March 6th, 2015

Thoughts on Professionalism and Communication Skills When Content Reigns


Instructors, particularly in online schools and those with open admission policies, often work with students who struggle with a lack of communication skills (namely writing) and professionalism. This is particularly troublesome for business schools that want to graduate students who possess a certain level of these skills in order to best represent the school in their professional lives. Schools that solely operate in the virtual environment are already subject to more scrutiny than their bricks and mortar counterparts. Graduating students who lack critical skills perpetuates the stigma that is still associated with online schools.

Instructors are expected to focus feedback and the bulk of a student’s grade on content rather than on communication skills. In business schools, students are not typically required to take a writing or English course as part of their program, and while schools may have excellent student support services that provide tutoring and other writing assistance for students who struggle, few students take advantage, even when strongly encouraged by their instructors. I regularly work with students who cannot form a proper sentence (undergraduate, graduate, and even doctoral level students). Some of these students, however, have a deep understanding of the course content. Inevitably, based on the school’s requirement that instructors overlook much of the writing issues, these students will graduate from their respective programs.

In terms of professionalism, instructors may receive emails from students with blank subject lines, entire messages within a subject line, incomplete sentences, missing punctuation, misspellings, no salutation, no signature, no thank you, and a myriad of additional faux pas in the professional environment. The fear is that students take these habits with them into their professional lives, drafting such communications to potential employers, business associates, etc.

The Critical Questions on Teaching Professionalism

All of this begs the questions: are these students really prepared for success, and did we, the school, do everything we could to ensure the students’ success and to foster our reputation in this competitive market?

Without diminishing the importance of learning cost accounting, statistics, marketing skills, and a plethora of program-specific content, I would argue that in my own professional life, the peripheral skills I gained and developed over the years, such as writing, public speaking, and critical thinking, were more vital to my success. Are we lessening the focus on these peripheral skills at the expense of true student preparedness? I believe it’s time to take a deeper look at how we’re preparing students for the real world.

This past year, I learned from one of my doctoral students, who is also a dean at a small college, that his business program recently implemented an initiative where instructors were required to model professional behavior by dressing professionally in the classrooms. He plans to study the effects of this practice on students’ professionalism post-graduation for his dissertation research. What can we be doing in the virtual environment to foster similar success?

I’ve been brainstorming a few ideas but readily welcome additional thoughts on the subject.

  • First and foremost, continue to model professional behavior through email communications, assignment feedback, phone/Skype chats, and through any other point of contact with students.
  • Rather than encouraging students to take advantage of their school’s support programs in written form (emails, welcome letters, assignment feedback), as we are apt to do in the online class environment, schedule a time to chat on the phone or via Skype about the student’s progress, address the student’s challenges, and encourage use of the available resources. Try to get a verbal commitment from the student that he or she will seek the appropriate assistance or determine why the student is hesitant to do so.
  • Give assignments a dual-purpose. Convert an essay assignment into a formal business communication submission (letter, email, or memo) where the student addresses the assignment goals via a specific business communication method, providing an opportunity to supply much-needed communication- and professionalism-related feedback (Was a formal salutation used? Did the student thank the recipient or conclude with a proper closing? Was a professional tone used? Etc.), in addition to the content-specific feedback.
  • Last, engage your school in the conversation, encouraging peers (and maybe even polling students!) to share ideas on how to address the problem (e.g. add an additional core course to all programs that focuses on professionalism and communication skills).

It’s critical that the dialogue continue until the challenges our students face are addressed with effective tools, programs, and initiatives.

Kelly Grattan is a faculty member at Northcentral University.

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  • Teresa Hamra

    Kelly, I agree with your blog and comments. It seems, even after students take the General Education courses required, they still have difficulty with writing sentences and writing professionally. I always encourage students to use the Writing resources available to them, but as you noted, they rarely do, so I am interested in polling them on this question.

    I teach online, and use a lot of the methods you talk about.
    I dropped my granddaughter off at school this past week, and saw many people walking into the school wearing jeans. My granddaughter informed me that a lot of the people were teachers. I really couldn't believe teachers are allowed to wear jeans when teaching. Many were young teachers. My granddaughter is 9 yrs old, and I was upset that this is how she is seeing professionalism modeled in the classroom.

