Problem-Based Learning: It Doesn’t Have to Be High Tech

Startup Stock Photos

Before I get into the topic at hand, let me apologize for the hiatus in our blog posts. As the fall semester and preparations for the annual Association for Business Communication conference got underway, Paula and I were both pulled under in a torrent of work.

But we’re back! And we’ve been collecting interesting topics and useful ideas for you.

Today’s topic, problem-based learning, was sparked by a session at the ABC conference that featured past winners of ABC’s Outstanding Teacher Award.

What Is It?

It’s all the rage, and it’s something we’ve been doing in bcomm for decades. It’s essentially using most of your class time for interactive problem-solving rather than lecture (click here to read just one of many available definitions).

Why Do It?

The short answer is that it generates better learning—certainly in an area such as bcomm, where being able to analyze and solve messy problems with indeterminate borders/participants is central. A less obvious but also compelling answer is that it encourages the weaker, less prepared, and/or shy students to participate more in class, as a recent opinion piece in The New York Times pointed out.

How Should We Do It?

Probably the most elaborate, time-intensive method is to use what people refer to as “the flipped classroom,” which involves posting learning material online and testing students on it, and then using class time for actual work on a communication problem. Paula gets great results with this method–and her online materials are awesome.

You don’t have to go all out, though, to reap the advantages of problem-based learning. Maybe someday I’ll have cool online activities like Paula’s, but for now, I quiz students on the assigned readings and, in going over the quiz, quickly review the key concepts for the chapter. That makes the students responsible for getting prepared for class, and it leaves about three-fourths of our class time for working on the current problem-based assignment.

But don’t underestimate the value of impromptu discussion of real bcomm problems that have come up in the news or in your own life. Early this semester, I was at my wits end trying to get a shoe store to return my phone calls about a pair of shoes that I’d paid for but had never received. Because this was on my mind when I went in to teach my Writing for Business class, I started the class by sharing my problem and asking the students what I should do. Their first thought was that I should just go to the shoe store, but since it’s about 30 miles away, I said I was looking for another solution. How about writing the corporate office? That sounded promising. But what medium should I use? Should I copy the store on the message? Should I mention in the message that the store needs a better system for keeping track of back orders that have been paid for?

Even the more lackadaisical students perked up when we were considering these questions about this real problem. So, since then, I’ve come in a few more times with communication situations that are good fodder for analysis. (P.S. The manager of the shoe store finally called me and gave me my refund—but I was right on the verge of writing that letter!)

In the session on problem-based learning at ABC, David Victor shared a group project that involves feedback from working professionals. He divides students into groups and has them analyze a cross-cultural communication problem. They generate possible solutions and then discuss/compare them. But the extra twist is that David sends the proposed solutions to several executives to evaluate. The most eye-opening part of the project is that the executives don’t agree, either, on any one best solution. It’s a great lesson on the roles that wisdom, judgment, and perspective play in the problem-solving process.

You probably already base your course largely on problem solving. Go even further in that direction! It’ll promote better learning and engagement for everyone—even the instructor.

Developing Students’ Team Skills

Everywhere I turn this week, I seem to encounter the topic of team skills in the classroom and in the workplace.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’s Job Outlook 2015 survey, teamwork and leadership tied as the skills most employers surveyed look for on a résumé. (Written communication and problem solving are second and third.)

I also recently met with our college’s career liaison, who just returned from visits at several internship sites. Employers consistently cited teamwork as the area in which interns need the most practice and development—using a calendar to coordinate a meeting, coordinating and participating in virtual meetings, speaking up during a meeting, being accountable to the team, and listening and taking notes.

As with learning any skill, students must learn team skills and practice them again…and again…and again in many contexts.  Students cannot learn all the skills they will ever need in one business communication or organizational behavior class, and expecting them to intentionally transfer the skills from these classes to other classes without our help may be expecting too much.

Instructors may say they do not have time to teach team skills students should have learned in earlier courses. But helping students practice and transfer their skills does not have to be so time consuming that it takes away from other course content. Further, promoting the transfer and development of team skills may eventually save the instructor and other students time as assignments and processes become more efficient.

Here are some strategies I use for building students’ team skills in my Advanced Business Writing class. If you have others to add to the list, be sure to let us know.

