“Business school graduates often lack communication skills.” That’s a common complaint among employers about their new hires, one that business schools try to address with everything from standalone courses to writing and presentation assignments. But without coordinated oversight, these efforts might not be as effective as they could be. That’s why American University’s Kogod School of Business in Washington, D.C., established its Kogod Center for Business Communications (KCBC) in 2006.
The center came about after the school hired Bonnie Auslander, a communications expert with an educational background in history and creative writing. Auslander recommended that Kogod establish a center dedicated to business communications, and the school found a donor to fund the center’s operations. The KCBC now is staffed with 15 to 20 people, including business students with strong writing skills and experts in business communications.
For large courses with many sections, the center’s staff often provides feedback on the first drafts of students’ papers. Such assistance helps persuade professors who might be concerned about the extra time it would take to grade additional writing assignments, says Auslander.
The center also helps with one of Kogod’s largest IT courses, which culminates in a competition. The KCBC helps students in their preparation, and then professors choose the best final team presentations in each of their sections. The center works with faculty to award prizes to the best student presenter, the best team presentation, and runners up. “Most recently, we added an individual writing project where students are evaluated on how well they know their audience and write with clear purpose,” says Auslander.
The KCBC also has begun providing feedback to entrepreneurs in the school’s business incubator who want to improve their business plans and elevator pitches. The center also helps faculty with their own studies, articles, tenure applications, and even TED talks.
The center recently saw its effects unexpectedly expand beyond the business school: Two former KCBC staff members, now Kogod graduates, went on to co-found Unfused, a nonprofit that uses videoconferencing to connect underserved high school students with college students who tutor them in writing. The graduates adapted many of the listening and role-playing skills they learned at the KCBC.
The center’s most important purpose, says Auslander, is to expose faculty to best practices in pedagogy to support communication skills building. Here are just a few practices that the center encourages faculty to adopt:
Designing progressive assignments. “A fundamental for students to learn to write well is to turn in iterative drafts, not just one big project at the end of the semester,” says Auslander. For instance, Kogod students in an introductory marketing course turn in three drafts of a research paper over the semester, which means that they have time to absorb and implement faculty feedback. “Many professors put all of their energy into writing comments on final papers that students never pick up,” she says. “It makes more sense to comment on early drafts, which helps students think and express themselves more clearly.”
Critiquing presentation skills. Professors who teach courses with oral presentations often dedicate class periods for students to come to the KCBC to practice public speaking skills. “We not only provide feedback, but also have student teams critique one another’s presentations.”
Incorporating peer editing. KCBC staff encourage faculty to integrate peer editing into each writing assignment. “Sometimes young writers need to get some distance from what they just wrote or said by evaluating someone else,” says Auslander. “It’s not necessarily the quality of their peers’ advice that has the most benefit, although that advice can be insightful. Students learn a lot just by being able to see their own work with fresh eyes.”
Giving “assignment makeovers.” The KCBC helps faculty apply best practices in writing and communications to what they’re already doing in class. In many cases, this means that clearer communication-oriented objectives and expectations can be added to existing assignments. Auslander has prepared a “before” and “after” example of a made-over assignment for a fraud and litigation course that Kogod professors can use as a guide.
Emphasizing revision. Some professors argue students should be disciplined enough to complete large assignments without intermediate deadlines. But by breaking assignments into smaller chunks on the syllabus, faculty more effectively focus students’ attention on the project and help them learn the crucial benefits of revising their work.
Use TAs effectively. For tips on integrating teaching assistants in ways that help students develop their communication skills, see "Tap TAs to Teach Writing."
The center’s philosophy—and one that Auslander believes is true for all schools—is that teaching communication skills is everyone’s job. “This is not something that can be outsourced— schools need to integrate writing and speaking assignments into every class,” she says. “Every professor in every discipline is a professor of writing. A finance professor can help students write more clearly about finance, for example. At the KCBC, we have a lot of tools and tricks we offer to help.”
To read more about the KCBC, visit www.american.edu/kogod/bizcomm. To learn about the nonprofit tutoring service Unfused, visit getunfused.com.