Simulations offer a proven way to enable experiential learning in business courses. Longer games enable both application of concepts and models learned during coursework and a framework within which students can experience teamwork and use data analysis to improve performance. Recent growth of compressed sessions in academe, particularly in business education, could limit use of longer simulations. We compared MBA student participation in a strategic marketing simulation and post-simulation reflection reports in two online classes--a 15-week semester and a seven-week term. There was no difference in student participation, nor in report content relating their overall experience and quality of their team communication. We offer implications for instructors and administrators contemplating schedule compression decisions.
Simulations have long been acknowledged as a valuable experiential learning component in business courses (Story, et. al, 2020; Goi, 2019; Caruana, et. al, 2016; Cadotte, 2016; Laverie, et. al, 2020; van Esch, et. al, 2020; Woodham, 2018). Two factors that determine the value derived from a simulation are how realistic it is and how much it tests the skills, knowledge, and decision-making abilities of students (Cadotte and MacGuire, 2013; Cadotte, 2016). Once an instructor finds a game that fits within the structure and methods being deployed for a particular course that simulation can provide both an avenue for students to apply concepts, strategies, and tactics learned during the course and as a learning tool in and of itself, testing student teamwork skills, risk tolerance, and ability to use competitor and own-firm data to improve performance over time (Cadotte, 2016).
Games that simulate longer periods of time provide the additional benefit of immersion and ability to face setbacks with the knowledge that improvements can be made and better performance can follow from those improvements. However, a trend in business schools, and in higher education in general, offers a challenge to those seeking to immerse students in simulations featuring longer term scenarios. The trend is most generally known as time compression (Giambatista and Hoover, 2019) and involves reducing academic terms in length, from full semesters to sometimes very short sessions of as little as two weeks. While administrators have planned shorter term environments for many years, these have most often been associated with a non-traditional period of the year, with summer and/or winter terms being the most familiar examples. Time compression has been investigated in several areas of higher education (Giambatista and Hoover, 2019; Trout, 2018; Shaw, et. al, 2013; Holston 2020, Johnson, et. al, 2011; Schultz and Sharp, 2008; Anastasi, 2007), with little to no difference found in student learning within shorter time frames, and even some evidence of improved learning in such compressed terms (St. Peter and Butler, 2011). In particular, Giambatista and Hoover (2019) find compression likely to enhance immersive learning experiences, such as simulations.
Although there has been support for the overall success of classes in compressed schedules, Giambatista and Hoover (2019) note that online courses have not been explored as much in time compression studies. Also, what about the major components of such classes? Will the benefits of an immersive and rigorous major assignment, such as a complex case, a client project, or a simulation experience, suffer from being conducted in half the traditional time, or even less than that? While business simulation providers offer a myriad of options regarding length of time simulated, less time spent immersed in a simulated environment could curtail some of the learning opportunities of longer games. These include teams being able to mount a comeback from an early mistake with improved decisions in subsequent rounds, or slow and steady improvements allowing teams to overtake a competitor’s fast start by applying some appropriate competitive strategy(ies) learned during their coursework. Related to these challenges, does operating the same long-format simulation game in less time affect its proven benefits in a negative way? Our exploration in this study sought to answer the following research questions:
RQ 1 Does a compressed schedule affect online student participation in a long format simulation?
RQ 2 Do online students report any difficulties from competing in a simulation in a compressed schedule?
To determine whether a more rigorous simulation being used in a full semester strategic marketing class could be effective in a shorter timeframe, we investigated simulation results from the same class with the same instructor offered in each type of session in an online format. To determine participation level, the time spent making decisions within the simulation software was compared between students playing the game within a traditional 15-week semester and those doing so during a compressed session of seven weeks. We also compared content from post-competition student reflections in each format.
The course instructor (first author) used Marketplace Live Strategic Marketing for this MBA marketing core course. As Laverie, et. al (2020) describe (and as discussed in the Marketplace instructor material), Strategic Marketing is an eight-quarter game that simulates a new and then growing market. One important feature of Marketplace that fits well with a strategic marketing class is that there is no pre-set market size that the firms compete to serve. Rather, the teams must act as market makers, interpreting research and analyzing competitive signals. They must then design appropriate marketing mixes for each of the segments they target (five segments are available in the game). Thus, teams must seek to create better and better products, accompanied by better advertising and other marketing mix elements, to enable the firm, and the entire market, to grow. This design creates a rich environment for competition to flourish among the teams as they apply what they’ve learned in class and, in later quarters, from the simulation itself (Cadotte and MacGuire, 2013).
