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.


That ‘aha’ moment

Every semester and summer session I teach, the same thing happens. The moment comes when students realize that writing for real audiences is different than writing for school.

They are used to writing to prove to the teacher that they have read the material or have done enough research. They have mastered the five-paragraph essay and want to force every writing task into that well-known form, even if it means hacking off a few limbs to get the body to fit in box.

Then a light starts to flicker. It usually sounds something like this:

This is really different than what I’m used to. In my other classes …

Aha! There she blows! Now we can start making some real progress. I always love when that moment comes.

The empirical problem in business comm

Business Communication suffers from a handicap that most (maybe all) of the other subgenres in communications studies avoid. It has extremely limited access to the artifacts it purports to study, at least compared journalism, political communication, literature, and academic composition studies.

It is perhaps because of the limited access to communication artifacts — texts, speeches, etc. — that there is almost no practice of critical study of business communication. If someone were to produce a textbook of “best” business communication of 2013, where would they even start?

I’m sure I’m not the first person to ever notice this.

What I see among some of my colleagues are independent efforts to assemble samples and examples from the “real” world, but as an area of academic inquiry and teaching, I am not aware of any persistent or consistent effort to collect, identify, and comment upon actual cases of communication, which leaves most of us falling back on largely ad hoc theories about what is good and normative.

Perhaps these thoughts betray more ignorance than fact. What do you think? What is your experience?