Making Exam Review Fun with an “Escape Room”

Recently, I was surfing Pinterest looking for a creative way to review for an exam, and I came up several pins for escape rooms. None of them were for exam reviews (or even for use with college students), but they did inspire the idea for using an escape room as an exam review in my beginning business writing course.

The primary goal of the exam review was to reinforce concepts from the textbook’s three chapters on business correspondence (routine, good-news, or neutral messages; bad-news messages; and persuasive messages). A secondary goal was to provide a punctuation review. Students worked in groups to complete the review.

Creating the Escape Room

The premise of an escape room, in general, is that participants work as a team to use logic, answer questions, or complete a puzzle to escape their room or situation, usually in a limited time frame. For example, a scenario might be that employees are locked in a conference room by a diabolical boss who plans to abscond with company secrets worth millions unless the team stops him. The team would then have 30 minutes to save the day by finding the clues in the room that lead to the security code that unlocks the conference room.

To adapt this activity for an academic purpose, I decided that, for each chapter, the groups would need to punctuate a set of sentences correctly to get a code that they would then use to unlock that chapter’s review. Upon completing all three chapter reviews, students could escape from the classroom. The time limit was the 50-minute class period.

Creating the Code

I used the punctuation exercises in our textbook to create three sets of exercises. I color coded each exercise so I could more easily monitor each group’s progress, but the color coding is probably not necessary in a small class. Students had to work together to punctuate each sentence correctly and use the number of punctuation marks to create the codes. Thus, if students punctuated the sentences correctly, the first set of questions and the resulting code looked like this:

  1. Our company was founded on the principles of trust, honesty, and ethical business practices.
    The number of commas in this sentence: _2__
    The number of colons in this sentence: _0__
    The number of semicolons in this sentence: _0__
  2. Many companies allow employees to work from home; however, other companies question whether these employees can be productive if they are not working from the office.
    The number of commas in this sentence: _1__
    The number of colons in this sentence: _0__
    The number of semicolons in this sentence: _1__
  3. Employees who attend the training sessions will likely pass the certification exam.
    The number of commas in this sentence: _0__
    The number of colons in this sentence: _0__
    The number of semicolons in this sentence: _0_

The code to unlock the Chapter 8 review is

_2__   _0__   _0__   _1__   _0__   _1__   _0__   _0__   _0__

Completing the Review Questions

Once the students had the right code, they could unlock the 10 multiple-choice chapter review questions, which were located in Connect, the online learning platform that accompanies our textbook. The questions were taken from the chapter quiz bank and were password protected—and the password that unlocked the quiz questions, of course, was the code created by punctuating the practice sentences. If the students did not punctuate the sentences correctly, they could not access the review questions and had to revisit their punctuation. Once students accessed the review questions, they were required to earn a 10/10 on the review questions before I would give them the punctuation exercise for the next chapter.

When a group had they finished all of the review questions for each of the three chapters, they could leave class. The first group finished in just under 30 minutes; the last group finished in 50.

The escape room is adaptable to any learning environment. For example, course management systems such as D2L or Canvas allow for password-protected quizzes. If you prefer not to use digital materials, you could always have students present the code to you to get a hard copy of the review questions.

My students enjoyed the exercise. I hope yours do, too.

Do you have any creative exam review ideas? If so, please share them with us in the comments.

What Can You Learn from “The 17 Best Advertisements of All Time”?

In my email inbox recently was a link to a post on the Hubspot Marketing Blog that discussed the (arguably) 17 best ads of all time. Before you go look . . . see if you can guess what they are! And see if your students can!

This great post displays the ads and explains why the author, Lindsay Kolowich, chose each one (here, too, you can ask your class to guess why first). Taken together, they illustrate many important principles of good persuasion. Plus, in the middle of the post is a nine-step process for creating a great ad.

Students love talking about ads, and they can learn a lot from these. Enjoy!

A Class Exercise: How Do You Make Your Boss Happy?

I find myself in the fortunate position this semester of teaching Professional Writing Capstone, the culminating course for our professional writing program’s graduating seniors and MA students. In addition to doing projects for clients, we’re discussing how to make the transition from being a student to being a professional.


Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

And that’s how the topic in the title of this post came up. When a group of our advisory board members came to the class to share their advice on professionalism, one guest led off with “Make your boss happy.” Once the panel discussion was over and the guests had departed, I asked the class how they felt about this advice. More than one student said that it had rubbed her the wrong way, and I could see why: Especially nowadays, most students seek to work for organizations that embrace creativity, engagement, and the free exchange of ideas, not places that still abide by a strict, formal hierarchical structure.

And yet, unless our students plan to be entrepreneurs, they will be assuming a role in a hierarchical organization when they become employed, even if the organization has a relatively relaxed culture. They will have bosses, and their bosses will likely have bosses. So what does it mean in today’s more informal, employee-friendly workplace to “keep your boss happy”?