Treen, et. al (2016) find the ideal team size for Marketplace to be five players. However, our own experience with students in the online version of this particular strategic marketing course has shown that the best performance and the least free riding is associated with three- or four-person teams. An additional consideration for team size is the number of teams competing. Marketplace parameters allow a range from one to eight teams consisting of three to six players each. We have found head to head competition among the teams to be ideal, as coaching and debriefings after each quarter are more engaging when students know they are competing with their fellow students. However, for smaller enrollments the game can be set for each team to compete against simulation-generated opponents. Depending on class size, we have found it better to have fewer players on each team if there is a possibility of fielding the maximum number of teams (8). A good illustration for the effectiveness of this approach is that with fewer teams there is often a one or two quarter delay before a team faces direct competition in a particular segment/market combination as there are twelve potential markets in the game. With more teams fielded there is a much better appreciation among the students as to what it is like trying to compete head to head for the same customers across multiple quarters.
The 15-week course design placed the first nine chapters of the textbook within the first half of the semester. Thereafter, the final three chapters and related supplemental material were covered as the simulation began in the eighth week. The format allows students to have the bulk of the basic and strategic marketing theories, concepts, and models in their skillset as the first quarter planning and decision making gets under way, an important consideration because this MBA core course is the first ever marketing course for some students.
Using the same eight-quarter simulation in the seven-week session required the textbook and supplemental material be covered concurrently with the simulation competition. The only other difference from the full semester class was the removal of a team reflective report assignment because of the lack of time for students to complete both that and the individual reflection reports once the simulation ended. The two session formats are shown in Table 1.
Only by fully participating in a simulation experience can the most valuable lessons it offers be attained. Marketplace provides instructors with a rich array of data regarding individual player participation and team decisions and outcomes. Players must be actively engaged in reviewing data and entering decisions for their time logged in to count, thus time spent is a good indicator of student involvement in the simulation. We compared the time spent by each student player within the 15-week and the seven-week course formats.
The data were taken from the games in the Fall 2019 (15-week) and Spring 2021 (seven-week) courses. These two class sections were used because the global Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020, when the seven-week session was first used, and a slightly compressed 14-week semester was used in the fall 2020 semester.. In addition, there could have been an effect on participation from disruptions in other areas of online students’ lives during the uncertainty in that first year of the pandemic. We also examined the students’ individual reflection reports to determine whether the compressed format affected either the simulation experience and/or their team’s communication. After independently reviewing the report data we compared findings to check for consistency.
Course Structure for Full and Compressed Semesters
Full Semester Major Topics/Assignments
Compressed Semester Major Topics/Assignments
Marketing Concept, Marketing Mix Marketplace Q1, Organization
Communication, Marketplace Q2, Product Design and Target Markets
Multiattribute Models, Marketplace Q3, Ad Design and Test Market
Portfolio Models/Segmentation, Marketplace Q4, End of First Year, Strategic Plan for Year 2
Growth Models, Marketplace Q5, 3rd quarter of direct competition, last parent firm investment
Positioning, Marketplace Q6 and Q7
Marketplace Q8, Marketplace Results, Individual Reflective Reports
Marketplace Q1, Organization
Marketplace Q2, Product Design and Target Markets
Marketplace Q3, Ad Design and Test Market
Marketplace Q4, End of First Year, Strategic Plan for Year 2
Marketplace Q5, Third quarter of direct competition, last parent firm investment
Marketplace Q6, Refine and adjust strategy and tactics
Marketplace Q7 and Q8, Refine and adjust strategy and tactics
Marketplace Results, Team and Individual Reflective Reports
As shown in Table 2 (top half), there was no difference in time spent between the full semester and seven-week formats. In fact, they were nearly identical. A t-test for difference in means between the two formats was not significant (p = .998). Thus, regarding RQ1, the compressed schedule did not affect student simulation participation. We also report the median for time
spent because of outliers. It is quite common for a few students to spend many hours each quarter immersed in the game, so the median may be the preferred measure in judging participation. As with the means, the medians for the two classes were quite similar.
