Any conversation with business school colleagues almost invariably turns to the deplorable state of student writing. I know that students struggle to compose papers in English, and I imagine professors teaching in other languages are also inundated with examples of bad writing. Problems often are exacerbated by the complexities of the language, cultural difficulties, and the abbreviated writing style inspired by texting and tweeting.
Poor student writing can be dramatically improved when business professors devote small portions of class time to helping students learn to spot and eliminate common errors in composition.
Many institutions attempt to improve student writing by offering resources such as learning management software, online and offline stud guides, library chat support, instructional videos, and Facebook, Twitter, and RSS feeds. Yet, in my experience, none of these efforts significantly improves the written skills of most business students. Worse, students might erroneously believe that tech-based resources such as spelling and grammar checkers are actually helping them, when too often they substitute one writing problem for another.
Students are more likely to retain writing concepts if they learn them in situ within their majors.
Over the past few years, I have created intervention strategies for my required undergraduate classes that help me reduce student writing errors significantly. For example, in an upper-division course on organizational behavior, I’ve reduced surface errors by as much as 95 percent, intertwining management theory and writing practice so students can apply what they learn directly to their studies. In a team-based gateway class, the collaborative nature of the work means I have less success reducing mistakes in composition. However, I still achieve a success rate of about 85 percent.
I have found that, with some help, students can submit quality writing that is acceptable both academically and professionally. I have learned that if I—an admittedly untrained faculty member—make some effort initially, I will actually save myself work in the long run. If I address errors early in the semester, students are less likely to repeat those errors later on.
The Great Divide
At my school, as at many others, the department of English handles the prerequisite business communications courses, while business faculty teach business theories in context. The working assumption is that students are more likely to succeed when different groups of specialized faculty teach them broad skills in communications and deep subject matter in business.
However, there’s no proof that students recall and apply composition concepts once they’ve selected a major. In fact, I believe that students are more likely to retain writing concepts if they learn them in situ within their majors rather than through generalized training courses. But the business professor who attempts to teach writing faces many obstacles.
For one thing, even English writing instructors agree that no single handbook is sufficient to cover all types of professional communication. This makes it difficult for instructors to set expectations, design consistent writing deliverables, or evaluate written pieces—and makes it equally difficult for students to perform to standards. Adding to the problem is the fact that “global English” is constantly evolving due to the multinational nature of today’s business environment. At the same time, many business school classrooms include ELL students—“English Language Learners” who do not speak English as their native tongue.
Another issue revolves around assessment and the fact that so many people are teaching and assessing student writing that it’s nearly impossible come up with set standards. The situation is so complicated that many instructors simply give up. But there are two responses that are far more positive.
Taking the Challenge
First, business instructors can complement their existing business skills by acquiring new skills in communication. In my own quest to do so, I read more than 40 articles from peer-reviewed journals such as College Composition and Communication and the Journal of Business Communication. I subscribed to email listservs targeted to business communication faculty and writing center directors. I read two dozen books on the subject of composition, prose, and rhetoric. I reviewed many required and recommended books for freshman composition and sophomore business communication classes at my school. I also studied the supplemental readings written specifically by the English faculty.
I focused on language use, grammar instruction, learning styles, and instructional pedagogies at the beginning and intermediate levels. I balanced my reading materials by choosing some from the strict, prescriptive grammarian camp and some from the more progressive “many Englishes” camp. Along the way, I discussed ideas with English faculty and faculty in my own department. My goal wasn’t to teach English or business communication; my only goal was to help students in an incremental and measurable manner.
Second, one or more business faculty should step up to take a leadership role in reforming the way business communication is taught at their schools. In my case, I partnered with a colleague in the English department to give a presentation on business communication at my school’s annual faculty retreat. I’ve always firmly believed it’s easier to learn a topic when you’re teaching it to someone else! To contrast our different perspectives on the subject of business communication, we titled our presentation “The Business of English and the English of Business.”
Nine Instructional Strategies
Through all of these efforts, I have developed strong opin-ions about two ways business faculty can help students improve their writing—through instruction and through feedback. I can recommend nine instructional strategies:
1. Explicitly emphasize writing in the syllabus. While business faculty might expect students to have learned writing skills in earlier courses, students often fail to master composition skills unless such a requirement is made explicit. At the beginning of the semester, I make it clear to students that excellent writing is expected in the course.
2. Allocate time in class. It’s essential to spend class time on writing, even if this means instructors must reduce the time they can spend on discipline-specific material. devote a maximum of 1.25 hours to the topic if I’m teaching a typical 45-hour semesterlong class. That’s enough time to organize a writing activity, but it still leaves plenty of time to talk about business.
3. Develop a pedagogy for working with large classes. The Millennial generation learns visually, which means that context-free blocks of text are often insufficientfor teaching them any concept. When I’m teaching big lecture classes, I deliver a lecture composed almost entirely of pictures, where each picture illustrates one type of syntax or semantic error. I use a digital camera to capture these examples of poor composition—usually informal writing on public signs.I’ve collected more than 35 examples, ranging from errors in syntax to errors in semantics. I also explain why contemporary writing technologies, such as embedded grammar correction programs, don’t help authors fix these errors. The photo lecture approach has numerous strengths: It’s memorable, it’s humorous, and it makes an impact. Its weakness is that the lecture format is inherently passive.