I asked the class to write answers to this question, as fast as they could, for about 5 minutes. Then we went around the room to hear at least one response from each student, with one student taking notes.

Here are the results:  How Do You Keep Your Boss Happy.

What do you think of this list? What answers do you think your students would come up with?

I’d recommend that you try this activity in your class. See how many of the items on our list your students come up with–and see what new ones they can add. Doing so will enable you to discuss important workplace lessons with your students–lessons that will strengthen their professional communication and help them smoothly cross that bridge from academia to the workplace.



Note to Students: Companies Can Have Ideologies as Well as Cultures

One of our graduate students and I have been busily researching corporate social responsibility (CSR) and related topics in preparation for a presentation we’re going to give at the ABC meeting in Dublin. Our reading has confirmed something that is becoming increasingly obvious: When companies become social actors and put their clout behind various social stands, their ideological dimension grows. This is a trend our students need to be aware of as they learn how to scope out the organizational contexts of their communications.

This past week, it was big news that Google fired an employee whose “anti-diversity manifesto” went public. Among the various conclusions one could draw from this news, one is that it is sometimes–maybe often?–unsafe for an employee to voice an opinion that departs from the social values of his/her company. For one thing, the opinion can go public, which can then embroil the company in a PR firestorm. But even becoming known as someone who isn’t pulling in the same direction as the company’s leadership can put one at risk professionally.

Millennials are particularly likely to support certain social causes and agitate for their employers to do likewise. According to a Deloitte study, 70% say that a company’s commitment to CSR “would influence their decision to work there,” and another study found that 73% “believe that businesses should not only take a stand about important issues, but also influence others to get involved in those issues.” They join a growing body of “social intrapreneurs,” who work for social change within and through their organizations. There’s a lot to be said in favor of social intrapreneurship–but expecting every company to welcome such values and behavior would be naive, and dangerous.

As Philip Kotler and Christian Sarkar point out, any given company’s involvement in social issues can fall anywhere on a continuum from regressive to progressive. Companies who participate in CSR are not the only social actors; many companies push back against various dimensions of CSR and promote more conservative, traditional business values. It’s imperative for a young employee, or job applicant, to be sensitive to a company’s social politics and realistic about how to communicate in that workplace. The engineer who was fired from Google accused the company of being an “ideological echo chamber.” One could argue that, to some extent, many companies can now be described this way.

We’ll be inviting those who attend our presentation to share their ideas for how to incorporate this topic into their classes. If you have some thoughts, please share them.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Some Gnarly Grammar “Rules”

Catching up on my reading this summer, I recently finished Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Pinker, a cognitive scientist and linguist, is not only the author of several previous bestsellers on language; he’s also the chair of the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel. So I believe we can regard his judgments on usage questions as sound.

Overall, his goal is to try to dispel the negativity that has come to surround “grammatical correctness” and to debunk many correctness myths. He distinguishes between “purists” (folks who naively believe that grammatical rules are like the Ten Commandments) and “experts on usage,” like himself, who understand that language and the rules that govern its use change over time.

Here’s what he had to say about the following issues that have caused me some confusion or consternation, and perhaps you as well:

–Questionable adverbs

We all know that modifiers of verbs need to take the adverb form . . . but is that always true?

The answer is no. Sometimes an adjective and adverb can have the same form, as in “a fast car”/”drive fast” or “a hard ball”/”hit the ball hard.” Pinker would also be fine with “drive safe,” “go slow,” “she sure fooled me,” “he spelled my name wrong,” and “the moon is shining bright,” since using the -ly form of these modifiers could seem “prissy.”

–Starting sentences with coordinate conjunctions

Pinker’s theory here is that grammar teachers of yore forbade starting sentences with “and” or “but” as a way to help students avoid fragments starting with these words. But that’s not a good reason to perpetuate the “rule,” in his view. He starts many sentences in this book with “and” or “but,” in fact, and sees nothing wrong with the practice as long as it seems stylistically appropriate.

–“Between you and I”

Pinker goes to great lengths to explain, on linguistic grounds, why this phrase is not grammatically wrong. But he concludes, still, that writers should avoid the expression, as it’s jarring to educated readers. Thank you.

–“Can” vs. “may”

Perhaps predictably, Pinker puts to rest the old rule that “can” should be used to refer to the feasibility of an action and “may” should be used to give permission to do the action. In his view, “the two words may (or can) be used more or less interchangeably” in the latter situation. (Pinker similarly skewer’s the distinction between “shall” and “will,” arguing that, except in a very few circumstances,” the former sounds “prissy.”)