Individual Time Spent, in minutes
# of Teams
# of Teams
Student reflective report content for both the full and compressed classes were quite similar. Excerpts from these reports are shown in Tables 3 and 4. The former contains examples of students’ overall experience while Table 4 provides thoughts on team communication during the simulation. None of the students referred to the seven-week term as causing a problem with individual work, teamwork, nor their communication. Regarding RQ2, the compressed schedule did not seem to affect students negatively as compared to the 15-week term.
Covid-19 Pandemic Effects
To further investigate the aforementioned possible effects of the pandemic on participation, we examined simulation participation for the two courses from 2020. The Spring 2020 section was in its seventh week when the semester was disrupted but, as with our other online classes, continued for the full semester as planned. As the bottom half of Table 2 shows, the effect of the pandemic was remarkable, with much lower levels of participation in both the full semester spring class and the compressed seven-week fall semester class.
Student Reflective Report Excerpts
Overall Simulation Experience
Fall 2019 Full Semester
Spring 2021 Compressed Semester
My experience from it was very fun but also stressful. I enjoyed it tremendously because I learnt a lot from it that I can use for the real world. On the other hand, it was very frustrating at times because a lot of work was put in, but the results wanted weren’t achieved.
My experience with the Marketplace simulation was positive. As the complexity of the decisions
increased, I really enjoyed seeing the results each quarter. The fact that we were competing with other, equally skilled teams made the simulation even more challenging. I think the simulation is a great way to put a “real world” emphasis on the reading material and class assignments.
I found this experience quite eye opening and became fully engaged in the process.
My experience using the Marketplace Strategic Marketing game was interesting considering I
have never taken a marketing or graduate level class.
This was also an excellent opportunity to work in teams and make decisions about building a company together. However, there were two things I did not enjoy about completing this game. I felt that the times that things were due added stress to completing this assignment.
The Marketplace Strategic Marketing game was enlightening, and . . . grew my marketing acumen. This exercise enhanced my learning full circle by review and many new learnings. I discovered that maybe my real-life marketing teams have not been aggressive enough [nor] relied on academic teachings and best practices.
When reading the syllabus and seeing that there was a team project, I wasn’t sure what to think. As a non-traditional student in an online program, I was concerned about how we would meet and pull off such a project. I really enjoyed to use my new knowledge from the course, and some knowledge from memory of past courses in this simulation team experience.
In running the marketplace simulation, one key element that came into play early on was the idea of constant collaboration at every step in the process. We genuinely enjoyed participating in meetings because we could tell that our work
helped contribute to each other’s understanding of the content. There are probably a few things we would have tried to change early on, for the most part we achieved what we set out to accomplish and were mostly satisfied with the ending results.
I was somewhat nervous at the beginning on account of my little marketing experience, but the game did a good job of explaining things through its videos and lectures. I enjoyed
being a part of a team who put our wits together against the competition to try and
become the best producer of our product. I wish that I could go back in and do a new
game after seeing some of [our] mistakes and some things we could’ve done better.
Marketplace Strategic marketing game has been very interesting to experience. While learning
and acquiring skills of marketing in real world (simulation.) it has provided us with important tools of being able to use strategies and concepts learn during the theory to be used in practical world. I truly enjoyed playing this games since it was able to produce real live effects on how market will react to certain changes.
Student Reflective Report Excerpts
Team Communication During Simulation
Fall 2019 Full Semester
Spring 2021 Compressed Semester
Our team had very different lives and schedules so starting out we set meeting times and worked many times for hours together over text and also online in the simulation.
The first lesson I learned is that communication among the marketing team is a key to effectively implement the marketing plan.
I was on the game every time we had a scheduled meeting, and me & my other team members communicated daily via text messaging about our thoughts and decisions. We would never decide something without everyone’s thoughts shared first. We would get online and work multiples times a week, normally for multiple hours.
The experience of working solely with a remote team was new to me. Given our schedules, familiarity with technology, and different time zones, we were only able to fit in three or four calls during the duration of the simulation. Most of the communication was completed through email. This, I think, increased the time it took for our team to really start working well together.
The simulation also taught me that communication is key. Online group projects are very challenging. Everyone has their own schedule and different times they can work on the project. We used the email feature of the simulation to communicate all decisions, and to make sure everyone was okay with them. By quarter three, it was becoming apparent that one team member was taking it on herself to do other’s tasks. She felt like we were procrastinating, and the email thread got heated by quarter four. This could have been avoided if we all had emailed and stated when we would input our decisions.
