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.