Turning Students Into Writers

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Thursday, October 1, 2020
By Bonnie Auslander
Photo by iStock/DragonImages
If students are to become talented leaders and critical thinkers, they first must deepen their skills as writers.

As I prepared this article, I went through several drafts and invited feedback from several readers before it was submitted to a publication. This process forced me to clarify my thoughts on my topic. By pursuing publication, I invite others to read my argument. Through all of these actions, I am practicing what it means to be a writer.

As instructors, we hope that our students, like us, will put their writing through several drafts. We would like them to seek out and incorporate feedback as they revise their work, using that process to clarify their thoughts on important issues. We want them to be motivated to publish their thoughts. And, yet, so many of our students do not take any of these steps in their written work.

We work to improve our writing over the course of our careers. Why should we not help our students do the same? Our students will not become adept at writing until faculty change how they teach this critical skill—or until business schools change how they reward faculty who make the teaching of writing a priority.

The pandemic has only heightened the need for us to prioritize writing skills in our classrooms. If you have been confused by written guidance from your college or university during COVID-19, you know exactly what I mean! In the months and years to come, it will be more important than ever for business school graduates to be not only strong oral communicators, but strong writers.

Why Writing Matters in Business

Before we discuss tactics, let’s briefly examine why it’s worth it to teach writing as part of the business curriculum. The 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) explains that assigning writing ensures that students will “grapple more with course ideas both in and out of the classroom.” The NSSE report emphasizes that when institutions provided students “with extensive, intellectually challenging writing activities, the students engaged in more deep learning activities … such as analysis, synthesis, and integration of ideas from various sources.”

Unfortunately, many of our students are not offered such opportunities in their business courses. According to NSSE’s 2018 report, which is based on a survey of first-year and fourth-year undergraduates, seniors studying business perceived that their writing skills had improved less over the course of their college careers than those of the average senior. Only seniors in engineering and the sciences reported making less perceived progress. Students in both the arts and humanities and the social services professions reported making greater perceived progress in their writing skills than the average senior.

Ultimately, we must understand that a first-year writing class is not a one-time vaccine against poor communication. Instead, writing skills must be reintroduced and reinforced within all business disciplines, throughout a student’s college experience.

Indeed, this perspective undergirds the entire writing-across-the-disciplines and writing-in-the-disciplines movements. This idea was further emphasized in the 2006 University of Pittsburgh Study of Writing, which notes that as our students “move to progressively more complex subject matter in their disciplines, their ability to communicate effectively diminishes unless their learning is continually reinforced and communicated to others.”

The Importance of Continuous Improvement

In fall 2019, I heard American psychology researcher Henry Roedigger speak at my current university. In that speech, he called writing assignments essential to our students’ future success. He and co-authors Peter Brown, a management consultant, and Mark McDaniel, a fellow researcher, make the same argument in their 2016 book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. In it, they point out that writing is one of the most successful ways for students to improve “retrieval practice.” In other words, by engaging in writing, students are more likely to retain, easily access, and build upon what they learn.

Let’s say that the sources I cite above have persuaded you about the value of teaching writing, at least in the abstract. Let’s even assume that you agree with me that incorporating writing is fundamental to a great business education. So, then what? I believe that as business faculty, we must change our courses by adopting the following four strategies:

Creating intellectually challenging writing assignments. I recommend that faculty design assignments with a real-world audience (“Who needs to know this information?”) and purpose (“What should the reader do differently after reading this?”). Somewhat counterintuitively, I also have found that positing students as experts helps them produce better writing. Look, for example, at the assignment below, which I co-created with Casey Evans, forensic accounting professor and associate dean for undergraduate programs and student services at American University in Washington, D.C. The assignment is designed to make the student the expert on the topic at hand:

You are a member of the forensic and litigation consulting group of an international accounting firm. Because of the increasing importance for auditors to understand the nature of fraud and to be aware of methods for detection and prevention, the lead partner for the firm’s assurance practice would like the upcoming annual meeting for the firm’s assurance practice to include a presentation on forensic accounting.

With that in mind, you have been asked to analyze and discuss one major fraud that has taken place within a specific company in the last 15 years (such as Countrywide, Enron, MCI Worldcom, or HealthSouth). The lead partner would like you to provide her with a 750-word to 1,000-word report that contains your analysis of the fraud and makes recommendations for future detection.

I believe that assignments such as this one are so effective because they take advantage of a common human trait—the human urge to tell others what to do runs deep. To see what I mean, just ask any young child for advice. I have been ice skating for almost 40 years, yet I recently was offered advice on how to improve my stroke by a 9-year-old who had been ice skating only three times in her life! I find that my students are equally eager to share their knowledge.  

Elements of Effective Writing Assignments

Assignments that are most likely to translate into real improvements in student writing have the following five characteristics in common:

  • They are based on scenarios that identify an audience and a purpose for written work.
  • They cast students, even novice students, as experts.
  • They introduce content that is appropriate to the discipline in question.
  • They prioritize the “professor as coach” over the “professor as evaluator.”
  • They embed peer editing and revision before any final draft is due to help students learn to read their own work from the perspective of readers.

Faculty who want to make their assignments even better can take these three additional steps to support students in their writing:

  • Guide students to additional resources, such as the campus writing center.
  • Invite staff from the campus writing center to speak to the class about the act of revision.
  • Offer exemplar papers that students can use as models for their own writing.

Requiring revision. Once you have given students a writing assignment, you already have a due date in mind. Why not require students to submit their papers two weeks earlier than that? Do not tell students you are only expecting a draft—otherwise they will not give you their best work. On the early due date, ask your students to read and comment on each other’s drafts. Then, ask students to revise their papers based not only on your comments, but also on any of their peers’ comments they found to be helpful. They can turn their final drafts in two weeks later.

