Getting Ready for a New Semester

Where has the summer gone? I don’t know, but I do know that the time has come once again to think more carefully about what I will do in my classroom this fall. The following links have come through my various newsfeeds and social media accounts. I am finding them useful as I prepare my fall courses and hope you do, too. Of course, if you have links to material you think we might enjoy, please send them our way. Happy planning!

Syllabus & Course Design

Course Delivery

Student Competencies

Productivity & Assessment


Reinstating My Syllabus Quiz

Ahhh…The end (almost) of another semester…As always, teaching provides its rewards: great students, opportunities to try new and different ideas, the satisfaction of seeing the graduating seniors prepare for their first post-college jobs…the list goes on.

And yet this week has also been a week of emails beginning with some variation on “I don’t think I’m passing, and I need to graduate. Is there any way I can turn in the assignment I missed last February?” or “Sorry I wasn’t class, but I had to work on a presentation for another course. Can you tell me what I missed?” or “Could you tell me how much this assignment counts toward my final grade?”

For my part, I see these questions as an opportunity to teach students to use their resources and to approach their work more seriously and with a greater degree of maturity. I remember having some success in promoting student responsibility by using a syllabus quiz at the beginning of the semester, and I’m thinking I will bring it back next fall. Here are some of the quiz questions from the various courses I teach. If you use a syllabus quiz, please share your experience with us.

  1. You wake up ill and cannot attend class. You email me before class to tell me about your illness and bring a doctor’s note to the next class period. Which statement below reflects how the absence will be recorded?
    (a) The absence is excused (doesn’t count toward the three you are allowed) because you notified me before class and have a doctor’s note.
    (b) The absence counts toward the three you are allowed during the semester.
  2. You had an assignment due on Monday, but you were so busy studying for exams that you forgot to turn it in. Then you had a really busy week at work and some exams the following week as well. It’s now ten days past the deadline, and you remember that you still haven’t submitted the assignment. What should you do?
    (a) Turn the assignment in and take the late penalty.
    (b) Nothing—late work must be turned in within one week of the deadline.
  3. What is the grade you need in this course to meet the College of Business requirement for written communication?
    (a) A- (A minus)
    (b) B- (B minus)
    (b) C
    (d) D- (D minus)
  4. If you miss class and need to get the information we covered, what should you do?
    (a) Stop by my office for a recap of the lecture and all of the other topics we covered during class.
    (b) Get the notes from a classmate and check D2L, the course schedule, and your email for announcements and deadlines.
    (c) Stop by my office for a recap of the lecture but check D2L, the course schedule, and your email for announcements and deadlines.
  5. You’re getting ready to hand in your assignment. In glancing at your work, you notice that you have a typo (-5 according to the rubric) and that you used “as soon as possible” instead of a firm deadline in the conclusion (also -5). You also notice that the print quality isn’t great (-3). The assignment is worth 50 points. Which of the statements below represents your best option for earning the most points.
    (a) Turn the assignment in as it is so that you avoid the late penalty.
    (b) Correct the errors and turn the assignment in late, knowing you’ll have to take the late penalty.
    (c) Turn the assignment in but explain to me either in person or by email where the mistakes are and how you would correct them if you had the time.
  6. You earn a 93 percent in the course; however, you have missed class five times. What will your final course grade be?
    (a) A
    (b) A-
    (c) B+
    (d) B
    (e) C
  7. Which of the following assignments counts 30% toward your final grade?
    (a) Formal report
    (b) Web page
    (c) Employment portfolio
    (d) Mid-term and final exam
    (e) Short report to your client

Creative Final Exam Ideas

Before we get to the main attraction…If you have not yet submitted your conference proposal for the Association for Business Communication’s annual conference in New Orleans next October, you still have time. Proposals are due April 22. You can find more information at the ABC Web site. It’s always a great conference for networking, socializing, and learning about current research and practices in our field.


‘Tis the season for final exams. If your school requires final exams, you probably get to this point in the semester and wonder about creative options for what can otherwise seem like an exercise in futility.

In December 2011 I posted the final for my Advanced Business Writing class in which students report to me what they believe they learned in the course. As I searched the Internet this semester, I discovered several other creative options for final exams and have included the links below. Though none of these Web sites address business communication specifically, they do inspire some ideas for final exams in business communication that demonstrate student learning, provide for some fresh and fun (at least to me) options for assessment, and—perhaps best of all—remove some of the stress and monotony for both the instructors and students:

Research Symposium or Juried Poster Session

In classes such as my Advanced Business Writing course where students spend much of their time writing a formal report for a real client, this option presents some interesting possibilities. In a research symposium or poster session duried by their peers, students could demonstrate their understanding of the client’s problem; articulate their purpose for writing; talk about the primary and secondary research they uncovered; and reflect on what they learned about audience, purpose, tone, style, etc.

Service Learning or Other Community Connection

Students use what they learned in class to conduct interviews and report findings, present a communication workshop to a community organization, or otherwise share what they have learned with those outside the university/college community.

