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This UCLA Professor Gets Down To (Funny) Business

Daniel Oppenheimer, UCLA

Daniel Oppenheimer, UCLA

Whether he’s teaching MBAs how to use psychology to understand the decisions consumers make or working on his decision-making research to be submitted for publication in a top-tier academic journal, UCLA professor Danny Oppenheimer is going to make sure of one thing: that everyone involved has fun. Including him.

Naturally, as a professor he recognizes that learning must remain a top priority, but from where he stands, this doesn’t mean you can’t get a good laugh in while you’re on the road to acquiring new knowledge and new skills.

“I don’t know where it became common belief in America that learning was work. The world is fascinating so learning doesn’t have to be boring. It can be incredibly exciting.”

PROFESSORIAL APRIL FOOL’S DAY PRANK

Admittedly, much of Oppenheimer’s desire to inject fun into the classroom is for his own enjoyment. Like the time he walked into the first day of an Intro to Psychology course and dove right into a two-minute bit on computational modeling, complete with statistical terms that were so jargon-laden, they could make even the most sophisticated statistician request clarification. About a third of the class instantly realized that it was April Fool’s Day and that they were the victims of a practical joke, while others sat with mouths ajar and faces of sheer trauma.

To be clear, Oppenheimer–who has a joint appointment in both the Anderson School of Management and UCLA’s department of psychology–is by no means all play and no business. At the business school where he teaches marketing for instance, he inserts psychology into the curriculum because he knows it will give students a competitive edge. “The study of individual differences is crucial for understanding audience segmentation, how to persuade people and the way branding works.”

Nevertheless, not much is off limits with Oppenheimer so long as learning is happening and healthy risks are being taken. He’s even been on the receiving end of a practical joke or two orchestrated by his students (although he isn’t willing to share details so others can get ideas).

“I try to set up a situation in my classes where students feel safe taking risks. It’s a safe environment. And as long as we’re successfully articulating what needs to be said and gaining the skills that need to be acquired, let’s have fun.”

MAGIC OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM

When it comes to how learning occurs, Oppenheimer is also a firm believer that only a mere fraction of students’ learning actually occurs inside the classroom. Student clubs, activities and teaching one another is where he feels the real magic happens. This also explains Oppenheimer’s love for engaging with students, which he says is the best part of his job.

“It’s not just about the professor teaching, it’s everybody teaching everyone else. If I’m not learning in my classroom, something’s going wrong.”

His approach seems to work well and has enabled Oppenheimer to form bonds with students that transcend the business school. “I’ve attended weddings of some of my former students and a number of them attended mine.”

When asked to describe the connections he builds with students, Oppenheimer simply responds, “Students are like my family.”

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