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Introduce Best Practices in Business with a Peer-Driven Group Project

Susan Schanne, MA, builds business skills with a 30-page group paper—complete with lessons in grammar, research, teamwork, and grounds for dismissal.

Educator

Susan Schanne, MS

Part-Time Lecturer in Management, Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, MI

MS in Administration, BA in Management

Sitting in a college classroom might feel as safe and secure as hiding in the confines of the proverbial ivory tower. But Eastern Michigan University lecturer Susan Schanne, MA, knows that the real world that awaits business students is more like a never-ending battle raging on the ground far below. That is why thoughtful educators like her seek to lower the metaphorical drawbridge to join the worlds of academia and business—and better prepare students for the rigors of the work world.

To that end, Schanne engages students in her Business Communications courses in a semester-long, 30-page business writing project that draws upon all the advantages—and drawbacks—found in the modern global workplace. Her particular focus is on the self-governance and self-determination that professional teams must put into practice every day. Below, she shares the steps she employs to make the assignment run smoothly.

Challenge

Work distribution in group projects is often irregular

High-flying college students might think they have the world by the tail, but most young people have never been tested by the rigors of cooperative effort, especially when it comes to real-world, do-or-die business projects and goals. Those who tend to be the super-achievers often find themselves taking on the bulk of the work, as others skate by and either “earn” the same grade or drag down the group score.

Innovation

Build cooperation with a business model—including firing

Schanne is committed to helping her business communication students step outside themselves to work with other students through a semester-long writing project. For them to join forces and create a compelling business argument, students will need to cooperate. To ensure that everyone does their fair share, each group begins by setting strict rules for itself about productivity, participation, and division of responsibility.

Context

“Students really like this project because it’s a way to hold other people accountable, and they’re excited to present their information to their classmates. Part of it is they’re picking topics they’re enthused about—and they become insanely proud of what they accomplish.”

— Susan Schanne, MS

Course: MGMT 202 Business Communications
Course description:
Study of principles, elements and practices underlying effective business communication. The course focuses on approaches for planning, creating and transmitting business information within a variety of business situations found in the global marketplace.

 

 

 

 

 

See resources shared by Susan Schanne, MS

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Lesson: A 30-page, semester-long group writing project

Schanne knows that dividing classes into small groups is not a revolutionary teaching approach. But she adds a twist to the usual division of labor that is common to group projects: She asks the students to monitor their own performance—and mirror their colleagues’—as if their jobs depended on it.

Simply put, Schanne tosses her students into the deep end by breaking her classes into small groups and assigning each group a 30-page paper on a topic it chooses. From there, group members research, organize, write, revise, and eventually present their findings. This assignment helps students practice the skills of advance planning and breaking down large jobs into small pieces. They learn to recognize that it is easiest to solve problems early in the process—and to employ a spirit of goal-oriented cooperation in order to create a hefty final product.

“Thirty pages might sound like a very long paper, but it works out well as a group project,” says Schanne. “In fact, at the beginning of the semester, my students never believe me, [but] it will get to the point where they are saying, ‘Can we do 40 [pages]?’”

Here are some tips from her on how to create a similar group project for any course.

Brainstorm topics and choose groups

To create a free-flowing environment for ideas (and help quieter students feel less self-conscious), Schanne begins with the class working together in a brainstorming session to generate topic ideas. She offers some broad concepts to explore—past papers have covered water pollution, sports safety, jet contrails, healthy food, human trafficking, and workplace happiness—and then lists them on the board. When ideas wane, the longer list is winnowed down by popular vote: Students sign up for the topic they like best, which automatically creates groups with a shared interest. Final groups generally comprise four students; in a nod to the old adage “The early bird gets the worm,” Schanne observes a first-come, first-served rule on topic slots.

Have each group set its own rules

Though Schanne provides some specifics on how the papers should be organized, she insists that each group create its own rules to organize their process. She provides them with a 12-point handout that specifies goals to consider, such as scheduling, performance, output—and the conditions under which foot-dragging students might actually be “fired.”

“I tell the students: ‘Based on your past group experiences—some of which have gone well and some not—come up with some rules to make sure the ‘awfuls’ don’t happen and the ‘really-wells’ do,’” Schanne says.

She also has the groups set up a document-sharing site and a chat site, where they will post these rules and engage in other group communications throughout the semester.