–Dangling modifiers

Pinker asserts that “a thoughtlessly placed dangler can confuse the reader or slow her down,” invite “ludicrous misinterpretation,” and get the writer judged as “slovenly.” That said, he points out that, technically, the mistake is “not one of ungrammaticality but of ambiguity,” so his call would be to leave alone any unobtrusive danglers (as in “considering the hour, it is surprising that he arrived at all” or “looking at the subject dispassionately, what evidence is there for this theory?”).

–Use of possessives with gerunds

I’ve had students ask me if they need to use the possessive form of a noun or pronoun before a gerund (an -ing phrase acting as a noun), and I didn’t have a well-thought-out response. The answer, according to Pinker, is that the practice is based on spurious linguistic thinking—but that it has caught on enough to be appropriately applied, when possible, in formal writing. Hence, “I approve of Sheila taking the job” is fine in ordinary talk and writing, but “I approve of Sheila’s taking the job” would be the better version for formal writing.

He also advises that long and complicated agents are best left unmarked (as in this sentence: “I was annoyed by the people in line being served first,” not “people in line’s”), whereas simpler ones work well in the possessive form (as in “I appreciate your coming over to help”). I’m surprised, though, that, according to Pinker, the majority of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel was ok with “I can understand him not wanting to go.” Ugh. I think I’ll keep recommending the possessive form in such cases, especially in more formal speaking and writing. (Perhaps, if pressed, the panel would agree with me.)

–Conditionals (if-then statements)

I’m guessing that your students, like mine, have all but lost the ability to use the conditional tense correctly. Pinker’s distinction between “open conditionals” and “remote conditionals” might help us help them.

Here’s an “open conditional”: “If you leave now, you will get there on time.” It refers to an actual possibility for action. The “remote conditional” refers to a remote or hypothetical possibility, as in “If I were a rich man, I wouldn’t have to work hard.” The formula for this kind of sentence is to use the past tense in the “if” clause” and “would” or some other kind of auxiliary verb in the “then” clause.

–Use of “like,” “as,” and “such as”

Only after I left graduate school did I become aware that using “like” instead of “as” to introduce a dependent clause, as in “The committee conducted a comprehensive survey like we did,” was considered incorrect. But Pinker largely debunks this “rule,” which he calls “the product of grammatical ineptitude and historical ignorance,” since “like” can be a subordinating conjunction as well as a preposition. He narrowly grants, however, that “as” is the favored term in cases when the situation is formal. As with many of the issues he discusses, the educated ear must make the final call on this one.

“A related superstition,” he says, is that one must write “Many technical terms, such as [not like] cloning and DNA, have become familiar to laypeople.” False, he says—though, once again, the formality of the situation can make “like” sound inappropriate.

–Use of “than” and “as”

So which is right: “Rose is smarter than he” or Rose is smarter than him”? “He could not surf as well as she” or “He could not surf as well as her”? Here again, the difference is one of style, not grammar; the first versions “are more suited to formal language,” the latter “to writing that is closer to speech.”

Speaking of “than,” is it ok these days to say “different than the rest” instead of “different from the rest”? You can tell that Pinker is essentially fine with that—but the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel, by a slim majority, still stands by “from.”

Pinker also discusses split infinitives, prepositions at ends of sentences, who vs. whom, which vs. that, and issues relating to expressions of quantity, quality, and degree (e.g., is it ok to say “between the three of us”? “very unique”?). There are no surprises here. Essentially, as with the previous examples, he grants the importance of understanding what educated people prefer while also crusading against  “hypercorrectness.” Same with using “they” occasionally to refer to a singular antecedent (e.g., “anybody”). His short, spotty section on punctuation continues in the same vein, with the need for clarity and common sense winning out over excess rule-following.

After the long section on grammatical issues comes a section on diction. This section is especially interesting and useful in that it contains a 20-page table assessing various expressions (e.g., using aggravate to mean “annoy” or raise instead of rear) in terms of what purists think about them, how people commonly use them, and what he thinks. His solution for some of these disputes, here and in other places in the book, is simple: “Look it up” (in a respected, current dictionary).

I’m glad I read this book, but it’s not the kind of book you can take excerpts from to hand out to your class. The finer linguistic arguments get tiresome, and, as someone who grew up doing regular sentence diagramming, I find Pinker’s tree diagrams (the kind linguists use) not worth the effort it would take to understand them (he exhibits a bit of audience blindness here, as he seems to think these diagrams are a snap for laypeople to follow).

But I hope this post will help you feel more knowledgeable and confident when helping your students write well. You can also share with them the book’s central point about correctness: It is a constantly changing concept that depends, at any given moment, on widespread usage, not on the judgment of an anointed committee of grammar police. Yet the prevailing conventions should be heeded. As Pinker says, “Style still matters”; it “ensures that writers will get their message across,” it “earns trust,” and it “adds beauty to the world” in the form of pleasing use of language. I’m with him.