Student-Generated Exams

Students submit questions of any type for the final, along with the answers. (An aside:  I did this once for a regular exam. I thought the questions were great—thoughtful and challenging. However, I was not prepared for some of the incorrect answers that accompanied the questions, though these did give me some insight to how students were processing information.)


As a final assignment, students submit a final professional employment portfolio that contains assignments from the semester.

Super-Sized Multiple Choice Questions

Instead of having students simply choose an answer, instructors let students explain their answers. According to the University of Minnesota’s Center for Teaching and Learning, this option does not penalize good students who choose the wrong answer just because they have a more sophisticated understanding of the course material. According to the University of Minnesota, only a few students will take this option, which means this practice does not require a lot of extra grading.

A Video Presentation, App, or Podcast

If you prefer not to grade a lot of written work, a final exam where students show what they’ve learned via some type of communication technology might make for a more interesting finals week. The idea is that students perform what they have learned rather than write answers to traditional exam questions.

Three-Tiered Exams

This idea comes from Becky Ances’s blog on her experiences teaching English in China. For their final, students choose a set of behaviors that result in a score in the 80s, another in which the resulting score is in the 90s, and a final behavior in which the student gets a 100. Business communication instructors might consider what such behaviors would look like in a bcomm final exam and let students choose accordingly.

Do you have a creative way to administer your final exams? If so, please share it with us.


A Classroom Case: “This Embarasses You and I”

Some of you may have seen the recent article “This Embarrasses You and I” by Sue Shellenbarger. Shellenbarger discusses the impact of informal communication (e.g., through email, Twitter, and texting) on the use of standard grammar in the workplace. She cites one survey in which 45% of 430 employers say they provide some kind of remedial writing training to employees. Other employers hold competitions to try to improve employees’ grammar, while some require spelling and grammar tests as terms of hire.

Also included with the article are a short video interview with Shellenbarger (“Managers Fight Grammar Gaffes at Work”) and an interactive, 21-question grammar quiz.

The article and video present a classroom opportunity to discuss the importance of good grammar to one’s professional image and the need to tailor one’s language to the audience and occasion, while the interactive quiz might challenge some students’ perceptions of their grammar skills.

However, if you’re looking for something more extensive, the Wall Street Journal’s Weekly Review: Accounting” provides a more in-depth case based on Shellenbarger’s article. Discussion questions range from the introductory to the advanced. These questions are accompanied by a small-group assignment requiring students to take the interactive quiz, work with group members to determine the reasons for their errors, and analyze which errors are most common among group members.

If you have other suggestions for using this article in the classroom, please share them with us.

Many thanks to Meg, my colleague, for passing this information along so that I could share it with you.

Class Assignment: Creating an Employment Portfolio

Every semester I have my students create employment portfolios. The assignment serves two purposes: 1) to help students gather their employment documents and best work for discussion during an interview and 2) to provide students a self-check of what they have accomplished compared to what they think they have accomplished during their college careers thus far.

Creating the portfolio is easy. Here are the instructions I provide to my classes. The points assigned in any given semester depend on the other assignments in the class and the weight I wish to give the portfolio toward a student’s course grade.


  • Hard cover three-ring binder in a professional color (e.g., black, burgundy, gray, navy)
  • Sheet protectors
  • Tab dividers that extend beyond the sheet protectors (look specifically for these; not all tab dividers will extend past your sheet protectors)
  • Labels for your tab dividers (usually these come with the tab dividers). You must type the labels.
  • A formatted resume
  • A reference sheet with information on three references
  • A letter of reference from a superior. Do not wait until the last week of class to ask for this.
  • A description of your degree program listing all of the courses required for your major. This is not available on the Internet. You will find printouts of these outside departmental offices.
  • An official transcript.
  • Three writing samples; create descriptions for your samples telling what the sample is; where, when, and why you wrote it; and what skills/abilities the sample shows.
  • Three samples of other work; create descriptions for your samples telling what the sample is; where, when, and why you wrote it; and what skills/abilities the sample shows.
  • Any other awards or certifications (optional)

Assembly of Your Portfolio

  •  Create a title page with your name and a title indicating that this is a professional employment portfolio
  • Create a table of contents
    Note: Your title page and table of contents do not need tab dividers
  •  Put all documents in sheet protectors. You may place two sheets of paper in one protector. Documents longer than 10 pages may be placed in one sheet protector or stored in the back pocket of your binder.
  • Put your documents in your binder in the following order: resume, references, letter of recommendation, transcript, degree program, three writing samples, three other examples, any other awards or certifications
  • Create a title sheet for your writing and work samples describing what the sample is; where, when, and why you wrote it; and what skills/abilities the sample shows.
  • Insert tab dividers between sections, making sure to type your tab labels. Use the labels that come with the dividers, and make sure the tabs extend past the sheet protectors. The labels must fit the tabs.
  • Make sure your portfolio creates a positive, professional first impression.
  • Turn your portfolio in sometime on or before class time on the due date provided in your course schedule.


