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?

 

Celebrate Grammar!

Did you know that Wednesday, March 4, is National Grammar Day? If you’re looking for a lighthearted way to talk about grammar in your classes, you may want to observe this exciting holiday. Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl) hosts the 2015 National Grammar Day celebration. You can learn more about the history of the day and find tips for celebrating by visiting her Quick and Dirty Tips: National Grammar Day site.

Here at UW-Eau Claire, we have t-shirts and buttons we wear in honor of the day, a College of Business Facebook grammar contest (with really cool prizes), cookies decorated with punctuation marks, and an open house in our Business Writing and Presentations Studio. It’s a fun way to reinforce the importance of good grammar, and it’s just a great day all around. In my classes, we will also enjoy chocolate and a few grammar cartoons.

Do you celebrate National Grammar Day? If so, what do you do?

Submitting Résumés and Cover Letters by Email

A couple of weeks ago, our Business Communication Advisory Board met to discuss various workplace communication topics. We enjoy hearing from these professionals, who represent a variety of business fields—accounting, human resource management, education, local government, health care administration, and many more.

One of the main topics we discussed is what employers really want when they tell applicants to send their materials electronically. Does this mean they want the cover letter and résumé in the body of an email? Should applicants attach Word documents (a cover letter and a résumé) to an email? Should applicants attach PDF files or Word files? Is the email the cover letter, or should a separate cover letter be attached to the email?

Essentially, our board members said that how applicants submit their documents is not as important as the stories they tell within those documents. However, they shared the following thoughts regarding their experiences.

  • PDF files work better as attachments than Word documents, as the PDF file will likely always open and preserve a document’s format.
  • Fewer attachments are better. If both the cover letter and résumé are attached to an email, they should be in one PDF document.
  • Generally, a concise, well-written email will work for a cover letter.
  • Whether a cover letter is sent as an email or as an attachment, it needs to be short and concise and must tell the applicant’s story well—and honestly.
  • Applicants who send a cover letter as an email must be sure to keep the same level of formality that they would in an attached cover letter or printed cover letter. One board member says that applicants who send cover letters via email tend to use a tone and style that are too informal.
  • Applicants should keep in mind that employers use the quality of the writing in application materials—regardless of how they are submitted—as a measure an applicant’s communication skills and overall competence.
  • Applicants should send thank-you notes immediately after the interview and follow up if they have not heard from an employer within two weeks. Interestingly, while board members say email thank-you messages are fine, they prefer a handwritten note. After emails are read, they are likely deleted or lost in the volume of inbox messages. A handwritten thank-you note will likely sit on the interviewer’s desk and continually remind him or her of the applicant. Email messages, they say, work well if the employer has indicated that a hiring decision will be made within a day or two.
  • Board members say it is also fine with them if they receive both the handwritten and email thank-you note. Regardless, the message should thank the interviewer, address a high point or major qualification that was discussed in an interview (not recap the entire interview), and end with a confident expression of interest in the position.

Does all of this advice sound familiar? Sure. We have been sharing a lot of this advice with our students for years. However, it’s nice to tell our students that we know the advice will work because professionals in their (the students’) anticipated careers have told us this is what they look for.

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

Technology

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

Fonts

Color Theory

Visual Elements

Free Online Photo Editors