Academic journal article Journal of the Academy of Business Education

A Taxonomic Guide to University-Level Writing Assignments

Academic journal article Journal of the Academy of Business Education

A Taxonomic Guide to University-Level Writing Assignments

Article excerpt


While the debate over whether or not higher education is worth the cost probably started on the North American continent when Harvard University was chartered in 1636, it certainly continues into the 21st century. With college tuition continuing to rise and student indebtedness increasing to the trillion-dollar range (Federal Reserve, 2015), students (as well as their parents) expect a payoff for the time and money invested, while employers grumble that college graduates lack the skills necessary to successfully handle the requirements of contemporary careers.

Proponents argue that college graduates have higher rates of employment, better pay, more career options, and are more productive than do those without such education (Davis, Kimball, Gould, 2015; Tamborini, Kim, & Sakamoto, 2015; Abel & Deitz, 2014; Pew Research Center, 2014). Others lament that the cost of college leaves students with unmanageable debt, unable to fulfill the dream of buying a house/getting married/having kids or saving for the future (Laitinen, 2015; Grace, Kenna, & Aud, 2014; Baum, Ma, & Pays, 2013; Brown & Caldwell, 2013; Matthews, 2013; Fitzgerald, 2012; Heller, 2012; Thompson, 2012; NPR, 2011; Smith, 2011; Ponnuru, 2010; Golden & Katz, 2008). Notwithstanding either position, all seem to recognize that SAT scores have continued a long-term downward trend recently hitting the lowest level in 10 years (Anderson, 2015).

Further, the popular press as well as research reports are filled with stories that note that college graduates lack specific skills that are necessary for success in the world of work. Soft skills, including the broad "communication" arena, but more precisely "writing skills," are consistently (and abundantly) mentioned as lacking. In business schools, employer complaints about writing skills have forced curricular changes that put more emphasis on writing. Reductions in employer training expenditures have resulted in a shift of expectations that students be prepared when they start their careers, putting additional pressure on colleges. Employers have long advocated that essential writing skill is a threshold skill for hiring and promotion, even while they believe few graduates reach that threshold (Hart Research Associates, 2015; Selingo, 2015; Bentley University, 2014; Adecco, 2013; Chegg, 2013; Fischer, 2013; White, 2013; Schwartz & Sharp, 2012; Arum & Roksa, 2011; USDOE, 2011; WSJ, 2011; Holland, 2009; Sanoff, 2006; Bartlett, 2003; CollegeBoard, 2004; Tanyel, Mitchell & McAlum, 1999).

What is worse is that this is not something new. For the last decade, deficiencies in writing skills have been noted (Casner-Lotto & Narrington, 2006; Quible & Griffin, 2007; NCEE, 2009). Anecdotally, you can ask any university professor if their students can write at the level expected, and you'll get a resounding response-usually negative. One survey of members of the United States' largest public relations organization confirmed significant dissatisfaction by corporate supervisors with the writing performance of entry-level practitioners across all measured categories of writing (Cole, Hembroff & Corner, 2009).

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected through digital distribution and the Internet, the level of writing skill proficiency needed continues to rise worldwide. As the OECD notes in its 2013 study, OECD Skills Outlook, "Given the centrality of written information in all areas of life, individuals must be able to understand and respond to textual information and communicate in written form in order to fulfill their roles . . ." (OECD, 2013, p. 52). Though this paper describes a pedagogical innovation within the context of U.S. higher education, its application worldwide could certainly be considered.


Given the lack of writing skill documented above, there can be a gap between the level of writing proficiency that an instructor expects on an assignment and what students deliver. …

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