(Bad) Examples to Use on the First Day of Class

So you may have two questions:

  1. Why are you writing about the first day of class when the school year just ended? Answer: It’s never too early to collect great stuff to use in the next school year!
  2. Where have you guys been?! Your last post was in January! Answer: Sadly, yes–that was our last post. Then various calamities, in the form of burdensome administrative tasks and health problems, hit. But we have emerged victorious and, like many of you, are happy to have the summer to recover, rethink, and recharge.

The first day of class is a great time to start sensitizing students to the importance of clear, successful business communication, so over the summer, watch your in-box, social-media feeds, and mailbox (and listen up during meetings and other encounters) for real examples that can make the point.

Here’s one I’m going to use. It was in an email message that I recently received from an environmental-protection organization. Though the message was, in general, well written, the first paragraph had a major problem. I’m sure you can find it (the boldface type was in the original):

“With graduation commencements happening at colleges all across the country, many of your students are probably still wondering, ‘What comes next?’ That’s why I wanted to let you know that we will be officially closing applications for the Green Corps Class of 2018 on Friday, May 26th.”

Wait . . . is this a good-news or bad-news message?! Despite the negative wording of the emphasized sentence, the intended message–that there’s still time for students to apply for a job with Green Corps–is actually good. Ask your students how they’d rewrite the problem sentence to emphasize this good news. I’ll be they can do it–and bolster their self-confidence and decision-making skill in the process.

Another problematic message I received not long ago was the “teaser” on the envelope of a fundraising letter. It read “IMPORTANT RENEWAL NOTICE” and then “IMMEDIATE RESPONSE REQUESTED,” followed by this question, in bold red type: “Have We Done Something Wrong?

The teaser did get me to open the envelope, whose contents revealed that the sender was Habitat for Humanity. Though this is an organization that I feel positively toward (and have supported), I found the envelope’s screaming (typographically speaking) announcement and its whiny, guilt-inducing question very off-putting. Thankfully, the letter itself talked about helping families, without further efforts to make the reader feel bad–but by then I’d already determined not to support whatever organization had sent me this message.

It’d be very interesting, I think, to share this story with our classes (minus my particular reaction to the message) and see what they’d have to say about the text on the envelope. I’m betting that somebody will say it was unwise not to reveal up front that the message was from Habitat, since the organization, as a popular and respected nonprofit, should have traded more on their “cred.”  I’m hoping they’ll also find fault with the shouted “RENEWAL NOTICE” message. And of course, I’m hoping that they’ll regard the emotional-blackmail ploy used by the question as dangerous. (Yes, it may get people to open the envelope . . . but would any letter be able to counteract the negative reactions generated, at least for some people, by the question? Plus, how would the reader know if the organization had “done something wrong?” Or what should he/she do if he/she believes that the answer is “yes”? It’s a negatively worded invitation for feedback that goes nowhere.)

We know many of you also collect examples of communication gaffes. Please share these, as well as good examples that catch your attention. They’re a great way, maybe the best way, to “keep it real” in the bcomm classroom.

A New Year and a New Start

January is usually a time for resolutions, and it’s already February—but really, a good idea, the inspiration to do something different or better, or the opportunity to take a new path can happen any time of the year.

For my part, I try to do something new or different at least once a semester in one of my classes. I know…I know…. Our classes are full and overloaded, and we seem to continually add to our curriculum without ever taking anything out. Who has the time to do something new with so much already to be done?

But our students know when our material isn’t fresh or when we are not at our most energetic. If you are looking for an opportunity to recharge and refresh, why not consider the following?

Join the Association for Business Communication

Have your students participate in the annual writing contest. Read the newsletter. Join a committee. So many opportunities….

Attend an Association for Business Communication regional conference or international conference

Network, learn what your colleagues are doing in their classes, present your latest project, or just socialize with like-minded researchers and professionals. Did I mention that the annual conference in October is in Dublin? (That’s Ireland, not Ohio.)

Try a new teaching tool, such as Socrative

It’s an interactive app that lets students and you immediately assess student understanding in class. Plus, your students can use their phones or computers for purposes actually related to your course.

Introduce a new game

Are you teaching teamwork, conflict resolution, or negotiation? Try “Divide the Loot.” Students are given a set of conditions and then must work in teams to divide a pot of money equitably. Or try “Hanabi,” a card game where team members have to collaborate to create a winning fireworks display. Or try “You’ve Been Sentenced,” a board game that can help students understand parts of speech and sentence structure.

Find a real client

There’s nothing like a real client to get students interested and invested in a writing assignment. Many companies, both nonprofit and for profit, will welcome students’ research about a communication issue in their workplace.

This is a short list. Of course, trying all of these ideas at once might be overwhelming, but if you are looking for something new, why not try one or two?

If you have ideas to share, please do. We would be excited to hear what you are doing in your classes to keep your material fresh, current, and engaging.