When I suggest peer editing to faculty, some inevitably scoff. “Why would I do that?” they ask. “It’s just the blind leading the blind.” Well, yes and no. It’s true that few students will be equipped to provide quality editorial insights. However, the primary function of peer editing is not for students to dispense good editorial advice. Rather it’s to force writers into the role of readers. When students return to their own drafts after reading someone else’s, they see their writing through a reader’s eyes. It’s that distance that helps writers make meaningful revisions.

One way to make this exercise even more effective is to invite someone from your school’s writing center to speak to the class about how to peer edit. Students can learn that editing the work of others is an art in itself.

Providing comments on interim drafts. Faculty almost always comment only on students’ final drafts. But there are two problems with this approach. First, students often don’t read their professors’ comments—or, if they do read the comments, they often do not transfer the advice to their next writing assignment. Second, faculty often provide comments primarily to justify the students’ final grades, not to coach students to become better writers. It’s as if students are getting a “revise and resubmit” letter from a publication’s editors without knowing the purpose of the revisions or having any opportunity to resubmit their work.

After reading someone else's draft, students see their own writing through a reader's eyes. It's that distance that helps writers make meaningful revisions.

It’s far more helpful for faculty to respond as readers (“I was interested when…”  “I was confused in this part …”). At this stage, professors should write comments from a coach’s perspective (not an evaluator’s perspective), offering sincere and specific praise coupled with advice on how to rewrite. They should do very little editing, and they should not mark mistakes in grammar, spelling, and punctuation, which research shows does not help students learn.

This might seem like an increase to our faculty workload, and yes, it’s true that this process requires that we read every piece of student writing twice. But keep in mind that we do not need to make any comments on the final version; we can simply assign a grade.

This was the experience shared with me by Nicole Melander, who used to teach information technology at American University’s Kogod School of Business. She told me that this revise-and-resubmit approach “didn’t require more time on my part, and the end result was a dramatically improved final product.” And Laura Kornish, chair of the marketing division at University of Colorado–Boulder’s Leeds School of Business, where I currently teach, has found that her MBA students are thrilled to get comments on how to revise their digital marketing project reports before turning in their final drafts.

John C. Bean’s excellent book Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning, first published in 2001, has a very helpful chapter on the topic of embedding revision in courses. As Bean writes, “A ‘C’ paper is an ‘A’ paper turned in too soon.”

Looking for ways to celebrate students’ writing via contests, awards, or even opportunities for publication. Many business schools recognize the value of harnessing the natural competitiveness of business school students. In some cases, they do this by sponsoring case competitions, but often these events are exclusively oral affairs. Why not add a writing component to an existing competition? (That’s the approach we took with an information technology competition that all students competed in at American University.) Or why not create a new competition dedicated to writing skills and publish students’ winning submissions online? Our colleagues in other disciplines already do this with poster paper presentations and writing competitions, and business schools should follow suit.

Of course, we need not create a competition to celebrate student writing—many other smaller gestures can accomplish the same goal. For example, decades ago, pre-internet, I took an undergraduate history course where students were assigned research papers. The professor told us that one question on the final would be drawn from one of our research papers. The papers were then put on reserve where our classmates could read them to prepare for the exam. What respect for our writing endeavors did that simple act engender! We worked even harder knowing our peers would be our readers.

The underlying idea to this point is simple: If we want to inspire our students to become excellent writers, we need to make it clear that they aren’t just writing to their professors for a grade. They are writing to be understood.

The Results Are Worth It

There are many resources for professors who want to incorporate writing instruction more effectively in their courses. For example, Kristen Lucas, now the associate dean of faculty affairs, management, at the University of Louisville’s College of Business in Kentucky, describes that school’s ambitious approach to the teaching of business communication in her 2017 BizEd article “Toward Better Business Communication.” In addition, instructors can turn to free “faculty tip sheets,” provided by the University of Delaware’s Writing Center and the WAC Clearinghouse, an open-access educational website supported by many sponsors, including the Colorado State University Open Press. These tip sheets summarize best practices in the writing-across-the-disciplines approach.

When I think of my role as an instructor of writing, I use as a guideline a statement that Stephen Pinker includes in his 2015 book A Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Pinker writes, “Advice on writing is not so much advice on how to write as on how to revise.” I believe that it’s essential for us to teach students to embrace the act of thoughtful revision, so they have the tools to become better writers over their lifetimes.

There is no denying that teaching writing in the business school is labor-intensive. That’s why our deans need to support faculty who assign and comment upon student writing by offering reductions in their teaching loads to balance the extra effort.

But the results are worth it. By prioritizing the teaching of writing throughout their programs, we not only deepen students’ understanding of business, but also make them stronger communicators. In the process, business schools improve students’ job prospects and differentiate their programs in a competitive market.

For the final assignment in my writing workshops, I often ask business students to reflect on one thing they have learned and one question they still have. I have one student’s response to these questions tacked up on my cubicle wall: “Something I learned: how to revise my report. The format and guidelines are definitely clearer. A question I still have: None right now. I’m actually excited to go back and revise!”

That is the response of a student who now views herself as a writer.


Suggestions for Next Steps

Make friends with the writing center director at your school. Some writing centers will come to your class and lead peer editing sessions. But make sure they understand the differences between academic writing and business writing.

Seek out funding. For example, at University of Colorado–Boulder, the Learning Assistant Program helps fund teaching assistants who provide student support. Together we are piloting ways to embed strong writing students as TAs in a management course.

Hire an external expert. It can be helpful to bring in an expert on this topic to lead a faculty workshop on teaching writing skills effectively.

Bonnie Auslander
Instructor, Professional Effectiveness, Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado Boulder
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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