What are they learning?

What exactly are students learning when they take a business writing course?

By learning, I mean a persistent change within an individual that can be observed in the behavior of the individual. That may not be the best definition of learning — and I know the scholarly debate about the meaning of the term has a long pedigree — but I hope this is sufficient for a blog entry today.

The educational psychology literature includes important distinctions between terms such as knowledge, aptitude, ability, skill, talent, and trait. Each of these terms gets debated, but they also contain important differences that imply or entail not only different theoretical understandings of human learning but also different pedagogical practices and expectations. So the question becomes: What is the correct theoretical construct for the thing we teach in business writing? Is it a skill? Is it a talent? Is it an ability? Or is it not a single construct but rather a set of them that combine to produce the behavior we see when we give a student an assignment? (I think here of the Flower-Hayes cognitive models of 30 years ago.)

Another important question has to do with the degree to which the things learned in our classes generalize to different contexts. If a student learns to produce work that we regard as high quality, does that mean they will produce similar high quality work in new settings and in response to new situations? Or is the learning context-dependent to the degree that the learning is not portable.

These are extensively debated topics in educational psychology. I’m only slightly familiar with the literature. But it seems that we in business communication would be well served to address such questions in a more explicit way.

Within business communication — and other communication scholarship — there is a long-standing and unresolved conversation about central questions and methods of advancing knowledge. Indeed, the notion that we are trying to advance knowledge is itself deeply contested. But to the degree that outsiders look at us and ask what we are doing, it would be helpful to be able to articulate, in a thoughtful way, what kind of learning we are trying to foster in our students. And by articulate, I mean on a deeper level than “I know it when I see it” kinds of talk. That works internally but is largely unpersuasive externally.

I see two primary areas worth further consideration. First, we could explore and engage the scholarship on writing and literate practices to come to grips with the range of theoretical and methodological discourse across multiple disciplines. Second, we should do the foundational work in educational psychology to be able to speak consistently and intelligibly about what it is we are trying to accomplish with our pedagogical practices.

This may be happening in many places in our field, but if it is the work is largely local.