Encourage flexibility with work schedules

As this is a semester-long project, each group must assign responsibilities and deadlines carefully and consistently to ensure that everything is completed in a timely manner. However, many students commute and/or have jobs and other responsibilities that can make it difficult to schedule group meetings. Schanne encourages students to discuss these constraints and set deadlines earlier than may seem necessary, to allow for unexpected problems or delays. (And when she is included on their shared site, Schanne notes, she can tell who is contributing and who is not.)

This teaches lessons in flexibility, as some students work more efficiently in the early morning while others might find that bursts of energy (or blocks of available time) occur only at night. It also helps students learn to coordinate work efforts and build time-management skills.

A Scaffolded Approach to Business Writing

Business language is new to most students. To help them adjust their writing approach, Schanne created a system that gradually builds their skills throughout the semester:

  1. Each team member writes a two-page paper on one of their pieces of research. This is graded and returned.
  2. The student fixes any issues in the paper, then uploads it to the document-sharing website. (This helps team members see who is participating and address nonparticipation before it becomes a larger problem.)
  3. This process is repeated three times, resulting in three different pieces of research, all related to the main topic, per student.
  4. The student compiles the three resultant papers into a six-to-eight–page individual paper, adding headings and formatting as needed, along with their supporting research. Note: Any student who scores a 79% or below on this step must redo the assignment or get a zero. The rewritten work will not be regraded; the student will receive the original score. The goal here is to prevent students from turning in poorly written papers.
  5. After these individual papers are returned, the group looks at each section critically and reorders information to build a cohesive, well-organized 30-page business report. The report includes prefatory sections that are structured as outlined in the class textbook (Business Communication Essentials, by Courtland Bovée and John Thill), plus a Table of Contents, citations, and other details that make for a professional, readable, well-written paper.
Brainstorm individual topic areas

Each student in each group will take responsibility for one aspect of their chosen topic. To decide what those aspects will be, students work together in class to brainstorm a list of potential areas of research. This requires listening, asking questions of team members, and establishing a common goal. They then meet with a business librarian to conduct further research. By the end of class, each student should have at least six areas to research.

Review rules of grammar and business writing

Schanne notes that many of her students are not business majors, so they have little sense of the brass-tacks requirements of persuasive business writing. To get their skills up to snuff, she has created a scaffolded approach (see sidebar) to writing. She also distributes a grammar worksheet that helps simplify wording and syntax. “It helps the students be aware that this is a different writing style,” she says. “They often think the more words, the better—and the harder the words, the better. But business writing is about giving the audience the details they need to know and talking in words they understand.’”

One way Schanne presses the students to keep their audience in mind is to have them think of one particular person who might be reading their paper. “I ask them, ‘Who’s going to care about this?’’’ says Schanne. “Maybe it’s the EPA. Maybe it’s the CEO of Delta Airlines. Maybe it’s a senator. It has to be a one-person audience, because you can’t address the needs of millions of people.”

Build in accountability with peer reviews

Much like HR departments at real-world businesses, Schanne helps her groups stay accountable to the project—and to each other—through a semester-long peer-review system. Every few weeks, each student fills out a short form that prompts them to consider each person’s efforts and the areas in which they are doing well or need to improve. “The reviews are a little reminder that I know what you’re doing—or not doing—and if there’s a problem and a group member mentions it in the peer review, I’ll shoot you an email,” she says. “Often this is enough for students to realize they will not be allowed to perform at that level, and they’ll become more engaged.”

Schanne notes that when that best-case scenario does not happen, a member can be “fired” from the group (for nonparticipation or other issues). As in the real world, she expects the group to keep detailed records and evidence, to create a paper trail that supports their decision. One caveat: Schanne does not allow members to fire themselves if they feel they do not fit in. “We all have to work with people who are not always easy to work with,” she says. “It’s a life lesson.”

Require a final group presentation

Schanne has all groups present their final paper’s findings to the class in whatever form they think will best connect with and engage the audience. She has seen students supplement their spoken presentation with PowerPoints, short video clips, and even customized versions of games such as Jeopardy! or Kahoot.

Outcomes

Schanne notes that several of her students have managed to parlay their paper projects into internships and jobs with companies they profiled. And even if employment is not a direct result, Schanne believes in the value of taking a deep dive into the real-world business environment. “These are life skills,” she says. “And I’m hoping students will carry these skills with them into the world.”

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