  • Required materials = 5 points for each item; points are deducted if any materials are of poor quality, contain typos, or are otherwise unprofessional.
  • Assembly = 5 points for each step; points are deducted if the steps are not followed or if they are not followed well and result in an unprofessional appearance.

If students struggle with anything in this assignment, it is how they might use portfolios in an interview. I tell students that they will need to show the portfolio—that an employer is not likely to ask what they’re carrying around in that binder. To help students become comfortable talking about their work, on the day portfolios are due, we have a show-and-tell, where students present their portfolios to a small group. While they are presenting, I visit each group and ask the students questions about their work.

Feedback from alumni, employers, and students has been positive. Most students take pride in their work and turn in portfolios that far exceed my expectations.

I have not assigned electronic portfolios, though we have discussed the benefits of LinkedIn and VisualCV (which is no longer in business) for this purpose. The goal for this assignment is to provide students with something tangible to use in an interview.

If you have used a similar assignment or have experimented with electronic portfolios, please share your experience.

The Crib Sheet: A Different Kind of Final Exam

A few semesters ago, my  friend Jessica, an instructional designer, clued me in on a creative way to give the final exam in my Advanced Business Writing course.

Instead of writing an exam and having students respond to my questions, students tell me what they have learned in the course. I do provide some structure so their responses reflect course objectives and learning goals, but generally, students are on their own to tell me what they have learned.

The exam takes the form of a crib sheet. The instructions to the students are as follows:

Format & Design:

  • Fit the crib sheet into 2 – 4, 8 x 11 pages.
  • Be sure the document is visually appealing.  The layout is up to the you, but it should reflect principles of readability and document design we discussed in class.
  • Create the crib sheet in any software you wish (MS Word, MS Publisher, InDesign), but submit it in .pdf format to the D2L dropbox by Thursday, December 22, at 10 a.m. (-5 if the file is submitted in any other format).


  • The crib sheet must contain information on these topics:
    • Formal reports
    • Document design
    • Instructions
    • Writing for the Web vs. writing for print
    • News releases
    • Style
  • The crib sheet must contain at least five “take away” items under each topic that you want to remember or that you think you might need to refer to if you were asked to create these documents in a job, classroom, or internship setting. In the case of the course style guide, you might include elements of the guide that you find tricky to understand or that you tend to forget. You may include more than five items under any topic.
  • The information must be in your own words (don’t copy and paste from the notes or PowerPoints or copy directly from your textbook).
  • The information must be accurate.

Tone, Style, Correctness

You will also be assessed on the following:

  • Spelling
  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Compliance with the course style guide
  • Mechanics
  • Professional tone and style

Students seem to enjoy this exam format. Many of them use Smart Art, shapes, color, graphics, or a brochure-type layout—anything that helps them visually organize and present the information they want to take away from the course.

Grading for this assignment is easy and quick. In my experience, students are fairly engaged in the exam and want to do well so that they can use the exam beyond the course. Give this a try. We would like to hear how it works for you. If you would like to see a sample exam, please email me at

Making Online Exams More Secure

It’s that time in the semester—time to think about final exams. If you teach online or have otherwise had the opportunity to give exams online, you know that securing the exam can be tricky. For my part, I assume students will be using their books and notes as they take the exam; however, the exams are still challenging and assess students’ mastery of the material. Here are my best tricks for securing my exams and promoting individual efforts.

Define the Rules for Taking the Exam

Does your school have an honor code or academic honesty policy for taking online exams? Do you expect students’ efforts to be individual ones? If you do, make the policies explicit.

Create Multiple Versions of the Exam

This is much easier than it sounds. My school uses D2L as its course management system, but I am guessing this will work in any system. For each question on the exam, I create three variations on the question—one question three ways. For example, if I am assessing trite expressions, each variation on that question will include a different trite expression. D2L randomizes the questions, so the odds are that even if students are trying to do the exam together, they will likely get different exam questions. In addition, I also randomize the answers within each question. I know writing multiple versions of a question seems like a lot of work, but many textbook test banks have multiple questions on any topic, and once you have created your pool of test questions, you can auto generate your exam each semester rather than writing a new one.

Set a Time Limit

Setting a time limit and penalizing late submissions discourages students from looking up every answer; they just do not have time. I let my students know of the time limit, let them know the late penalty, and encourage them to study as they would in a face-to-face course. How much time I give them depends on the nature of the questions. Generally, 30 – 40 minutes per 60 multiple-choice questions and 20 minutes per long-answer question or 5 short-answer questions will work.

Vary the Question Types

Using a combination of multiple-choice, long-answer, and short-answer questions lets you see individual effort more clearly and gives students a wider array of opportunities to demonstrate what they know.

Ask Questions That Require Application of Knowledge

Asking students to apply what they know means that they cannot readily look up information in a textbook. For example, rather than asking students for the definition of “parallelism,” ask students to select which sentence in a list of sentences is parallel.

I am guessing many of you have strategies that work well. If so, please share them with us.