  • Howard Doughty

    I have problems with your premises that underachievement in "communications skills" and "professionalism" are "particularly troublesome for business schools" and especially for schools that "operate in the virtual environment."

    The lack of communicative competence – both oral and written – is a problem for everyone teaching (almost) anything from anthropology to zoology. Even that, however, can be overcome. What is really bothersome is the general cultural and ideological biases that are implicit in Ms. Grattan's post and Ms. Hamra's comment.

    Reading them both, I have to wonder what century I am inhabiting. Ms. Hamra is upset by teachers wearing jeans? Really?

    I am a septuagenarian with close to 50 years in postsecondary education – from two-year colleges to postgraduate studies. I wore jeans when I entered my first classroom in September, 1967 and I will be wearing jeans when I enter my next classroom next week. My clothing has nothing whatever to do with my teaching. If professionalism isn't about teaching but merely dress codes, and if such blatant superficialities are truly what people are worried about, then we are doomed!

    What should concern us are matters such as unsustainable social inequality and economic inequity, an emerging form of inverted totalitarianism in which democracy is degraded and wealth accumulated is based on permanent war, the imminent ecological catastrophes that are already evident and can only get worse … and so on.

    What are presented here as authentic problems are merely superficial distractions and bogus cosmetics.

    As for people who "operate in the virtual environment," I can only express my deepest sympathy (though not my empathy). I am deathly afraid that no redemption is available. Pixelation is your choice and it is also your fate. The corruption of education may have gone too far to be rescued.

  • howard doughty

    Apologies: the words in the second line of the fifth paragraph were inadvertently transposed. I meant to say "accumulated wealth is based on permanent war" … perhaps making an editing option available would be a good idea.

  • C L Couch

    The invitation to brainstorm is great, so thank you for that. I teach writing and consult on writing issues with persons of all ages and professions. I help scholars prepare work for publication and assist teenagers in passing middle-school English. Regarding higher education, or any kind of post-secondary training, I think relevancy has to be offered. In fact, imposed. In writing classes, I am challenged to consider how each assignment and activity will assist the learner in the working world. Which is why I think the third bulletted comment is so promising. Consider and indeed make the course work serve both an academic and a pre-professional purpose.

    As far as modelling goes, yes, we should do that. But I think modelling as a term brings up appearance too easily and possibly without the understanding that dress and look are highly relative to professional success. We do live in a button-down work-a-day world, and we don't. So I question whether uniformity in wardrobe is helplful. What is helpful, regardless of what we wear, is to model through respect, congeniality, cooperation, and shared purpose. The positive attributes and attitudes we can practice for our learners are necessary, even exigent.

  • Tom D

    As a working professional, project manager, and doctoral student I definitely agree with what Dr. G. is saying here. I find the online environment particularly challenging and isolating. Being able to communicate effectively is essential to business, both eyeball-to-eyeball and in the virtual environment. The old adage of dressing for the job you want to have as opposed to the one you currently have rings true. I like the idea of having business students dress for success in the classroom.

    Admittedly, wearing a shirt and tie every day did not come easily for me. However, after doing it for years, I am accustomed to it. Communication both verbal and in writing is important, and during my doctoral program I have found myself developing similar habits of vetting my APA style, citations, etc. Both content and format are important for effectively communicating.

    Being able to speak well carried forth into being able to write well. I belong to Toastmasters, an organization focused on improvement of professional communication. The emphasis during speeches is on multiple aspects of presentation in addition to the content. Being an effective speaker helps to make someone a better writer. These are skills that present challenges in an online environment. However, just like being focused on ums and ahs we all need to watch our presentation through written means.

    One very important key to effective communication is understanding the audience on a much deeper level than learning styles. This is especially true in an online environment. Understanding core principles of human behavior help with motivation, both in business and academia. One resource I highly recommend is the book by Pauley and Pauley called Communication: The Key to Effective Leadership. In closing, I believe that, especially in today's online world, we all need to continue to be focused on professional and effective communication on all levels.

  • Tom D

    correction…helps with motivation…I forgot the "s" in the sentence above and there is no way to edit.