Can Your Students Interpret Numbers?

A popular saying in business is that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” While more businesses these days are relying on intuition and core values as well, it’s true that businesses have to have reliable numbers to be able to stay in business.

This makes it a good idea to give our students at least one assignment in which they need to present and interpret numerical data. I’ve been surprise lately, though, by how poorly my business writing students do this. Perhaps I’m getting a bit of a false read because most of the students in our Writing for Business classes are marketing, IT, and management majors (the students in the more numbers-based majors aren’t required to take this course). If my sample is skewed, I hope you’ll still find the following tips useful.

But first, here’s the situation that prompted me to write this post. The class had been assigned a report-writing task that involved interpreting data from a customer-satisfaction survey for a health clinic. One of the questions on the survey asked the respondents to rate the accuracy the bills they received from the billing office. The answers are shown in this graph:

UN 11.6 billing graph

To my consternation, all but about three of the students interpreted these results as positive! They looked at the columns, saw that the biggest ones were to the left, and thus deduced that the results were pretty good. So we had a discussion about context. Sixty people said their bills were never right? And another 140 said almost never? And another 319 said sometimes? I asked the class how many times they’d need to get an erroneous bill before seriously considering changing healthcare providers. Or how many phone calls to the billing office were probably being generated by this problem. Then they began to get it.

I see what happened as part of a larger issue: Our students are hesitant to think. They’re terrified of making mistakes, and they don’t realize that, to do well on their jobs, they have to problem solve, use their judgment, and put their ideas out there. This is especially the case when they’re asked to interpret information.

For the benefit of future classes, I drew up this list of tips for interpreting and commenting on numbers:

  • Consider the context. Findings that are positive in some situations could be alarmingly bad in others. Figure out what the numbers mean in terms of the problem you’re investigating.
  • Calculate percentages. Often it’s easier for readers to wrap their minds around percentages rather than raw numbers. So, instead of saying “245 strongly agreed” (out of 400), say “61.2% (245) strongly agreed.” (Formula: Divide the number of responses by the total number of participants.)
  • Combine categories of responses when that will be helpful. For example, if you’ve asked respondents to choose an answer on a five-point scale, with the two positive answers at one end of the scale and the negative ones at the other end, it may be more helpful to compare the total number of positive responses to the total number of negative ones than to call attention to just the most positive and most negative answers.
  • Use “majority” correctly. It means “more than half.” It doesn’t mean “those who chose the most popular response” (unless those who voted for the most popular response account for more than half of the respondents). Better yet, try to use more specific wording, such as “just over half” or “the large majority.”
  • Use “average” accurately. “Average” means the median response. (Formula: Add all the responses or ratings and then divide them by the total number.) You cannot say “the average response was ‘sometimes'” when what you really mean is that it was the most common response (the mode).
  • Use the word “most” with care. “Most” doesn’t really have a uniform meaning, but it needs to refer to quite a high percentage of the responses. You would not be justified in saying that “most” respondents chose an answer if only 61% of the respondents chose it. If 85% or more chose it, your use of this word would probably be acceptable.

I realize that this isn’t a very ambitious list. But I hope its overall effect will be to make my students more thoughtful and accurate when reporting numerical data, and I hope it will be of some use to your students as well. If you have tips to add to this list, or have a different way altogether of helping students interpret numbers, please share them.


The Bonuses of Assignments with Real Clients

This semester I was reminded anew of the advantages of giving my Writing for Business students real assignments—that is, assignments for real readers in real organizations to help solve real problems.

The class had been allowed to generate their own ideas for group report projects, and one group had chosen to find out how students in the recently phased-out Hospitality Management (HM) major felt about the way the phase-out had been handled. In helping this group tackle its assignment, the class discussed the following questions (each followed by the answer we decided on):

What should the purpose of the study be? Just to let the HM majors vent? Or something more constructive? We decided that presenting a report whose purpose was simply to state what hadn’t gone well wouldn’t achieve anything. Since the goal was to help an organization solve a problem, the authors needed a better thought-out, more reader-centered purpose. We agreed that the purpose should be to “help UC conduct phase-outs more effectively.”