We gelled really well as a team and everyone was incredibly respectful of each other’s time. We were prompt and fluid with our communication and our time. I would choose to build a business with them every time if I could.
I would start with describing the marketplace simulation as a challenging process. . . . The first lesson I learned through the simulation was that more communication on our team’s part could have probably propelled us to more success . . . I think each individual team member went in and sort of saw what they could do to help the company without discussing exactly what they were doing with other team members . . . Speaking for myself, the struggles I had with balancing my new full-time job as an accountant with my course load got in the way of doing all the work I would have liked to do on the simulation.
In conclusion, not only was the marketplace simulation a fun and educational experience but working with my team was also fun and educational. We communicated very well through the chat and email, we were kind and respectful, and we were putting forward many great ideas to the group. While the success was slow going at first, we found our stride and I am proud of our results.
In addition to being very realistic, my experience with this simulation was unlike any other team project that I have had in my educational career. Everyone in our team was driven and wanted to perform the best that we possibly could. When setting up our meetings, everyone communicated what times worked best for them and no one ever missed a meeting. Inside of our meetings, we all had input and we talked through each decision . . . At times, the person clicking would need information from another screen so we would all be on different screens relaying useful information to the person inputting the changes into the simulation.
Email vs. meeting was something we did not improve until Q6. We met once as a team for Q1, then communicated via email. Unfortunately, and unintentionally even though we shared our written analysis and observations our decisions and final input was very siloed. Once we adjusted to team meetings again in Q6 we saw drastic improvement resulting in placing first.
The first few quarters were a bit rocky as we were figuring out the simulation, market, and how to best communicate with each other. As the simulation progressed we were able to learn from each other and communicate effectively . . .
The compressed schedule did not affect how much time students spent in their analysis and decision making within the simulation. Concepts, models, strategies, and tactics learned during coursework that teams attempted to implement were mentioned with the same frequency for both regular and compressed schedules. These findings support those of Herrmann and Berry (2016), who surveyed MBA students across a five-year period and found a preference for compressed courses, and Shaw, et. al (2013), who found no difference in achievement nor engagement between full and half semester courses for students in six undergraduate courses.
In addition, student reflection reports show a high degree of involvement from most students in both the full semester and the seven-week setting. Giambatista and Hoover (2019) note that, as behaviors rise in importance within the learning environment, time compression flourishes. This certainly describes our findings regarding the immersive simulation experiences featured in this study.
One key consideration for team assignments in online classes is clear communication among teammates in order to coordinate the team’s efforts (Deem, et. al, 2020). We emphasize communication early in the term by introducing the concept of metacommunication (Brewer, 2015). Metacommunication (Brewer, 2015, page 138) is “communicating about communication, which means bringing communication preferences and biases to the conscious level . . . within the virtual team, talking about them, analyzing them, and arriving at a planned approach based on this knowledge.” This approach echoes that of Mottner (2009), in that it is aimed at positively affecting team norms to improve performance. As noted in Table 4, student reflections often include appreciation for this approach, as it improved their simulation experience in the online environment. As Brewer (2015, page 139) notes, “Metacommunication helps virtual teams create the processes that help them thrive. It also helps teams manage the complexities of communicating across time and place.”
Communication between the instructor and the teams is also vital. Coaching should be continuous during the competition, highlighting key results and giving advice to the overall class as well as to individual teams (Cadotte, 2016; Cadotte and MacGuire, 2013). Each quarter students receive pre-quarter advice and post-quarter debriefing and coaching. Several issues that tend to recur across most competitions make it possible to have some coaching information completed in advance and then details for the particular game can be added. To illustrate, the Exhibit shows the debriefing after the third quarter test market in the Fall 2019 full semester class. Content specific to the current game is italicized here for emphasis. This method has been valuable in managing simulation games efficiently, especially in the more intensive compressed format.
As noted, the pandemic affected the choice of which courses to use in the comparison. Although the two sections used the same instructor, textbook, assignments, and simulation, they are but two sections of the course. In addition, comparing student evaluations would have allowed another measure of their experience. However, this was not possible for the two courses in our study because the instructor’s evaluations are collected once a year in the spring semester.
