving problem modeling and an affective bottleneck concerning low self-efficacy of numeracy and designed specific interventions to address both bottlenecks simultaneously. The authors implemented the proposed approach in an introductory level analytics course in business operations.

Design/methodology/approachThe authors use an empirical study to evaluate the effectiveness of the proposed approach in addressing deficiency in numeracy and problem-solving skills. Cognitive and affective learning interventions were introduced in an undergraduate core course in analytics. The perceived effectiveness of the interventions was evaluated with the use of a survey at the end of the course. To further investigate the effectiveness of the proposed interventions beyond self-reporting, the impact of the interventions on actual learning was evaluated by comparing the exam scores between classes with and without the interventions.

Findings Students who underwent the interventions successfully overcame both learning bottlenecks and indicated a positive change in attitude toward the analytics discipline as well as achieved higher exam scores in the analytics course.

Research limitations/implications This study succeeds in strengthening the body of research in teaching and learning. The authors also offer a holistic treatment of cognitive and affective learning bottlenecks, and provide empirical evidence to support the effectiveness of the proposed approach in elevating numeracy and problem-solving competencies of business undergraduates.

Practical implications The proposed approach is useful for business educators to improve business students’ quantitative modeling skill and attitude. Researchers can also extend the approach to other courses and settings to build up the body of research in learning and skill development. Educational policy makers may consider promoting promising approaches to improve students’ quantitative skill development. They can also set a high standard for higher education institutions to assess students’ numeracy and problem-solving competencies. Employers will find college graduates bring to their initial positions the high levels of numeracy and problem-solving skills demanded for knowledge work to sustain business growth and innovation.

Social implications As students’ numeracy and problem-solving skills are raised, they will develop an aptitude for quantitative-oriented coursework that equips them with the set of quantitative information-processing skills needed to succeed in the twenty-first century society and global economy.

Originality/value The proposed approach provides a goal-oriented three-step process to improve learning by overcoming learning bottlenecks as constraints of a learning process. The integral focus on identifying learning bottlenecks, creating learning interventions and assessing learning outcomes in the proposed approach is instrumental in introducing manageable interventions to address challenges in student learning thereby elevating students’ numeracy and problem-solving competencies.

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Published in Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education, v. 11, issue 3.

Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited

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