Monthly Archives: October 2015

Tips to Make Learning Stick

by Janet Mizrahi

At the end of my business communication course, I ask students to write me a letter or an e-mail to discuss what they have learned. It’s a way for me toshutterstock_298095335_NOV2015 see if they have taken away the tenets of business communication we have covered during the quarter. The assignment leads to pretty consistent positive responses, which are echoed in the students’ course evaluations. They almost uniformly report that they “learned a lot!—thanks, Prof!” and that they “will use what I’ve learned for the rest of my career!”

Although these comments are nice to read, I often find myself not quite believing students’ ebullient responses, especially when I see the errors many of them make in both the writing and the document design of the assignment.

Recently I’ve been using two pedagogical theories to help my students retain what I teach: metacognition—awareness of one’s cognitive processes—and transfer—taking skills learned in one setting and applying them in another. I’ve started incorporating both into my class, and I believe I’m making some headway.

Teaching Strategies to Foster Metacognition and Transfer

Like most of you, I try to show models of good and not-so-good examples of most assignments. However, lately I’ve been asking students to spend some time in class analyzing the writing strategies that have led to the successful or unsuccessful outcome. I can almost see the light bulbs going off in their heads as they list the differences between successful and unsuccessful models.

This is where I used to stop. Now I also talk about metacognition, explaining that it’s important for students to think about what kind of information they absorb and how they are taking in this information so they can retrieve it in a different context. I see students nodding their heads in agreement or actually looking up from their phones when I do this. Suddenly, it seems, they begin to think about what I’m teaching and whether they have learned it.

Another forum that fosters student thinking about the acquisition of knowledge involves a peer edit session. After students evaluate a classmate’s assignment, they discuss it using questions I have given to them. When students work together in these small groups, they are less inhibited to bring up their own challenges with completing the assignment. Fellow students often offer feedback that helps the other grasp a concept. This reinforcement of what they have practiced again turns on light bulbs and theoretically helps cement knowledge.

Another strategy to get students thinking about how they learn is assigning a written reflection about their writing, which they complete in class. (I’ve tried assigning it as homework, but those responses tended to be much less detailed, dashed off instead of mulled over.) Questions to pose in a reflection are designed to force students to perform a metacognitive analysis of their own work.

These written reflections can be incorporated into many business communication assignments. For example, instructors can ask students to list what they know about a subject (say writing an e-mail) before a lesson. Then after the discussion, students can again reflect of what they have learned about the same topic. Such reinforcement forces students to make connections and subsequently, in theory, to add to their own knowledge. Answering reflective questions such as what was confusing, what was challenging, what made X difficult, how did you figure out how to do X? helps students become more actively involved in their own learning process.

I’ve found one reflection especially helpful. For a large group project, students write a rough draft of their individual section of a report and bring it to class. Using hard copy, students work in teams of two or three and follow a peer edit guide that includes the assignment’s requirements. From that session, students rewrite their rough draft before they submit it to me for a grade. On the day they turn in the rough draft, students answer the answer the following questions:

  1. Read your section again. What would you like to work on for the final draft? Be specific and list at least five elements you’d like to change when you rewrite.
  1. What challenges did you encounter when writing and rewriting your section? What did you learn about writing in general and writing for business audiences in particular?
  1. What specific advice would you like me to provide as I read your rough draft?

The first question helps students look at their work objectively, and I’ve found that almost uniformly, students detect the same problems as I do when I grade. The second question gets them thinking about themselves as writers and the importance of drafts, which may be the single most important writing strategy they take away from my course. The last question forces students to look at their writing critically and ask for my feedback, thereby stimulating metacognitive thinking… and hopefully, taking away more from our time together that will stick with them.


What are your thoughts about transfer of knowledge? Share your experiences!

Think Before Showing That Ink…Great Mentors Have These 7 Traits…Business Phone Call Making Comeback

Think Before Showing That Ink

shutterstock_138168962_NOV2015Although body art such as tattoos and piercings are becoming less taboo, many employers still require their staff to hide visible markings. When young people are deciding about how and where they will decorate their bodies, they should think about their future careers, say former students. Tattoos on parts of the body that cannot be hidden—hands, for example—can automatically close doors. When interviewing, potential employees should cover all visible tattoos and piercings until they learn the culture of an organization.

