Improving Writing Skills and Alleviating Grading Confusion

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Christopher Rider, Business Administration

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2005

The Social, Political and Ethical Environment of Business (UGBA 107) exposes Haas students to the complex and often controversial social issues and public policy problems that complicate the task of managing American businesses. A key assignment for students in this course is the composition of five journal articles. For these assignments, students must read a current news article, develop a stance on the article’s content, and present a coherent and balanced argument for their position — all within one page. Although these journal articles are but a small component of students’ course grades (10%), these assignments are instrumental in preparing students for the essay format of the midterm and final exams as well as in helping students develop the succinct, analytical writing style that is so crucial to success in American business. Because these assignments each represent less than 2% of the students’ final course grade, many students tend to neglect the assignment, writing quickly and carelessly to simply “get credit.” Similarly, time-constrained GSIs faced with 80 or more journal articles per week often resort to simply “checking-off” students’ completion of the assignment without carefully reviewing the argument and providing students with constructive feedback about what was done well and what might be improved. From a pedagogical standpoint, this is unfortunate. Learning to write in a concise and persuasive manner is a valuable skill for students who will soon enter a business world in which the ability to persuade others with well-structured and convincing emails, memos, reports and voicemails is important for individuals’ performance evaluations, promotions and career development. From a practical standpoint, this situation of mutual disinterest on the part of students and GSIs also leads to confusion and disagreements regarding exam and course grades. Conversations with other GSIs informed me of these pedagogical and practical concerns, and motivated me to consider how I might improve students’ learning experiences while avoiding numerous one-on-one conversations regarding grades. I believe I developed an appropriate and effective solution to this problem, which may be of use to future GSIs for BA 107 and other courses.

Prior to submission of the first journal article, I informed students during our section meeting of my expectations for the assignment. I sought a balance, clearly-articulated argument that developed a clear stance on any current news issue the student chose. Students were told that assignments would receive one of three grades: (1) outstanding, (2) acceptable or (3) below expectations. After submission of the journal articles, I carefully read each one and provided each student with their assignment grade and detailed feedback reports of five to ten sentences via email. In these emails, I made comments along the lines of “I like that you take a clear stance on this issue while acknowledging that there are at least two sides to the issue. Do you see any other possible perspectives?” or “While you at least recognize that others may not be inclined to adopt a utilitarian perspective, your argument would be strengthened greatly by clarifying why your feel the utilitarian approach is most desirable for your purposes.” or “Your essay is well-argued and fairly persuasive. Further developing your argument, you might consider the question of ‘What would it take to change my mind?’” As one might expect, this process took quite a bit of time (approximately five to ten minutes for each of 83 students). However, it was time well spent. By providing detailed, constructive feedback specific to each student’s essay, my students developed a stronger idea of what was expected. By posing open-ended questions in the feedback emails, I engaged many motivated students to participate in an ongoing email exchange and stimulated many students’ interest in pursuing their topics further in the course term paper. Moreover, the second round of journal articles was so much stronger (i.e., clear, balanced, etc.) that, after the second week, I sent only a few emails to students who continued to be challenged in meeting expectations. This also alleviated many students’ concerns about grading. Many students thanked me for such detailed attention to their early work because it helped them to improve their writing skills and to perform well on the exams. In my evaluations, I received many comments that suggested that students really appreciated my approach and I would strongly recommend that future GSIs consider adopting a similar practice. The benefits of doing so may be both pedagogical and practical.