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.


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.

Guided Peer Editing

One of my favorite activities in my beginning business writing class is peer editing. When I first started the activity, I noticed that several students would frequently provide unhelpful feedback such as “I like it” or “It looks good to me.” It’s not that they were being lazy or apathetic. They really did not know how to articulate what was good about a document or what needed improvement.

To help them, I developed a guided peer editing worksheet. The result has been that students give more and better feedback and are more confident peer editors. In addition, because the worksheet is based on the grading rubric, students look at their own work more critically as they revise their drafts for a final grade.

 Training them to be peer editors, of course, requires more than the worksheet. For starters, I do expect that the draft represents a good effort, even if that effort is truly misguided—that’s what a draft is for. I also tell students that a peer editor is not a “document fixer.” The peer editor’s job is to raise questions and issues the writer may have not considered. Besides, the peer editor may give bad advice. Students need to know that everything in the final document is the result of the writer’s choices, whether or not those choices are the editor’s as well.

I’ve attached my peer editing worksheet for a negative-news assignment. It is easily adaptable to routine messages, persuasive messages, reports, résumés, and cover letters—really, any document.

Enjoy! If you have peer editing activities that work for you, be sure to share them.

Using a Course Style Guide

If you do not use a course style guide, I encourage you to try one. In addition to clearly communicating your expectations for students’ work, a course style guide helps students polish and refine their writing and promotes consistency in their writing throughout a course. Furthermore, a style guide is a great way to help students think about writing for multiple audiences—the audience established in an assignment prompt and the instructor who grades the assignment.

Here is my Advanced Business Writing Style Guide, which you are free to use and adapt as you wish. As you create your own guides, you may want to do the following:

  •  Address only the issues of greatest need. What works as a guide for one group of students may not work for another group. One of my colleagues, for instance, specifies font type, font size, and margins for assignments in her beginning business writing course. These are not issues for my students in my advanced writing course, so I don’t address them in the style guide.
  • Keep the guide short. If it’s too long, students will ignore it. How long is too long? My guide is four pages, and I’ve found this is about as much as students can attend to in editing any one paper.
  • Introduce students to the guide by reviewing not only the principles in the guide but also your reasons for including them. My experience is that if students know why I want them to do something, they are more likely to remember to actually do it. Otherwise, the style guide appears to the students as a list of my personal pet peeves rather than standard bcomm practices. (Admittedly, though, “please feel free to” does drive me nuts.)
  • Provide practice editing exercises so that students can identify style guide violations in practice before they have to edit their own documents for a grade.
  • Make sure students understand the terminology in the style guide. For example, in my style guide, I use terms such as “independent clause” and “dependent clause.” Students learn these concepts in our unit on rhetorical punctuation, so I know they know (or should know) what the terms mean.
  • Make students accountable for style guide violations. For instance, in my most recent report assignment, students lost 10% on the assignment if they had more than five style guide violations. After I returned the report, I required that students revise all style guide violations by typing the sentence with the error, identifying the error, and then revising the sentence.

Students do get frustrated at having to follow the style guide, but several of my students commented after turning in their report revisions that they were able to see how much tighter and more professional their writing has become as a result of following the guide. I even get the occasional report from alums that they still use the style guide at work or have created their own to guide their (and their coworkers’) writing.

If you have a course style guide or have suggestions for making one, please share them.

Rubrics, Anyone?

As I begin my first week of class and attempt to get organized, I am once again looking my grading rubrics and once again pondering which style and format work best. I switch my style frequently in my quest to find that perfect fit. Rubrics can be a lot of work to create, but experimenting with various assessment styles and strategies has really helped me think about my assessment loop and how my assignments and evaluations meet course and assignment objectives. Though I’m still not sure how a rubric saves a pathological editor time when grading the content and writing of students’ documents, I do think rubrics are essential for efficiently creating a shared understanding between the instructor and student of how well a student’s work meets an assignment’s objectives.

One of my favorite tools for developing rubrics is the rubric generator available at Rubistar. Though primarily meant for K-12 teachers, the site contains a number of customizable templates that work well for creating rubrics for bcom assignments. I developed this Routine Message Rubric using Rubistar. This rubric has a 4, 3, 2, 1, 0 grading scale, but I’ve also used A, B, C, D, and F; or Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair, and Poor. I’ve also seen scales that assess from an employer perspective: Impresses Employer, Satisfies Employer, etc. As long as the expectations and criteria are clear, any scale would seem to work. Some rubrics may also weight categories in the scale if an instructor wants, for example, to count content more heavily than grammar toward a student’s score.

In addition to assessing the usual written and oral communication assignments, many instructors are also assigning discussion board posts, wiki submissions, blog posts, podcasts, PowerPoints, video projects, and multimedia projects. The Online Professional Development Office at UW-Stout offers excellent rubrics for many of these types of assignments, and my good friends in the College of Business’s instructional design office have shared the following discussion board rubrics with me to share with you:

Discussion Rubric 1
Discussion Rubric 2
Discussion Rubric 3

As always, if you have materials or comments to share, please do. If you have topics that you would like to see us address, please tell us those as well.  I hope your school year is off to a great start.