To succeed in the university and the work world, undergraduate management students need to learn both analytic and communication skills. These skills include analyzing a body of information, separating opinion from fact, reaching conclusions about the data, formulating recommendations, and communicating these conclusions and recommendations effectively and efficiently to a particular audience. Teaching these skills engages students on a variety of intellectual levels, from simply summarizing information to reasoning independently after grappling with difficult textual information.
Although communication instructors have long recognized the need for such skills, in recent years other disciplines in business and management have acknowledged their importance as well. For example, the Uniform CPA exam now tests candidates' writing ability, which "sends a message that the ability to communicate in writing is critical to the accounting profession" (Blum & Ferrara, 1994, p. 16). As North American universities enroll increasingly more nonnative speakers of English and working-class native-English speakers, students may arrive in university classrooms with varying degrees of preparation to confront the challenges of analysis and communication. Communication instructors can help students work at a level that goes deeper than rote learning and formulaic writing by supplementing or replacing traditional methods of teaching managerial communication with methods and strategies from other disciplines.
The techniques and strategies used to teach English as a Second Language (ESL) have much to offer. In particular, the methodology I discuss below is rooted in a learner-centered approach that seeks to find or create shared ground between students' knowledge and experience and the course material and requirements, "because learning only occurs when prior knowledge is accessed and linked to new information" (Bartolome, 1994, p. 182).
This paper results from my experiences in teaching and tutoring undergraduate students in Managerial Analysis and Communication (MAC 299), a required course in the College of Management at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. The nontraditional population at this urban commuter institution consists of older students (average age of 29) who often work full time, have families, and may have been away from the academic setting for a considerable time. Both nonnative and native English-speaking students tend to be first-generation college students. UMass/Boston's nontraditional students have much in common with English as a Second Language or nonnative speakers of English. Generally UMass/Boston attracts more immigrant than "foreign" students, so most students are proficient in English before coming to study in the United States.
With an M.A. in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), I was hired to teach MAC 299 specifically because the Marketing and Communication Department wanted to serve the increasing proportion of nonnative speakers among the undergraduates in the College of Management. In MAC 299, class size averages 25, with one fourth to one third of the students nonnative speakers of English. On average, about two thirds of the students are male, one third female, with an age range of roughly from 20 to 47.
MAC 299 focuses on analytical thinking in a management context and instruction and practice in oral and written communication. Students have taken at least a freshman English course. MAC 299 is offered only on a P/F basis, with 'P' standing for proficiency rather than pass; a 'P' requires producing at least B-level work. For graded work, students write four papers and give an oral presentation. Papers assigned are in business communication formats such as memos and letters or in the academic style of traditional expository or research papers. All, however, require the students to analyze a body of material, form an opinion, and communicate it to a well-envisioned audience. Students can revise papers as many times as needed to get a "P," whereas simply giving the oral presentation ensures a 'P.'
With experience using learner-based strategies in my ESL classes, I looked for ways to make MAC 299 a learner-centered course while focusing on managerial issues. In this context, learner-centered pedagogy means providing students with the opportunity to use their individual interests and experiences related to the business content as a springboard for developing ideas and writing. As Donaldo Macedo writes, "If students are not able to transform their lived experiences into knowledge and use the already acquired knowledge as a process to unveil new knowledge, they will never be able to participate rigorously in a dialogue as a process of learning and knowing" (Freire & Macedo, 1995, p. 385).
In my first semester teaching this course, a mentor professor recommended Mary Munter's Guide to Managerial Communication and David Garvin's Cases in Business Decision Making (now out of print). The large communication textbooks that colleagues use seemed to me formulaic and insufficient for learner-centered pedagogy. Thus I began the ongoing process of accumulating useful case studies for the course. Interesting and provocative case themes have looked at the environment versus development, sexual harassment in the work-place, labor-management relations, advertising, and small-business issues.
In addition to using case studies, I developed a media analysis component in which students examine first print advertising, then newspaper reporting. Developing a framework within which to analyze their reading of the popular media enables students to engage the material critically, a crucial step in developing opinions. I also incorporated the writing techniques of journal keeping, freewriting, and peer review of paper drafts. In the process of developing students' critical voice, to shift some of the classroom focus from me as the authority to the students, I relied on other methods such as small-group work (cooperative learning) and student response sheets for presentations.
