Empathy Training: It’s Not Just for Millennials

Happy summer, everyone! We hope you’re relaxing, recharging, and collecting cool ideas for teaching bcomm in the fall.

An article just “came across my desk” (in an email from the Association for Talent Development) that I thought was relevant to us. I wrote earlier
about the fact that Millennials, because of the era in which they grew up, have difficulty putting themselves in other people’s shoes, especially people who are not like them.

Looks like they’re not the only ones who could use some empathy training. As the article points out, upper-level managers can also become more effective if they pause to think about things from their employees’ perspectives.

As we know, understanding others and meeting them where they are is a key–if not the key–to effective business communication. So helping our students be more empathetic is not just a way to make them more considerate and ethical (though it is that); it’s a critical part of their development as successful communicators. Exposing them to different kinds of audiences, encouraging their imagination of others’ circumstances, even having them role play–anything we can do to help them stretch their ability to empathize is all to the good.

While we’re speaking of execs . . . , check out this list of what they’re reading these days, according to McKinsey & Company. What’s striking to me is that most of these highly successful businesspeople aren’t just focused on business books. They’re reading history, fiction, biography, and other material that broadens their knowledge and helps them understand others better.

Let’s encourage our students to do likewise!

 

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.

 

Get Your Grammar On!

Yes, it is March 4, which can mean only one thing: It’s National Grammar Day! Founded by Martha Brockenbrough, who also founded The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, the day is, of course, devoted to the celebration of all that is good and right about grammar.

Here at UW-Eau Claire, we celebrate with t-shirts, signs, cookies, and a College of Business Facebook grammar contest that awards incredibly cool prizes.

Seriously, though, for many of us teaching grammar is a struggle. In part, the struggle comes from the fact that learning (and yes, teaching) grammar is perceived as drudgery because grammar is seen as a set of rules one must learn and follow. If we continue teaching grammar in a way that reinforces this perception, our students will continue to struggle.

I would advocate that instead we teach grammar for what it is: A beautiful, flexible, adaptable tool for ensuring that business writing is clear, precise, and audience focused. I love to teach grammar in this way because I know that my students understand the why and the how of grammar and feel empowered as a result. As one of my students exclaimed after we learned to punctuate patterns of phrases and clauses in ways that subordinated, coordinated, or emphasized ideas: “Mind blown.” They also laughed at my “drop the mic” move upon combining phrases and clauses to convey three different meanings. In other words, teaching grammar, punctuation, and usage as rhetorical strategy is much more meaningful to students than teaching these topics as rules.

For example, my strategy for teaching punctuation is as follows:

  1. Teach the definitions of the following phrases and clauses:
    • Independent clause
    • Dependent clause
    • Relative dependent clause
    • Prepositional phrase
    • Verbals (infinitive, gerund, participial)
  2. Provide students with a list of punctuation patterns (e.g. dependent clause followed by an independent clause; two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction, an independent clause with an embedded relative dependent clause, a prepositional phrase followed by an independent clause)
  3. Provide students with a set of ideas and ask them to combine them using one of their patterns.
  4. Punctuate sentences and discuss what the punctuation accomplishes rhetorically (e.g., the writer is giving equal weight to ideas or subordinating ideas).

Of course, including a few jokes and keeping the discussion light also helps. This week’s best joke came from a student. After I announced we would take a few moments at the end of class to look at dangling participles and how they affect meaning, one of my students said, “Are you telling us that they will just ‘hang out’ until we get to them?” It’s nice that they get into the spirit.

 

Keepin’ It Real for Millennials

Adjusting to the Millennial student has been a long, slow process for me, as it has for many of you, I’m sure. It has been almost like going through the five stages of grief, beginning with denial, which then changed to anger. As of last semester, though, I felt I’d entered something like an “acceptance” stage–and experienced a rejuvenation in the process. If that stage still seems far away to you, read on.

Image courtesy of FreePhotos. net

Image courtesy of FreePhotos. net

I’ve done a lot of reading on generations in the workplace, and on Millennials in particular. That reading, my teaching experience, and my experiences as a parent of two Millennials have led me to two main conclusions:

  1. Millennials are a distinct generation, though they hate to be thought of that way. As with the generations before them, their attitudes have been formed by the era in which they grew up. It is not fair or productive to blame them for this (we can gripe among ourselves all we want, though, in my opinion). And by the way, the better I get to know them, the more I feel that technology has been the main Millennial shaper, not hovering parents (and I’m not just saying this because I’m a parent!).
  2. They do have a work ethic; they do want to do a good job; they can be very respectful; they can even read and revise their work! But the key to bringing out their best qualities is keeping it real.

What I mean by that last comment is that . . .

Every piece of every writing assignment, every reading assignment, every homework assignment, and every class activity needs to have an obvious pay-off in terms of helping students learn, enjoy what they’re learning, and do well as future professionals.

I have found that trying to achieve this goal has required enormous discipline on my part. It means that . . .

  • Every in-class activity needs to be engaging, interesting, and relevant. Does showing PowerPoint slides full of bullet points meet this criterion? I don’t think so (unless the slides are broken up, often, with interactive exercises). I am trying to cull out all such class content to focus on what matters and help students learn what that is by doing things. By the way, focusing on what matters doesn’t mean pulling just the key concepts out of the book chapters. Often times, the examples and even the sidebars are important to students’ comprehension and development.
  • Every assignment needs to be carefully vetted for its “do-ability,” level of difficulty, amount of work required, and pedagogical pay-off. Millennials abhor wasting time–not because they’re shallow and lazy (though some are, as with previous generations) but because they have tons of stimuli coming at them every day. Also, most of mine have jobs, and the daunting job market makes them impatient with anything that doesn’t look like it’ll help them in their careers. (Fortunately, anything that you think is important is important to their careers. You just have to explain why.)

I have been amazed at how much work it has been to align my teaching with these criteria–which is another way of saying that I didn’t realize how much bloat I had in my class content and how sloppily thought-out my assignments were. Don’t get me wrong: students used to be fine with how I taught (I think). But now I try to make every minute count and every assignment completely purposeful.

I also give quizzes on the readings, require at least two drafts of every assignment, and assign homework that gets graded. But the students seem ok with all this, because they trust that what we’re doing is real and valuable.

That trust has been difficult to gain. It took, first, a willingness to change (it took me about three years to get to this point) and then a lot of new planning. I admit–it has been tiring. But I’ve never enjoyed teaching more.

This doesn’t mean that you won’t hear me complaining about “today’s students”! I still sigh and shake my head when a particularly confounding “Millennial moment” happens. In fact, my next post might be about those durned Millennials!

But I am beginning to realize that their questions, hesitancy, boredom, and outright challenges often reveal flaws in the usual ways of doing things. If we work with their “cut-to-the-chase,” “but why?” attitude, it can bring a new vibrancy to our teaching. And if we help them bring this attitude into the workplace in a constructive, respectful way, we’ll be doing them, and their future employers, a big favor

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?