Are Students Prepared: Workplace Preparation in the College Classroom
by Emma Stephenson
Picture this: a recent college graduate, excited to enter the workforce and start their dream job. They are no longer plagued with endless exams and assignments. Yes, their abilities in their new field will be put to the test, but at least they can focus on what they specialize in, right? Perhaps this graduate has an engineering degree, or perhaps finance or history. The list of different paths for each new graduate is nearly endless. While each career will utilize different skills and interests, all of them will test the employee’s ability to communicate effectively through writing for an audience, whether that be a customer or an employer. That same college graduate who is filled with excitement and a passion for their dream job may not realize how much written communication they are expected to do effectively and professionally.
Writing in the Workplace
More than ever, the 21st century workplace demands writing competence. Students who are entering the workforce today will face a very different work environment than previous generations. The need for low-skilled manufacturing and service job workers is being eliminated by technological advancements that are introduced every year. As a result, today’s newly graduated students are entering a knowledge-based workplace that expects good communication and writing skills. A 2018 survey of employers stated that “more than 80 percent of employers will seek proof of solid written communication skills on a candidate’s resume” (NACE 30). Are colleges preparing these students for the challenge of writing in the workplace? Evidence would say no. Results from the same survey indicated that 90.3% of employers view written/oral communication as essential. However, only 44.8% viewed it as a proficient skill in their employees. (NACE 30).
Interview with a Manager
To get a real picture of the level of dissatisfaction in businesses and employers, I spoke with James Stephenson, manager of a local insurance agency. I asked questions about his satisfaction with the workers he oversees, specifically questions regarding their professional writing abilities. He replied, “…there is an initial desire from some of the younger workers to appear professional in their writing, but… it doesn’t take long before their workplace communication skills begin to lose their professionalism” (Stephenson). He laughed good-naturedly as he recalled wondering whether any of these employees learned how to write in college.
Clearly there is something missing from what students are taught about writing in college, but until we find the source of the problem, we can’t attempt to fix it. To find out what students are missing in their education, in continuation of my interview with the insurance manager, I asked him what he saw lacking in his employees’ writing abilities. He mentioned that a huge part of being successful at selling insurance is “maintaining a professional but friendly relationship with your clients… especially to the small farming communities that rural Iowa is home to… [this includes] writing business emails and also promoting new insurance policies and contracts” (Stephenson). The ability to write concise and organized messages is required for any business to be successful, but it is especially important for a business that is trying to sell a product. Stephenson brought up the fact that almost no one comes into the business with a good understanding of writing outside of academics. Though he couldn’t quite pinpoint what was missing, he did mention a lack of ability from the employee to be aware of what the audience needs from their writing. He said, “[his employees] often write as if they were communicating to him or their coworkers, when they should be writing for their clients who may not be familiar with the content” (Stephenson).
Writing for an Audience
For a more specific answer to what is lacking in workplace writing, I turned to Michelle Cox, Christina Ortmeier-Hooper, and Katherine E. Tirabassi. In their essay “Teaching Writing for the ‘Real World’: Community and Workplace Writing” they state that, “Writing in the community and workplace requires the writer to be rhetorically savvy – to anticipate the needs, purposes, and responses of multiple readers; to learn how to write unfamiliar genres; to learn to write with others…” (Cox et. al 73). This sounds exactly like what the insurance manager noticed was missing from his own writing as well as that of his employees.
Cox et. al notes that these types of writing styles are rarely taught in school, “writing collaboratively, writing for multiple audiences, writing for multiples purposes, writing for audiences that know less about the topic than does the writer, and writing that is meant to be not only read, but to be used to accomplish a task” (Cox et. al 73). To summarize: writing classes are not teaching students to consider their audience.