4. Develop a pedagogy for smaller classes. In more intimate classrooms, I hand out a collection of errors written by students in previous classes. Students break into teams to identify each of the errors; they report back on the few they don’t understand.
The errors are easy to come by. I’ve observed that, in a class with more than 100 students, an assignment of a two-page essay due by the end of the second week will exhibit nearly all the major types of surface errors in composition. I simply organize the errors by category: problems with mechanics, punctuation, grammar, word choice, and sentence style. I also include a section on challenges faced by ELL students. I don’t provide corrected versions; I let the student teams identify and fix problems.
The strength of this approach is that ad hoc teamwork is engaging. The activity changes the pace and structure of the course and encourages individuals to learn from their peers. A weakness is that students occasionally may miss critical errors that are likely to recur on future writing assignments.
5. Move beyond the basics. Once my students have a grasp of prose and composition issues, I can work on skills such as logic, argumentation, specific wording for hypothesis-based analysis, and the style guide conventions suggested by the American Psychological Association. I also can cover the language typically used to discuss the theories and frameworks taught in an undergraduate business curriculum.
Weak business writers could be limiting their progression from students to professionals, professionals to managers, and managers to executives.
6. Add “science” to “English.” To help business students understand why good writing is so important, I provide quick overviews of research that’s been published in academic literature. Students appear most impressed with two studies: one about how business managers react to weak writing, and one about the most common types of writing errors made in freshman composition classes. Students realize they can systematically learn the rules of writing just as they learn the science underlying the management theories they study in their business courses.
7. Add discipline-specific vocabulay words to exams. I include four or five vocabulay words on at least one multiple-choice exam, usually at the end of the semester. To reinforce relevance, I draw from the terms and phrases that students identify as difficult or unknown in the eports they write about organizational behavior books located in our campus library. I post the terms and phrases from prior semesters on a public Web page, ocw.smithw.org/mgt360/vocabulary-builder.pdf. This list of terms and phrases also helps ELL students prepare themselves for upper-division management classes.
8. Create rules, not suggestions. I’ve observed that students consider strong writing more important when I use specific language todescribe my expectations. For instance, I talk about formal writing requirements rather than a style guide, which is actually the correct term. But more than a few students interpret style to mean fashion and guide to mean recommended, so I take out the ambiguity. In other instances, I use business terms to describe writing techniques. When I discuss how to measure waste in wordy sentences, I refer to it as sentence accounting. When I talk about writing rules, I pronounce them sentence laws. When I discuss how to remove chance in interpretation, I talk about sentence statistics. Although my terms are unorthodox, my students—all of them declared business majors—appear to grasp my intention intuitively.
9. Give out handbooks. At used-book sales held by local and university libraries, I frequently can find styl guides, writing handbooks, and technical communication textbooks selling for $1 or less. I buy them and give them away to any student who wants one. If students decide to buy their own, I emphasize that the costs can be amortized over their academic and early professional careers.
Five Forms of Feedback
The second way I help business students improve their language skills is through ongoing feedback. I endorse a variety of methods:
1. A consistent rubric. I create a scoring rubric based on the major sections of a writing handbook. Students benefit from clear and consistent scoring, and I am better able to assess students’ individual and team-based progress. In addition, I’ve designed a spreadsheet that helps me provide details and summaries to students, teams, and the assessment committee.
2. In-class editing. Just before students turn in a writing assignment, I allocate five minutes of class time for them to check their work, exchange papers with classmates, and even ask me questions about writing issues. I don’t take off any points if students make pencil corrections over their typed papers—even if they write “I am not sure about the subject and verb agreement here.” This proactive, flexible pocess helps students more deeply value the critical process of editing and rewriting.
3. Lenient error marking. I get the best results when I reduce points only for the first—or most significant—error of any specific type. I do mark additional erors of the same type, but I don’t deduct points. This approach is less intimidating to the student, and I notice that all students improve.
4. Dual scoring. I score the content and writing of each assignment separately. From the content score, I deduct 10 percent for each major composition error. At first this policy appears severe, but by the end of the class, the composition and prose improve noticeably. My hypothesis is that a percentage deduction grabs the students’ attention early and focuses their improvement persistently.
5. Visits with the professor. I encourage students with weak writing scores to come see me in my office, whee we can discuss each type of error, why it’s important in the context of the assignment, and what tools and processes they can use to avoid similar mistakes in the future. As a method of positive reinforcement, I give them makeup points for coming in and working on continuous improvement through a face-to-face learning experience.
Tools for the Future
The cognitive processes associated with writing and critical thinking are highly intertwined. Weak business writers could be limiting their progression from students to professionals, professionals to managers, and managers to executives. If faculty help business students improve their writing, they’re not just ensuring that students turn in more readable papers. They’re helping graduates on their way to more successful careers.
Wayne Smith is a lecturer in the department of management at the College of Business and Economics at California State University, Northridge.