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?


A Quick Number Use Review & Worksheet

Finally…It’s summer…For many of us, it’s time to slow down, take stock, and perhaps think ahead to the courses we will teach in the fall. If you teach standards for using numbers and are looking for a quick review for your next course, here you go.

The standards for number use in the table below are summarized from Rentz, K., and Lentz, P. (2014). Lesikar’s Business Communication: Connecting in a Digital World, New York: McGraw-Hill. If you use the table in your course materials, we’d be grateful if you’d cite our book accordingly. We hope you find this Number Use Worksheet helpful as well. If you have any creative activities or methods for teaching number use, please share them with us.

Spell Out Use a Numeral
The Rule of Nine: Numbers nine and below (except as noted in the “Use a Numeral Column”): I ordered six boxes of pens. Numbers 10 and above: I ordered 12 boxes of pens.
A number at the beginning of a sentence: Twelve employees were promoted. Numbers in a series that refer to related items, where one of the items is ten or greater: Last week 12 employees were promoted, 8 retired, and 3 left the company.
A day of the month that appears alone or precedes the month and is nine or less: I can meet on the eighth. Days of the month when the month precedes the day or when the date precedes both the month and year: June 12, 2014, or 12 June 2014. (NOTE: You don’t need the “th” in these cases.)

A day of the month that appears alone or precedes the month and is ten or greater: I can meet on the 12th.

Amounts of money when the unit of currency is also spelled out: I spent twenty dollars on my dinner. Amounts of money when the unity of currency is represented by a symbol: I spent $20 on my dinner. (NOTE: When the dollar amount is a round number, you don’t need the “.00” after the amount.)
Indefinite numbers and amounts: About three thousand people live in this suburb; over a million people live in the entire metropolitan area. Percentages: Sales increased 3 percent last quarter.
Units of measure: (1) My new desk is 5 feet long and 3 feet wide. (2) The package I shipped weighed 3 pounds.
Fractions that stand alone: Nearly one-half of our employees participate in the wellness program. Mixed numbers: Our new office building is 5½ miles from our old building.
Legal documents use both the numeral and the word: The contract will expire in 60 (sixty) days.
Time can be expressed in either numerals or words as follows according to the rule of nine: 2:00, 2:30, 10 p.m., 10 o’clock, two o’clock. NOT: 2:00 o’clock

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

Resources for Teaching Document Design and Visual Communication

We live in a business culture where a document’s visual elements are as important as the text itself for conveying a writer’s (or presenter’s) message, whether the message is an email, a report, a brochure, a PowerPoint presentation, or a Web page.

As a business writing instructor, I find myself increasingly devoting time in my courses to document design and visual communication. What started several years ago as a brief review of some basic design and layout principles has evolved to a four-week unit on document design and visual communication incorporating discussion of both print and Web documents. Specifically, we examine information mapping/text placement, fonts, color theory, visual elements (e.g., photos, charts, illustrations), navigation, and usability. Students also learn to create a basic Web page and to use a photo editor.

Student projects vary each semester, depending on our client. This semester’s client is putting its printed catalog and planner online and needs advice on how to do so.

As I prep this spring’s unit, I thought I’d share a few of my best (or at least most interesting) sources. Some I use to create content for lectures, while I use others to add interest to the class discussion. If you have sources to share, please do!

Information Mapping/Text Placement


Color Theory

Visual Elements

Free Online Photo Editors

PechaKucha What?

Those of you who were at the ABC Midwest-Southeast meeting in Louisville a couple of weeks ago may have attended a presentation or two about (or using) PechaKucha. PechaKucha (Japanese for “chatter”) is a delivery format in which a presenter delivers images in 20 slides, spending only 20 seconds narrating each slide. Because slides advance automatically after 20 seconds, presenters must stick to the time limit, meaning that the entire presentation lasts only 6 minutes, 40 seconds.

Why use PechaKucha? How might it help students in the business communication classroom?

  • PechaKucha forces presenters to really think about their main points and stick to them. The time limits on the slides ensure that presenters do not get off on tangents or extensively elaborate on their topic.
  • Because the slides contain mostly images rather than text, presenters avoid the trap of reading slides to their audience and instead focus on the delivery of their message. Another benefit, of course, is that audiences are not subjected to a mind-numbing reading of the slides and then left wondering why they attended a presentation when they could have read the presentation on their own.
  • We all know the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. Because PechaKucha relies on images, audiences may be more likely to recall a main point or idea if they can associate it with an image rather than with a lot of words or lines of text.