We did not gather data about student course load. Unlike students enrolled in a traditional semester of study, those taking a class in a compressed schedule are not as likely to be taking other courses at the same time. Graduate students in the former setting would be likely to have one, perhaps even two, additional courses vying for their time, while those in compressed schedules may have only one.
The instructor preference was to maintain the same eight-quarter simulation being used in the full semester in the compressed term. Other instructors may prefer to replace such a long format simulation with a less intensive game. This choice would create more flexibility in course material sequencing. Marketplace and its many competitors certainly offer many options regarding simulation length.
As compressed schedules have become more common in online programs, additional research is needed to investigate how various aspects of courses are affected. Different lengths of simulations could be run across the same class and students surveyed about their experience. As noted above, completing student evaluations for all courses in a study would provide additional insights on possible effects of different lengths of a simulation.
Many instructors employ immersive experiences other than simulations in various business courses. Projects for actual businesses, case studies, and marketing profiles are some of the ways students can apply knowledge and skills from the course. These and likely many others are used in classes at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Such projects might be assigned to individual students, teams of students, or a mix of individual and teamwork across the collection of assignments. Finding out how compressed schedules affect these various teaching practices could be a valuable contribution.
Some instructors may be seeking to use a simulation for the first time within a traditional or compressed schedule. Others may have had successful simulation experiences but are facing compressed schedules for the first time in their career. Our results show that longer games can still work well as time is compressed and instructors and administrators can use this knowledge in their planning. However, sessions of less than seven weeks would likely require some omission of exercises or the choice of a simulation with a shorter format. Whatever the situation for those contemplating the use of simulations in their teaching, understanding the variety of game designs and scenarios is important for planning. Reviews of various business simulation games can be found in works by Goi (2019), Laverie, et. al (2020), Woodham (2018), Cadotte (2016), and Batko (2016). We believe instructors and administrators alike would benefit from reviewing the lessons and insights these works provide.
The authors report there are no competing interests to declare.
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Test Market (Q3) Coaching E-mail
To: All Companies
From: Dr. Xyz
What a solid start to the head to head competition! Six of seven firms were in positive territory on the balanced scorecard for the quarter! Amazing! Excellent work from these management teams.
Areas for improvement include several typical for the early stages of Strategic Marketing--low brand judgment (this factor is the MOST important one) and pricing problems. Another typical area of weakness early on is poor ad judgment, and many teams also need to work on that factor judging from the test market.
Remember, the MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT of the test market is to LEARN. Examine what you planned for your strategies and tactics to achieve and then adjust your decisions for the next quarter. This was, after all, your first attempt at implementing the above!
A recurring theme for many teams is the “aggressiveness factor.” Marketplace Strategic Marketing simulates a new and then growing market, so how aggressive to be is commonly a hot topic of debate among team members.
Even though learning from this first attempt at competing is most important, I must also comment on the outstanding quarters turned in by Wheels 'n' Deals, the early leader, Bik3D, which was a strong second, and CarboNation, solidly in third place. These three outpaced the other firms by a fair margin, however 3DC, CarbonGo Cycles, and Element were also positive overall.
Teams jumping out to a lead must remember that some firms are likely planning such that they build up capabilities in all areas to achieve a very strong finish. And for teams who had a difficult quarter (or who end up with two or three such outcomes) remember that there are FIVE quarters remaining, which is ample time to come back strong and climb the "standings" by the end of Year 2. It only takes one negative balanced scorecard factor to end up with a total performance of zero, so keep working to figure out the response functions and learn from this test market.
As mentioned above, the most important factor for being a serious competitor is good products, measured via the brand judgment score. At this early stage, as a Marketplace presentation coming up soon states, a score of 70 is a good result. However, four firms already have achieved at least one score of 70 and are thus a bit ahead of the normal pace.
One more tip for going forward--a price judgment score of 100 is not necessarily a good thing (in fact most times it is not). Why? Because you could be "leaving money on the table" by having prices TOO low--targeted customers might be perfectly happy with a higher price for a given array of benefits delivered! That is why it is important to experiment with pricing and try to figure out the response function that will enable you to have the best possible margins. Actually, this approach goes for all of the other factors as well—keep pushing hard!
Good luck in the last quarter of Year 1 (aka Q4)!