  1. Flip your classroom so that students work in teams during class time. Working in a flipped class lets instructors observe teams and provides instructors several teachable moments for developing team skills. If you’re interested in flipping, you may find our Flipping Your Classroom post helpful.
  2. If students are doing group work in class, visit the groups and ask questions related to both the students’ assignment and their team processes. What is working well? What needs to improve? If students have a conflict, what can you do to help them resolve it? Students may not know what is working or not until an instructor presses them for information, or they may know that a conflict exists but not know how to resolve it.
  3. If students are working in teams in class, require that they spend the last five minutes of class setting an agenda and goals for the next meeting and assigning individual responsibilities to be completed before the next class period. Have students spend the first few minutes of the next class reviewing the agenda and making sure everyone knows the goals for the day.
  4. If students are doing their teamwork outside of class, require that they establish agendas and goals for their meetings, as well as individual assignments for team members when the team is not meeting. Require students to submit the agendas, goals, and individual assignments as part of their project grade. If grading all of them becomes too cumbersome, tell students you won’t grade all of them but that you will randomly select dates on which you will grade them.
  5. Incorporate accountability checks throughout the team project. Many of us have students complete team member evaluations at the end of a project, but if the project is long, students don’t think about the accountability portion until the end or may not be aware that they are not doing their part until it’s too late to change. If you have your team evaluations in Qualtrics or other online survey method, distributing and scoring the evaluations is fairly quick.
  6. Encourage students to meet virtually via Skype, Dropbox, Google DriveGoogle+ Hangout, Google Docs (and Google Sheets, Google Slides, and Google Forms), or other technology.
  7. Provide students with resources they can read quickly to help with team issues. Here are links to some of the articles that have arrived recently in my various social media feeds:
    1. What to Do if Your Team Is Letting You Down
    2. 15 Characteristics of Extraordinary Teams
    3. Encouraging a Team-Working Environment
    4. 27 Ways to Refocus a Team
    5. How to Survive Virtual Group Work

So tell us…What are your best strategies?


(Arguably) The Fastest-Growing Genre in Business Communication: Content Marketing

If you flip through the journals and books in our field, you’ll find hardly a mention of it. But suddenly (it seems), it’s all over the place. It’s content marketing.

What is content marketing? The label doesn’t seem to indicate anything new. Don’t we always sell by using content?

The answer is yes—but content marketing differs from sales writing in that it gives potential customers free useful content to drive them to the actual site of the sale. In the words of the Content Marketing Institute, “Content marketing is the marketing technique of creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

An article in Forbes clarifies the concept with these examples:

  • Preparing an infographic on a hot industry topic and sharing it via blog post or Pinterest.
  • Posting a Web article on how to do something that your company is very good at (e.g., getting customers to subscribe to a company’s e-newsletter).
  • Uploading a podcast to iTunes that reflects on a topic your target audience cares about (and your company’s product/service can help them with).
  • Uploading a video to YouTube that does the same.
  • Selling a book that establishes your expertise in an area and drives readers to your company.

A content-marketing message resembles a white paper in that, typically using research, it explores a common problem for which the authoring company’s product is the solution. The difference lies largely in the format/channel. A white paper is a report in document format, whereas content marketing exploits all forms of media.

When preparing your fall syllabus, consider incorporating content marketing into your unit on persuasion. You could have your students, or groups of students, . . .

  • Prepare a report for a boss or client on how companies are using content marketing (or prepare a proposal for a company to get into content marketing).
  • Write a content-marketing blog post for a real or hypothetical company.
  • Summarize the key points of selected sources on content marketing, such as one of these five TED talks or articles on, the granddaddy of the content-marketing sites.
  • Create a social-media strategy for a company that includes one or more content-marketing channels.
  • Analyze the ways content marketers build interest and authority (students could choose a content-marketing expert to follow here).

If you add a content-marketing assignment to your syllabus, let us know how it turns out!

End-of-the-School-Year Resource Roundup

Yes, indeed, the end of another school year has arrived, and I am already thinking ahead to the next academic year. In planning ahead, I’ve also reflected on the past year and realized I have gathered a LOT of online resources related to business communication. I’m guessing many of you are like me in that you never really leave the classroom and are always thinking about the next semester, class, or lesson.

