by Anna Atkinson, Department of English, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Vancouver Island University

I love the word dodecahedron, and boxes are a bit boring even when you’re thinking outside them. Besides, the term “think outside the box” suggests that to this point, only one model has been tried: the box. Teaching is about always shifting the model, always updating the paradigm, always trying something new, and always begin ready to be wrong.

Or right.

I knew I had successfully thought outside the dodecahedron when my students’ only complaint about the assignment was that they’d have preferred it to be longer.

Longer? Really?

Yes, really. They wanted it longer.

So what was this magic assignment?

<drum roll>

A formal business report.

Not exactly my first guess at the answer to the Jeopardy question “What assignment is so interesting and generates so much engagement that you’d really like it to be longer?”

I have to say, I didn’t expect the changes I made to the assignment to make this much of a difference to students, but I did want to make changes that made a difference to their success . . . and to my own level of engagement as well as theirs.

Change Number One

In business communications courses, there are a series of assignments that teach students how to write formal letters; business emails; persuasive, negative, positive, and routine messages; and formal and informal reports. In the past, I’ve followed a model that starts with smaller assignments and ends with the large formal report. This seems like a reasonable pattern for the assignments, and indeed, most textbooks are organized more or less in this order. In fact, when the skills that assignments teach are cumulative (as they are in English 115, for example), this makes absolute sense.

However, after doing quite well on the smaller assignments, I’ve found in the past that students nearly always “bombed” the report. I couldn’t quite figure out why, since the “bombing” included apparently forgetting everything about business writing entirely—not just everything about reports. The content tended to be thin and shoddy, the formatting inaccurate, and the writing uneven at best.

My first thought was that this all seemed to be a product of “rushing” to get the job done. This isn’t surprising, given that the course I teach is a required English course, and for many students doesn’t seem as important than other courses they’re taking (because nobody in business or industry ever has to write letters, emails, reports, etc. . . right? <sigh>). But it also occurred to me that all reports/essays/term papers are due at the end of term, because nearly all courses have material that is cumulative.

And then it occurred to me that in Business Communications, the skills weren’t really all that cumulative. Writing a persuasive letter really doesn’t connect all that closely with writing an informational, research-driven, formal report. Reports may make recommendations, but they may not, and there’s no need to teach those two things at the same time.

Thus for the first time this year, I decided to put the research report first, and have both the oral report and the persuasive letter actually follow directly from the research for the report.

My reasoning for doing this is the following:

  • not only are the skills learned in this course not particularly directly cumulative in relation to each other, the skills involved in writing the report follow almost directly from (and thus are cumulative in relation to) the research essay from English 115 (University Composition).
  • Students are never “not busy,” but on the whole their busiest time of term is near the end, when all the other reports are due. Putting the report at the beginning allows for more time, and thus (theoretically) a better product.
    • This, in turn, allows students a “test run” at a formal essay during the early part of the term, to get them “in shape” for the big papers near the end . . . when in my class they’ll be doing assignments which are much smaller, though very detailed.

I’m very happy to report that the results of this little experiment were unquestionably positive. The reports were a level of magnitude better than any I’ve gotten in the past, and the students were happier . . . except for the fact that they would have liked to write longer reports! This last bit may in fact have more to do with the subject matter—which will be the topic of my next post.