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Professors can request assignment cover memos that concisely summarize the work.

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The skill of boiling down ideas into concise, compelling communications is crucial to success in many careers and workplaces. That’s why professors should consider designing writing assignments that align with what students will face in the workplace. Martha Coven, author of Writing on the Job: Best Practices for Communicating in the Digital Age (Princeton University Press, 2022), spoke on this topic at the recent conference on general education, pedagogy and assessment organized by the American Association of Colleges and Universities.

Coven, a trainer and consultant who teaches public policy and writing at Princeton and New York Universities, shared the many differences between workplace and academic writing—including that workplace writing tends to have short paragraphs and bulleted lists. In the workplace, collaborative writing is valued and generally expected, while in classes students are trained to write independently.

College professors not modeling good writing for students is also a problem. Their writing tends to be “terribly laden with jargon,” and “we also often hide the bottom line,” she said. That main point? It’s often very hard to find—even in academic journal article abstracts.

Other common issues include: packing slide decks with too many words, presenting data visualizations that “feel like intelligence tests” and have unhelpful titles, and adding footnotes to everything. While there are good reasons for footnotes in the academy, in an internal work memo, one is just trusted to have the facts straight.

Student pursuing careers outside academia (that is, the vast majority of students) need practice on common types of workplace writing. Here are a few types writing done at work with tips from Coven about how assignments in college courses can provide that practice:

  1. Reports, memos, proposals and plans. Students could be asked to turn in a cover memo with any assignment or write a tweet or LinkedIn post that summarizes the idea and “shows that you’ve really gotten to the heart of it,” Coven says.
  2. Materials for the media, such as press releases or commentary. At some companies, notably Amazon, employees pitching something new are asked to write a press release and FAQ highlighting what they might get asked about the proposal. This is another potential assignment add-on. Or students can be asked to write about 700 words of perspective on a topic to influence the reader, mirroring a LinkedIn article.
  3. Résumés and cover letters. Coven finds that students, when asked why a particular job appeals, will focus on their own personal interests. Related assignments can get them into the mind-set of selling themselves as a good fit for the role.
  4. Self-assessments and performance reviews. When asked on the job, most people have no idea how to attack this kind of writing, Coven says, adding that “it’s a great thing to simulate” as related to class performance.
  5. Slide decks. While students are generally comfortable creating slide decks, one area for growth can be teaching them to have a headline on each slide that conveys the bottom line, Coven says. “If you just read the headlines, it should tell a story.”

In a recent Inside Higher Ed opinion piece, Martha Coven offered tips to academics for using numbers in papers and reports more effectively. Put into practice, the advice can help faculty members model good writing to students.

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