Who should the reader(s) be? The undergraduate business dean? But it was unlikely that he would be undertaking many more phase-outs. And he already knew of many of the phase-out snags. We finally decided, after some research, that the vice provost in charge of academic planning for the university would be the most appropriate primary reader for our report.

Should we contact the reader before sending her the report, or just let her receive it cold in the campus mail? Though it was somewhat daunting to have to email a vice provost and describe the project, the group came to agree that they’d better let her in on what they were doing and invite her to offer any suggestions she had.

How should we frame the report in such a way that it appears useful, not just critical? It was tricky that the study would involve only one phased-out major. How useful could the study of one such major be? We decided that we would call the report “a case study.” That way, it would be clear that the data were for only one case but would suggest general points that could be applied to other cases. We also worked with some potential sample sentences to see how to turn overly negative wording into more neutral or even positive wording.

Should anyone else get a copy of the report? This generated our most intense discussion yet. I asked if the undergraduate business dean shouldn’t get a courtesy copy; The HM majors in the class said he didn’t need one since he was already quite familiar with the topic. “What if the vice provost receives your report and then wants to talk to him about it?” I asked. “Won’t he feel blindsided, or left out, or told on?” Reluctantly, the group realized that he must receive a copy of the report as well, so we decided that they would send him a copy (with a polite cover letter) when they sent the vice provost her copy. (I’m still not sure that was the ideal decision.)

The other groups had similar logistical and political issues to deal with. For example, one group was conducting an employee-satisfaction survey at a place where one of the group members worked, so the group needed to think carefully about how to involve the management and receive their blessing for the study.  Another group was researching how a nearby blood center could get more blood donations from students, so they needed to be careful to give due credit to the efforts the center had already made in this direction.

 Simulations (realistic case studies) can be very educational, particularly if they’re designed to help students learn certain skills—e.g., how to graph numerical data and incorporate it into a report, or how apply the basic plan for a negative-news or sales message. But they’re not likely to engage students as deeply in issues related to audience, purpose, and tone as real assignments are. Perhaps for this reason, my students do much better work on projects for real readers.

 Are you getting similar payoffs from having your class prepare their work for real clients? Do you have a great assignment to share or success story to tell? Or pitfalls to warn about? We’d love to hear your ideas.

Enough Online Résumé Tools to Make Your Head Spin

Veteran bcomm professor Marie Flatley, who tracks dozens of technology-related websites, recently sent us a link to a list of 20 “Great Websites to Help You Make a Résumé,” posted by the design-focused website The best part is, they’re all free (well, sort of).

They are definitely not all created equal. For example,

–Some, like Praux, offer many interesting design templates to choose from—and some, like Visual CV, do not.

–Some, like GigTide, may not actually be “free” (it appears that this site will host your site for free for only 7 days; then a monthly fee of $4.95 or more will kick in).

–Some, like CeeVee, are stronger than others on enabling you to connect to your accounts on social media sites (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter).

–Some, like Visual CV, are stronger than others at helping you integrate your online résumé with an overall online portfolio that can link to work samples and multimedia files. (A related point: Some, like Visual CV, are “more web 2.0” than others—meaning that they offer more opportunities for potential employers to interact with you and with your résumé.)

–Some, like How to Write a Resume, are stronger than others at giving you advice on conducting the job search overall.

These sites offer all sorts of possibilities for résumé/portfolio-building assignments—and could also be great material for a research/report project on a topic such as “Which of these 20 should our school’s career center recommend?” or “What are the relative advantages/disadvantages of these sites?”

You can decide which of these tools is best for which purposes. You might even find, after checking these out, that having your students use or another free website-authoring tool to create their online portfolios from scratch would be a better way to go.

Let us know what’s worked for you and your students along these lines.