Developing a Voice
The traditional use of dialogue journals as a place to write often and in quantity without regard to organization, grammar, spelling and so on, and to develop ideas and opinions without criticism, retains its value in a managerial communication setting. I use journal writing in conventional ways, such as at the beginning of the semester as a place for introductions and exploring students' feelings and opinions about writing. In general, only the ESL students have had the experience of writing journals, but both native and nonnative speakers of English benefit from extended writing practice. Both groups also reveal in their journals patterns of difficulties that may present themselves in papers, where I address such issues as organization, style, tone, grammar, and punctuation.
In MAC 299, I expand the use of journals to include both personal responses to focused questions that generally relate to the case studies or other readings and a weekly summary of a newspaper article of the student's choice, although with a business focus. Personal journal questions include a family work history, which requires students to interview parents and other family members and elicits much information new to the students themselves. In their journals students also respond to readings, comment on the writing style of articles, define professionalism, critique managerial behavior, and develop an analogy between the role of the student in a university and possible roles related to the corporation (trainee, client, employee, stockholder, and the like).
The newspaper summaries serve multiple purposes. First, the assignment forces students to read newspapers regularly, particularly the business section, and to follow an issue in the news over a period of months to become well-versed in that issue. They may read the Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, or the New York Times; other local papers are prohibited. Second, the assignment focuses students' attention on the fact that they can construe many social issues from a business perspective. Finally, it develops and refines students' summarizing and reporting skills, including distinguishing "facts" from opinions, both of the reporter and the students themselves. In addition to writing a "neutral" summary of an article, students identify key players and communication issues and reflect on their own relationship to the topic, explaining their reasons for choosing the article and proposing solutions to the topic they summarized.
Ultimately, these summaries provide the foundation of the course's final paper and oral presentation. The paper requires students to choose one issue to follow in the newspapers for the second two thirds of the course. Based on their newspaper reading, in the final paper they summarize the gist of the issue they have selected, choose a focus, and argue a position or solution. They use the newspaper articles in a research-paper fashion to support their arguments with quotations. Finally, they compare the coverage of their topic in different newspapers, noting editorial slants and differences in coverage.
The nonnative speakers of English often take more advantage of their journals to write a large amount, both personally and about their newspaper topics. However, in mid- and end-of-semester evaluations (within their journals), virtually all students have consistently expressed positive feedback about journal writing, including one native-speaker senior who reported that for him it was the first time an instructor had truly wanted to hear his opinion and provided him a forum in which to express it.
Many instructors and students shy away from freewriting, which provides an effective warm-up to writing and class discussion. In freewriting, students write for a set time period, such as five or ten minutes, without stopping, by free-associating on a given topic. If they have no immediate ideas about a topic, they continue to move their hands by writing, "I'm stuck; I don't know," or anything they want (including "this is stupid") until thoughts come to them. The point is to maintain a physical connection between their hands and their ideas. Students are not required to share freewriting with anyone, including the instructor. They should not concern themselves about mistakes in grammar, spelling, handwriting, or language; nonnative speakers can insert words from their own language (but still write in English) if necessary to keep their train of thought going.
Acknowledging the strangeness and newness of the technique, I insist on the basic principle that students keep their hands moving constantly - and chide them if they stop. Students write on a freewriting topic as we begin a new case or topic in class. For example, before a case from Garvin that examines how advertisers introduced the Volkswagen to the American public after World War II, students freewrite about what features they look for in a car and what constrains them when they buy one. Their freewriting makes for an easy segue into small-group discussions about consumers and the case by eliciting previous knowledge or opinions about the topic and giving them written notes or ideas to refer to in discussion.
Freewriting also serves to dispel the idea that writing can only happen after one has considered one's position on a topic; rather, it demonstrates that writing can be an effective means to arrive at ideas and conclusions. Another native speaker student reported that freewriting "saved her life" by allowing her to approach a topic before she had completely formulated her ideas.
For many reasons, small group work is the backbone of this course, as in many ESL courses. For nonnative speakers as well as shy or reluctant native speakers, working in groups of four or five students offers an opportunity to discuss a case in a less threatening environment than in the class as a whole. Using small groups also shifts the attention from the instructor as the only authority to the students as capable analytical thinkers, decision makers, and communicators. This technique can make students uncomfortable, however, as it requires them to participate actively rather than listening passively to the instructor and perhaps a handful of gregarious students. To avoid placing students permanently in a group that may not work well together or whose members participate unevenly, I change the composition of the groups for each major case of the semester usually four times.