 –From The Shorthorn at UT Arlington

Great Mentors Have These 7 Traits

An experienced mentor who helps guide a new employee can make a huge impact on an individual’s career. However, finding the qualities that make a good mentor in one person may prove difficult. Instead, experts suggest looking for one or more mentors who together have the following characteristics:

  • Confidence. A mentor should be well established in his or her career. One with a dissimilar background is an even better choice because it’s less likely the mentor will fear the mentee becoming a threat.
  • Someone who is willing to “pay it forward” rather than someone who is still climbing the corporate ladder will likely be freer with his or her time.
  • Self-awareness. Individuals who can communicate the steps that led to their success are imperative.
  • Honesty. Mentors who offer advice and criticism are more helpful than ones who are merely cheerleaders.
  • Specificity. A mentor who can tell the mentee specific ways to improve (“Do X and Y to make your numbers”) is more valuable than one who gives vague advice (“Keep up the good work.”)
  • Discretion. An individual who knows to keep confidences allows a mentee to speak more freely.
  • Experience. Those with a longer work history can offer perspective and help the mentee truly grow.

–From Fast Company Magazine

Business Phone Call Making Comeback

Once the preferred method of communication, business phone calls have been on the wane since e-mail and smart phones have changed the way we make contact. However, new software for office telephoning is bringing the phone call back.

Using computers to dial voice calls, this new technology allows callers to leave their desks and look at e-mail or other documents while they speak. These new voice technologies combine text and voice communications and even allow people to transfer a conversation to a smartphone mid conversation. By making voice communication more like being online, the technology provides searchable archives of conversations, too, making the new applications especially attractive.

–From The Wall Street Journal






Passive or Active? How to Choose the Correct Writing Voice

Instructors: Use this exercise on passive voice as a short and simple change-of-pace task. Let your students work in teams to discuss the mini-quiz questions that follow the explanation. An answer key is provided [Ed: Passive voice intentionally used!] Project the exercise on a screen or use the JPEG version at the end of the post.

Many writers unknowingly use passive voice, which can make their prose wordy and lifeless. However, the passive voice has its place in the writer’s toolbox, and when used correctly, can be useful. Good writers understand what passive voice is and how to use it effectively.

Simply put, passive voice puts the person or thing being acted upon first and the doer or agent second. In fact, the doer or agent is often left out entirely. For example:

The ball was hit by the girl.

The ball is being acted upon by the girl, so the receiver of the action (the ball) is the doer. However, readers of English expect sentences to begin with the doer, not the action.  The above sentence would read better in active voice:

The girl hit the ball.

In most passive voice sentences, the doer is in the background or disappears completely. Sometimes we do not know who or what the doer or agent is. Other times, naming the doer is not important. For example:

The students were given a test.

Who performed the action? The doer is not named.

Other times we deliberately do not want to assign responsibility or blame to the doer or agent, thus:

Mistakes were made.

In this case the writer has chosen not to assign an actor to the action because the writer does not want to name an individual.

Passive Voice Quiz

Read the sentences below and decide whether using passive voice was used deliberately or inappropriately. Provide a rationale for your choice and check your answers with the key that follows the sentences.

1.    The files were misplaced and had to be rewritten from scratch.
2.    A statement about the oil spill will be made at the press conference.
3.    New Years’ resolutions are made to be broken.
4.    A lateral incision was made to expose the mass.
5.    In the factory, the bolts were attached by robots.

Passive Voice Answer Key

  1. Appropriate use of passive. Who misplaced the files? Who had to rewrite them? In both cases, the doer is unknown. When you do not know or don’t wish to reveal the doer, using passive voice is appropriate.
  2. Appropriate use of passive. Who is making the statement? The doer is unnamed deliberately. When you do not want to draw attention to the doer, passive voice is the correct choice.
  3. Appropriate use of passive. The reader can intuit that people who make New Years’ resolutions are the doers in the sentence, but when the doer is comprised of many people, using the active voice can be awkward. Consider the same sentence in active voice:

People who make New Year’s resolutions make them to be broken.

       In this case, use of passive construction is preferred.

  1. Appropriate use of passive. Scientists and researchers often use passive voice by intentionally removing the doer to make their prose appear more objective.
  1. Inappropriate use of passive. The sentence reads better when written in active voice:

In the factory, robots attached the bolts.


Download a PDF of the PassiveVoiceExercise and PassiveVoiceExerciseKey