The articles below appeared in the news feed generated by my Zite app, and I then saved them to Pocket. (Zite and Pocket, by the way, are probably my two favorite apps.) You can also find more resources by following me on Twitter (@pjglentz) or viewing my teaching board on Pinterest. If you have any “must have” resources you’d like to share with us, please do!

Corporate Culture

Design & Typography





Leadership & Teamwork


Presentations & Oral Communication



 Technology & Communication


Flipping Your Classroom

Lately, I’ve received several articles in my RSS feeds, Zite feed, and elsewhere promoting the concept of the flipped classroom.

Two articles, Wong’s “Colleges Go Proactive with Flipped Classrooms” and Educause’s “7 Things You Should Know about Flipped Classrooms” are particularly helpful in explaining the concept.

According to these articles, in a flipped classroom, lectures and other content are delivered outside the classroom, usually via the Internet; work that is traditionally done outside the classroom (e.g., homework, group work) is done during class time.

The thought is that if students come to class with conceptual knowledge, they can spend their time in class in practicing skills or gaining applied knowledge related to those concepts. The instructor’s role is to facilitate the hands-on learning.

Wong notes that the flipped classroom is not a new concept but says technology has made using the flipped classroom much easier for instructors because they can put lectures online or work from electronic textbooks.

According to Educause, the flipped classroom presents many advantages. For example, students are not likely to get all of the information they need from listening to an in-class lecture once, but in a flipped classroom, they can visit a video lecture on the Web as many times as they need to. In addition, by using class time for hands-on work, instructors can gauge how well students understand the material. Further, in the flipped classroom, students must take charge of their learning as they become responsible for leading discussion, participating in a group, or completing their work. Challenges for teachers, however, include finding the time to create video lectures and motivating and training students to engage in the flipped classroom model.

I am guessing that many business communication instructors spend at least some of their time flipping the classroom. In my class, for example, students read the text and complete a guided reading quiz outside of class and then come to class with their computers, ready to draft or peer edit. I can visit with students and provide feedback before they have to turn in an assignment for a grade.

Do you flip your classroom? If so, what do you do? Please share your ideas. We look forward to learning from you.

And for those of you who find yourself on a semester break, may you enjoy your opportunity to recharge and regroup. We wish you a very happy and successful new year!

Social Networking (and Digital Marketing) Through Visuals: Say Hello to Pinterest

Has anyone asked you yet if you’re on Pinterest? I’ve been asked that question three times over the last few months, so I decided I’d better look into this new social networking tool and see what the buzz was all about.

A great quick guide I found is The Marketer’s Guide to Pinterest, in which Neil Patel, a top consultant in the digital marketing world, explains what Pinterest is, how and why people use it, and how businesses can use it to build brand awareness.

12-1-2012 11-47-10 AMBasically, Pinterest is a site where people share visuals on topics of mutual interest. Users create “boards” (theme-based areas) on their Pinterest site, where they then “pin” visuals that relate to the boards’ topics. To add to their boards’ content, they log into Pinterest, grab or upload an image they like, pin it to one of their boards, add a caption, and tag it with key words so others can find it. (Or, they can add a “Pin It” button to their browser’s bookmarking bar and use this shortcut while Web surfing. There’s also an app for mobile phones.) Pinterest visitors find what others have posted by searching topics they’re interested in. They can then follow people or collaborate on boards they like. The result is online communities built around particular interests.

According to Patel, Pinterest has grown very quickly and is now among the top five social networking sites. In fact, it’s currently “outperforming Facebook” in terms of visitor activity. Over 50% of the visitors are women between the ages of 25 and 40 who are looking for visuals related to fashion, crafts, and art.

An interesting point the article makes is that there has been a “shift in consumer behavior from search to discovery.” People still use “search” to find answers and solutions on the Web, but they’re also using the Web more and more to find inspiration on random topics. (Hence the addictive quality of such tools as StumbleUpon, which delivers recommended websites to subscribers based on their preferences and browsing history.) Pinterest is a great tool for capitalizing on this behavior: it’s free, it takes little time to maintain, and it enables you to reach an audience that’s already interested in what you’re promoting. You can even post videos to Pinterest—meaning that you could sell your brand or products in a cool slide show or movie.

I’m guessing that our visually oriented students would love an assignment based on creating Pinterest material. In fact, it’d be perfect for a collaborative bcomm project. Got any ideas?

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.