Survey of Students
What is missing from the writing classes students are required to take? If writing is all about communication, then why are students not able to communicate to their audience effectively when they reach the workplace? To find the disconnect in workplace writing, I interviewed seven graduates with graduation years ranging from 2012 to 2017, and degrees ranging from English to Engineering. Each of these graduates are currently in careers related to their degree. The results were not surprising, but did yield some unexpected information. For instance, I fully expected the STEM majors to have taken fewer writing courses than the Humanities/Liberal Arts majors, but what I didn’t expect was to find that very little peer review or feedback from professors occurred in the STEM major’s writing classes, while the Humanities/Liberal Arts majors answered that they always or usually received timely feedback for their writing. As an English major myself, I found it hard to believe that not every writing class would include peer review and some guaranteed feedback from professors.
It is known across fields of education that feedback from peers and teachers greatly benefit the student in any area of study. As a student who has written for teachers who do not implement peer/teacher feedback and those who do, I noticed a strong contrast not only in my confidence, but also my ability to write in a way that is clear and understandable. In his essay “It All Starts Here: Fixing our National Writing Crisis from the Foundation” Dr. Steve Graham recognizes the importance of frequent feedback saying, “Ongoing assessment allows teachers to evaluate the student’s strengths and weaknesses and provide specific strategies for improvement” (6). I would add that frequent feedback allows the student to evaluate their writing because they are able to consider it through someone else’s eyes.
Shortcomings in workplace writing can’t be attributed to lack of feedback alone. Included in my survey to the recent college graduates was a list of writing tasks that covered virtually every kind of writing that is done in college. I assumed that this list would yield results showing the areas of writing that some students never had to learn. However, nearly everyone I surveyed had written most, if not all, of the ten forms of writing I listed (e.g. analysis paper, research paper, book report, lab report, etc.). So, I changed my focus, instead asking participants to tell me how often they had to do each writing task. This was interesting because in my findings, an English major would rarely write a book report, and would instead write an argumentative essay. A Biology major would have written each of the items on the list, but of course, a lab report would dominate their writing activities. A History major may have the most experience with writing a research paper, but they would also have had some experience with each other type of writing. Understandably, each individual degree program will determine the types of writing the student will be the most familiar with.
After finding this evidence, contrary to what I was expecting, I concluded that the problem isn’t necessarily that college students aren’t learning to write, or even that they aren’t learning to write well. Instead, I think the issue may lie in the fact that many students aren’t getting the writing practice that would aid them specifically in future professional writing. While talking to the insurance manager, he told me that he had a bachelor’s degree in history and the only writing class he remembered taking was college writing. Clearly, most of the writing he is now required to do is vastly different from the essays he wrote in college. More practice with professional or technical writing may have been beneficial to him and anyone else in his field.
The common phrase “practice makes perfect” is applicable to writing. If someone is to be a great creative writer, they need to put in the years of practice. The same is true for professional communication. Ronald T. Kellog and Bascom A. Raulerson III, in their essay “Improving the writing skills of college students” suggest the implementation of deliberate practice in college writing classes. Kellog says:
Knowledge of correct spelling, punctuation, grammar, diction, thesis statements, topic sentence and cohesive links with a paragraph, and global organizations of texts are necessary but not sufficient for effective writing. Writers, just like musicians and athletes, must be trained, so that what they know is retrieved and creatively applied during composition. (Kellog and Raulerson III 238)
While the mechanics of writing are important, there is no better way to confidently and correctly apply what you know to your writing than to practice writing with the audience, purpose, and context in mind. With practice, workplace communication could become second-nature to newly graduated students, but coming into the workplace with prior experience and skills established will make any employee more valuable. Thinking back to the 3.1 billion dollars that are spent annually to remediate employee writing skills, companies are looking for workers who are already prepared.