At the beginning of the semester, I give students guidelines for working in groups. First, each time a new group forms, the members make introductions. Then they appoint a note taker and a facilitator. The note taker will later be responsible for reporting the group's findings or decisions to the class as a whole. The facilitator keeps the group moving and on track, as well as including everyone in the discussion. A facilitator is meant to relieve some of the burden, particularly for shy or nonnative speakers, of students inserting themselves into the discussion. The interplay between nonnative English speakers who may have better command of higher-order reasoning skills learned in their first language and native English speakers whose analytic skills may be weaker offers opportunities for cooperative learning and cross-cultural understanding.
Depending on the assignment, the groups work to answer questions related to the case or text, which focuses the group and trains students in analytical approaches to information. After 15 or 20 minutes, the whole class reconvenes and the note takers report their group's findings, which I note on the chalkboard. Because the responsibility to report to the class rests with the note taker, who changes with each group, most students must speak up in class at least occasionally. Reporting the group's findings rather than solely their own opinions makes speaking up less threatening for students. As each group reports, the groups' contributions demonstrate the different kinds of thinking that can occur about the same case or issue. Furthermore, these groups demonstrate that students respond well to "democratic learning environments where students become accustomed to being treated as competent and able individuals" (Freire & Macedo, 1995, p. 385).
The small groups also serve as support groups for the paper assignments and oral presentation. Students discuss their ideas and approaches to paper topics, particularly when each group writes on a different question in a given assignment. Real support also comes when students bring in drafts of papers for peer review. Each paper has two due dates; the first is for in-class peer review, usually one class before the paper is due to me, which is the second date. Using guidelines for peer revision that I distribute, students exchange drafts, read and comment on them, and then sign their comments. Students usually resist making deeply critical comments but with training and encouragement can develop this skill, starting with simply comparing the paper draft with the requirements of an assignment or looking for mechanical problems. At a minimum, having the papers due early means a certain amount of 'sitting time' is built into the writing process, which in itself is a valuable component of composition and revision.
To teach oral communication to ESL students, I devised response sheets that help an audience pay attention during student presentations. In MAC 299, therefore, I distribute such a sheet with key questions that all students must answer during their peers' presentations about the newspaper-analysis paper. Space is provided for two questions that students create to ask the speaker, ensuring that after the presentation at least a handful of questions will be posed. Because students' presentations are based on months of reading about their topic in the newspaper, they have a deeper understanding of the issue than they or their classmates usually realize. Students are therefore remarkably capable of answering the audience's questions after the presentation and presenting informed, impromptu opinions about the topic.
Transference of ESL Methods to a Native-Speaker Population
On a global level, all of these activities share the goal of developing independent, critical thinking skills as a foundation to effective, well-organized oral and written communication. These skills are cumulative; they spiral through the semester's assignments, reaching the final paper, which requires consistent work, developing an interesting and probing focus, and analyzing not only aspects of the topic but also how newspapers cover the issue. The assignments in MAC 299 not only help students to perform well in their academic work but also give them confidence and experience in developing their own viewpoint and presenting it orally or in writing.
Methods and activities that fully involve students of any linguistic background and skill level and that shift the focus of the class from the instructor's opinions and knowledge to students' experiences and opinions work quickly to develop students' analytic and communication skills. In MAC 299, the student must learn to be the source of whatever analysis and communication happens; ESL methods create structures that allow this shift to occur and students to develop and present their own opinions.
Bartolome, L. (1994). Beyond the methods fetish: Toward a humanizing pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review, 64, 173-194.
Blum, J. D., & Ferrara, C. F. (1994, September). Writing skills: Another hurdle for CPA candidates. New Accountant, 16-17.
Freire, P., & Macedo, D. (1995). A dialogue: Culture, language, and race. Harvard Educational Review, 65, 377-402.
Garvin, D. A., & Education Development Center, Inc. (1987). Cases in business decision making. New York: Dryden.
Munter, M. (1992). Guide to managerial communication (3rd ed.). New York: Prentice-Hall.…