Chrystal Houston, August 29th, 2008
Today’s generation of Mays Business School students are fluent in “cyberspeak” (truncated English used when texting and instant messaging) and most can write a research paper for a class, but are these students prepared for the written communication needs they will face in a job after graduation?
They soon will be, thanks to the newly created Mays Communication Lab.
The lab, piloted in the spring 2008 semester, is a branch of the Transitions Program, which helps students successfully navigate the transitions from high school, to college, to the real world. When Martha Loudder, associate dean for undergraduate programs, began brainstorming ideas for the Transitions Program in 2004, she asked corporate partners what soft skills, or “core competencies,” would make Mays students more employable and successful. Among the answers she heard, communication consistently was at the top of the list.
“Recruiters complained that we were not doing a good job of preparing our students for oral and written communications,” said Loudder. However, when she conducted a formal assessment of students’ writing skills using samples they had written for class, she found that 88% of them were writing at a level that Mays deemed acceptable. When she took that data back to employers, those that had voiced concerns clarified: it was just the basics of business correspondence that students were not successful with. They didn’t know how to write good memos, professional emails, or executive summaries. “We realized that somewhere in the curriculum, we needed to teach these very basic skills,” said Loudder.
By the time they graduate students may know how to write well in the classroom and they should know how to behave professionally, but these skills don’t always transfer to the real world application without practical lessons. That’s where the Mays Communication Lab comes in.
Broccoli in your teeth
Mays lecturer Sommer Hamilton ’04 heads up the lab, creating the curriculum, managing the peer tutors, and giving one-on-one assistance to students. Her lessons are presented in tandem with the sophomore level integrated worklife competencies course. Over the semester, Hamilton’s lessons provide practice in several forms of common written and oral business communication.
Mays lecturer Sommer Hamilton ’04 (center) heads up the Mays Communication Lab, creating the curriculum, managing the peer tutors, and giving one-on-one assistance to students.
She says that initially, some students are apathetic when it comes to communicating well. She combats that attitude by reminding them that communication is tied to their appearance. “It’s about that moment when you are sending an email to the CEO of your company and he sees that you’ve used the wrong “your.’ You’ve written “your’ instead of “you’re’, and he thinks, “Huh, is this person really as educated as I thought? Do they not know, or do they just not pay attention to details?'”
Hamilton likens these minor errors to broccoli in your teeth, little things that can change one’s appearance drastically. She helps students keep their smiles broccoli-free by helping them master the language, audience concerns, style, transitions, tone, spelling, grammar, and needed content for great business writing. “We are in a culture of impressions. In business we need to come across as polished as possible,” she says. “Even in e-mail, you need to present yourself with your best foot forward, to your boss and to your clients, to the lawyer you’re writing to on behalf of your company. You need to be as correct as possible.”
Until recently, Mays students could graduate without ever having written that staple of corporate communication, a memo. Hamilton says it’s more than just practice they are lacking. “They need to be graded on their writing so they have feedback for improvement,” she says.
That feedback and improvement loop is the main focus of Hamilton’s grading system. For each assignment, her students turn in a rough draft, which she and her staff of seven student aids critique exhaustively. Students are then expected to consider all of the comments and revise their work before turning in a final draft.
If students struggle with an assignment, they have two options: they can drop by the writing lab in Wehner (open 20 hours per week) to get individual help or go to the web to view dynamic e-lessons Hamilton has created.
“If they’re writing their draft at two o’clock in the morning, they have the access to an e-lesson online when they need it,” says Hamilton, who sees great benefit in this kind of on-demand learning.
After one semester using this system, Hamilton was pleased with the results. In her pilot class, all 160 students passed the communication portion of course. She saw it as a mark of success that by the end of the semester, much less revision was needed on each assignment. “They were definitely starting to internalize some of those standards that are needed in good communication. My biggest goal was to make them their own editor,” she says.
Bigger picture: Transitions Program
Hamilton says that the value of the Transitions Program and the Mays Communication Lab is their practicality. “We get them thinking, “How would I do this in the real world? I’m not going to be a
college student all my life.’ We help them to understand in college what is going to be asked of them after graduation.” Helping students identify their strengths, build upon them, and be able to articulate and implement them in a professional setting is a large part of the program.
Open to all business undergraduate students, the Transitions Program fosters learning in large classes, small groups with peer leaders, and through teamwork on projects. Each student creates an AggiE-folio, an electronic portfolio of their best work from all four years of their academic career. This acts as a showcase of the skills developed in the program, such as PowerPoint slides, videos of their presentations, personal web pages, and classroom assignments.
Transitions brings continuity to the undergraduate program as the lessons are multidisciplinary, touching on subjects such as teamwork, communication, and ethics that students need in every course, as well as in the professional world.
Director of Business Undergraduate Special Programs Nancy Simpson says she hopes to communicate with faculty members outside the program in all areas of the college to better understand the way that students will encounter these core competencies in upper division courses. “Repetition is key to learning and the more we are using similar language, the more likely students will be to transfer ideas and skills from one area to another,” says Simpson.
For more information about the Transitions Program, visit https://mays.tamu.edu/transitions/.