To see an example of PechaKucha, visit the PechaKucha Web site and check out Greg Judelman’s 18 Tidbits on the Design of Change. You can learn the 18 tips in 20 slides in 6 minutes, 40 seconds…impressive and effective.

Is PechaKucha right for every business presentation? As with any communication channel, PechaKucha should be used if it is right for the audience, purpose, context, and content for a presentation. Do you use PechaKucha in your classes? If so, tell us about it.

Classroom Resources: Copyright Law

Every semester when my students and I talk about citing sources, we discuss the difference between citing sources and having permission to use information, visuals, or other artifacts in their work.

Of course, when writing a paper, developing a presentation, or creating other work for their classes, students can usually just cite the source to sufficiently acknowledge others’ work. However, when students enter their professional careers or even when they work on behalf of student organizations, it is often not enough to cite the source when they use others’ work; copyright law requires that they must also have permission to use the work (e.g., using others’ company logos in a flyer for a student organization fundraiser).  This distinction between citing a source and having permission to use the work is one that is tricky for some students (undergraduates and MBAs alike) to understand.

Fortunately, the folks at Educational Technology and Learning provide “7 Outstanding Web Resources for Teachers and Students to Learn about Copyright Issues.” Among these sources are Teach Copyright, Copyright Advisory Network, Center for Social Media, Copyright Confusion, Creative Commons, Copyright 101 for Educators, and Teachers First.

The best part? You don’t have to be a lawyer to understand the information! If you have other resources, please share them with us.

The Art of Giving (Welcome) Feedback

In the latest issue of T+D (training and development), the magazine of the American Society for Training & Development, is an article by consultant Philip Friedrich entitled “Feedback as a Gift.” He makes the excellent point that “if people view feedback as a gift, it becomes more valuable—both for the giver and the receiver.”

We bcomm teachers often have our students give each other feedback—and we certainly give a lot of it ourselves. Friedrich’s article has gotten me thinking about how we can all make this process more productive.

His advice for the giver?

• “Be clear about the ‘why’ for feedback.” This reminder helps us stay focused on the larger goal of doing something positive for the receiver—not just saying “you screwed up” or “this is wrong.” Harking back to my post of two weeks ago, we should remember the larger goals of our feedback and, with those in mind, approach the feedback-giving task with confidence and goodwill, not with dread and negativity.

• “Ensure the receiver is receptive.” Here Friedrich talks about being sure that the recipient is ready to hear constructive suggestions—that he/she wants to improve his/her performance and understands why doing so is important. The timing also needs to be as appropriate as possible. Offering suggestions “in a manner that will enable the other person to understand that he is valued” will increase the recipient’s receptivity.

• “Make sure it fits.” In other words, tailor the advice to the particular recipient. And avoid judgmental language; “the best fit . . . is achieved by being specific and objective about what you saw or heard,” or read.

And the receiver?

• “Be receptive.” Don’t judge the contents of the gift prematurely. Set aside defensiveness so that you can give the feedback a chance to help you.

• “Check the fit.” Think about ways that you can benefit from the feedback. As Friedrich says, “ask yourself ‘How and where can I use this?’”

• “Show appreciation.” Hard as it is sometimes, try to see the thoughtfulness behind the offer of feedback. And say thank you; as Friedrich says, graciously accepting helpful feedback will help ensure that you’ll continue to get more.

It might be useful to review this advice with your students before launching your next peer-editing session. It could be good preparation, too, for a writing assignment that consists of giving feedback to an employee, coworker, or even supervisor on a piece of writing he/she did, the way he/she handled a meeting, or some other workplace task that he/she performed.

As teachers, we can also benefit from Friedrich’s reminders. Viewing paper grading as giving helpful feedback rather than simply catching errors helps keeps the “gift exchange” more positive for everyone. Some persuasive words at the start of the term about the benefits of welcoming feedback—words backed up by well-chosen examples of the power of (mis)communication—wouldn’t hurt, either.