Framing is Half the Challenge

Mikel Chertudi talks to Aimee McFarland about Framing of Assignments in Business Communication Courses.

Mikel:  Would you please introduce yourself, Aimee?  What’s your background, and what classes do you teach?

Aimee: I worked in the corporate world and started my family before coming to academia. After getting my MBA, I was asked to fill in teaching an undergraduate business communication class at my alma mater, where I taught for 5 years. That class also fulfilled the upper division writing requirement, so, in addition to the baseline business students, I also had students of nursing, education, psychology, music, and science. I believe this diverse audience created a unique teaching opportunity to me in that I had to adapt to a very broad, non-business audience. But, even they quickly saw the value of the course.

I now teach Fundamentals of Business Communication, the first of two undergraduate business communication classes at the University of Arizona, and I’m completing my 3rd year of teaching here. I love teaching this course because it is relevant to anyone in any context. Students amaze me with their level of improvement in just a few short months.

Mikel: How do you frame this assignment within the overall content of this course? Where does this assignment fit in this course?

Aimee: As we all know, framing is IMPERATIVE! On the first day of class, I explain how business writing is very different from academic writing, and I outline the differences. I also ask how many students have had any training or experience with business writing, and the response is always very low. My first outside of class activity is to have them write a brief introduction, including any exposure to this type of writing, and they invariably share their hesitation and anxiety about their writing skills.

I use this information to frame this first assignment, explaining to them, just as they had when they started school, we are going to start off very slowly and learn the basics before we go any further. This assignment is very structured in that I provide them with the framework using labels and a template, so they feel supported and less anxious.

The beginning of the semester is a critical time for them to form their first opinion about business writing and me, and it really should be a positive one. It is also very important they learn the basics early, because we will use them throughout the semester, especially when message context gets more complex. This assignment and the subsequent activity positions students well for the rest of the semester.

Mikel: So you do a lot of scaffolding for the students to initiate them into business communication?

Aimee: Yes.

Mikel: What spurred you to create this assignment?  Were you trying to solve a particular problem?

Aimee:  Most sophomores are at different skill levels with varying frames of reference (most have never worked or written a memo).  I wanted to be more efficient with the first couple of assignments to expedite students’ ability to write effective business introductions and conclusions. I also wanted to create a situation where they “win” early in the semester, as this material is so new to most of them and difficult to grasp given their years of academic writing. The assignment needed to have a clear “right” answer and be easy to grade utilizing some of their “familiar” writing styles.  

Mikel: What do you like most about this assignment?

Aimee: I like that it gives students practice with the essence of context, purpose, WIIFY, and forecast and, by its design, forces them to be redundant. They see the relationship between the four elements and how they can be very similar (and, thus, combined).

This assignment also illustrates that the best way to avoid mistakes is to make them and learn why they are mistakes. There is something about telling students to be redundant that makes it clearer to them why it is so bad. They can see how redundancy interrupts flow and creates disconnect for the reader, and they are less likely to continue to be redundant as the semester progresses.

This first assignment also creates material for another, follow up assignment (Activity 1) where they “fix” the mistakes they made. In Activity 1, I provide them with two intros (I select from those students who received full credit for Assignment 1) for them to “fix” and then they fix their own (from Assignment 1).

Mikel: So what is the hook in the assignment that makes it interesting for the students and the instructor?

Aimee: Honestly, I don’t have to work terribly hard for the “hook” in this course as the material is so useful and relevant in so many contexts.  I share relevant corporate “stories” which illustrate situations they will use the skills they are learning, and that is extremely effective in keeping them engaged and motivated.

My hook (the instructor hook) with this assignment is the effectiveness of it and the difference it makes in how quickly students grasp the basics. It isn’t difficult to grade, either, which is always a bonus.

If you mean other than the learning, for those students who need more of a hook by the way of a reward than just the satisfaction of knowledge, I offer pretty straightforward grading criteria for both the assignment and the activity, which, if followed, results in them getting full credit. Activity 1 also enables them to see how an informative introduction can be structured in a variety of ways, since they are revising 3 versions of an introduction for the same message.

Mikel: Do you have any advice for someone who might be interested in trying your approach?

Aimee: I’ve used this assignment for a couple of semesters now and seen a definite improvement in student writing. I have revised the instructions each semester and designed a template format for them to follow to alleviate confusion and provide a scaffold. Thinking through the assignment from beginning to end to provide appropriate framing for students has helped me anticipate questions andput steps in place to ensure success.

Breaking it down: Informative Intros and Conclusions

Description of the Assignment

This is the first assignment of the semester for undergraduate business students to learn the components of a memo while learning what belongs in an informative introduction and conclusion. The instructor first explains the purpose for memos and what the reader needs in an introduction order to evaluate a message. Students are used to writing academically, so we also review the differences between that and business writing. Completion of this assignment requires them to fill in the components of a memo and then craft 4 labeled sentences for the introduction and 2-3 for the conclusion.

This assignment also provides material for a follow up activity, where students receive 2 sets of intros to “fix”. The instructor selects 2 samples from the assignment submissions and then students revise their own, deleting redundancy and reworking the 4 sentences into 1-2 sentences intros.

Procedures and support materials available upon request.

Learning Objectives

Through this activity, students will learn:

  • To develop a proper memo structure
  • To inform the reader of key material within the introduction while also crafting an effective informative conclusion
  • To understand The nuances to each of the elements in the introduction and why they are important
  • To identify The problems associated with redundancy

Student Outcomes

Prior to creating this assignment, it sometimes took students several assignments (with higher point values) before they fully understood the concept of informative messages. During grading, the instructor often had to make assumptions about the introductions because of the varied nature with which students integrate the elements. This assignment alleviated that need, as students labeled each of the sentences. The labeling exercise also prepares them for the need for the use of headings and subheadings in business communication for greater readability.

After implementation of this two-part informative introductions and conclusions module, students have a much more in depth understanding of the informative message. Creating redundancy and then revising was also effective in showing students how much redundancy hinders communication in a message.

While students were somewhat skeptical about the process early on, they experienced the “ah ha” moment once they saw how effective they were at revising the introductions in this assignment. This strategy also enabled them to look at “fixing” mistakes more as a learning opportunity and approach the next assignment with confidence.

Having them work through three sets of introductions for the same message also enabled them to see a variety of approaches to writing about the same topic. While it is difficult to attribute a specific category of effectiveness to this assignment, the instructor notes a marked improvement in student ability to apply more advanced critical thinking strategies to messages earlier in the semester after completing this module.

Recommended Citation: Aimee McFarland with Mikel Chertudi. (2019). Framing is half the challenge. Western ABC Bulletin, 1.1.

Aimee McFarland is a Lecturer in Business Communications at the Eller College of Management
Aimee McFarland is a Lecturer in Business Communications at the Eller College of Management