Friday, December 09, 2011

Life Lessons Not Learned in College

One of the ongoing challenges of academic education is preparing students for the real world.

In “What Students Don’t Learn About Work in Work in College” (, US News & World Report blogger Alison Green identifies 10 lessons that are often lost on students.

Several of these relate to one of the skills that I think is so important--especially for students hoping to become instructional designers and technical communicators (the two fields for which I prepare students).  But most are skills that students actually should develop in school.

Green advises students: 
"You need to address both sides of an issue," 
noting that students typically learn to argue 1 side of an issue when preparing assignments for school.  

But this is a skill that can be learned in school.  The best way to argue for one side is to explore the other side of the argument, then explain why that is the less effective approach to the situation.  This balance is also called critical thinking and the extent of that critical thinking is what  distinguishes A papers from the rest.  One need not wait for the workplace to develop this skill; it's something to start while in school. 

But admittedly, some faculty members assume that students know that arguing both sides of the issue makes for a stronger paper and, as a result, do not explicitly explain this strategy to students.  
Green advises students that:
You need to be concise when writing in the workplace. Good writing isn’t stiff and formal.  
Like the last skill, this one can be developed in school.  The truth is, most faculty find stiff, verbose writing painful to read.  Most grimace when reading such assignments.  

Unfortunately, some faculty members do not factor in the quality of the writing when grading papers, they reward such papers with passing or excellent grades.  Worse, because some faculty often assume that students know how to do things without verifying it, they do not comment on these issues when grading papers nor do they address the problems of verboseness and stiff writing with their classes.

The last tip for writing that Green offers is
Procrastinating is a really bad idea. 
That, too, is a skill that students can learn in school if their professors emphasize it.  So often, students can easily get extensions.  (I know well--when I was an undergraduate, I developed expertise in requesting them and, by the time I was a doctoral student, I was the designated "Can you give us an extension" requester in many of my classes.)

But having had learned the same lesson in the workplace--sometimes painfully--(to be honest, I still struggle with deadlines), I have developed a zero-tolerance policy on late assignments. In fact, it's a 
totally zero approach--late assignments receive a 0.  

Recognizing that students sometimes really do need an extension because they're juggling too many due dates for their classes, I do offer a "get out of jail free" card each term.  For one assignment, each term, students can ask to submit it a week late.  This does not work with some time-dependent assignments, such as in-class presentations and exams--but is well received by students.  Students merely need to tell me that they want to take advantage of this before the assignment is due; they do not need to provide me with an excuse and I advise them to take the full week of the extension.  

Such an approach also teaches students how to negotiate schedules and actively confronting their schedules in advance--rather than at the last minute.  Those are important project management skills, and they're ones that can be developed in school.   


rnantel said...

So happy to see you discussing the issue of writing skills. In my years at university, I only had one professor who placed an emphasis on this critical skill:

Lisa Neal Gualtieri said...

Great post, and wonderful to read your own critical thinking about these important issues

Saul Carliner said...

Thanks for the feedback, Lisa.