There are many factors to take into account when considering the best way to implement more feedback and opportunity for practice in college writing classes. Again, knowing the audience is always important for good communication, and this is also true for teachers. Anyone who has taken a first-year college writing class knows that the room is not filled with students who want a career in journalism, for example. It’s a mixture of students with different specialties and learning styles. There is a common theme of resentment for writing assignments such as literary analysis or the five-paragraph essay. As Cox and her collaborators observe, “in our teaching of writing, we overlook the kinds of writing that are connected to the “real world” that our students and their families interact with on a daily basis” (Cox et. al 72). Teachers need to consider what will be most beneficial in the student’s future professionally. Keeping the writing assignments short and flexible when it comes to effort and creativity can allow the student to improve their writing skills. It would depend on what they want to get out of the process, but scholars such as Kellog and Raulerson agree that deliberate practice of any capacity is a central factor in improving performance both in the student’s understanding of their writing, and also in the effect that their writing can have on their audience (238).
Teachers have the right idea when they integrate discussion posts and journal entries online for students to get constant practice for writing. These online discussions allow for feedback between fellow students and teachers. This is especially effective because it gives the student practice explaining their thoughts in a clear and concise manner. However, in order to give students the necessary practice in sharpening their writing skills, these teaching practices need to extend to more than just writing classes. When applicable, all college classes should include some kind of online or in-person written discussions. This will give students at least four years of repetition, so that by the time they are in the workplace, they are accustomed to considering audience, purpose, and context in every piece of writing they may be doing, whether it be a simple email or a year-end report to their CEO.
As beneficial as it may seem, this solution has several limitations to be considered. First, there is danger that students may not get the desired benefit from the constant practice because they would learn to write what they thought the teacher wanted to read instead of putting careful thought and effort into their writing. Michelle Cox and her collaborators recognize the danger of this student mentality when they observe that, “students may leave…with the impression that writing for the workplace is easy – simply follow the template laid out in the textbook and you can’t go wrong” (Cox et. al 74). There would need to be individual class adjustments that would guide the writing into thoughtful discussions. There is also the possibility that teachers and peers may not be able to give helpful feedback due to large class size. Despite these limitations, there is still a need for adjustment in teaching practices.
Although there are many jobs in the world, each with different challenges that students are learning to master in college, the ability to communicate through writing is a skill that connects many of these jobs together. Although only a small percentage of students will go on to write to an audience that is any larger than their workplace environment, each of them will still be responsible for communicating effectively in every situation. While students with only 4+ years of minimal writing experience can’t be expected to be prepared for everything the workplace will demand of them, there are teaching practices that can be considered that could ease the transition from college to workplace such as: integrating opportunities for students to practice communicating with various audiences while offering feedback for their writing from both teachers and peers.
For many students, poor writing skills will create a barrier for them when they are seeking to enter the workplace. Students should feel confident that college has prepared them to take on the challenge of workplace writing. There is still research to be done to find the best way to implement the experience and practice that is required—research that has the potential to improve student writing competence. In a workplace environment where the ability to communicate effectively through writing is becoming less common, students who graduate from college with this skill are going to have more doors open to them than students whose education did not prepare them.
Cox, Michelle, Ortmeier-Hooper, Christina, and Katherine E. Tirabassi, “Teaching Writing for the ‘Real World’: Community and Workplace Writing.” The English Journal, vol. 98, no. 5, 2009, pp. 72–80. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40503302.
Graham, Steve. “It All Starts Here Fixing Our Nationals Writing Crisis From the Foundation.” Saperstein Associates, Jan. 2013.
Kellogg, Ronald T., and Bascom A. Raulerson. “Improving the Writing Skills of College Students.” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, vol. 14, no. 2, 2007, pp. 237–242., doi:10.3758/bf03194058.
NACE Job Outlook 2019. Bethlehem, PA.: National Association of Colleges and Employers, November 2018.
Stephenson, Emma. “Survey of College Graduates.” Survey. November 18, 2019.
Stephenson, James. Personal Interview. October 25, 2019.
Emma Stephenson is a junior at the University of Northern Iowa, where she is pursuing an English degree with a minor in professional writing. She enjoys painting, playing piano, reading, and most of all, writing. When it comes to writing, Emma is passionate about discovering ways she can use it to help people. She enjoys the challenges that her classes bring her, and she looks forward to continuing to use writing in her future career.