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Turning Business Students Into Better Employees

A growing number of new graduates are finding that they need more than talent and good grades to land their dream job. Today's companies want employees with soft skills -- team players with strong communication and problem solving skills who can adapt quickly to change.

Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville's School of Business recently revamped its curriculum in an effort to better prepare undergrads for the 21st century workplace. "We heard over and over again from our students' potential and current employers that soft skills are the hardest for students to perfect," explains Professor Susan Yager. "Traditionally it's been hard to refine those interpersonal skills and communication skills until you're in a workplace."

To teach these skills, the school developed two new required courses for all of its 1,200 undergraduate students. In Managing Group Projects, students learn project management theory, and then apply those skills by tackling group projects facilitated through Smartsheet, an online collaborative project management tool. In Understanding the Business Environment, students develop their business writing skills using an online writing evaluation tool called Write Experience while also learning principles of management.

Professor Mary Sue Love, who developed the curriculum for Managing Group Projects and has taught it in its first year, explains that the school chose Smartsheet because of its versatility -- the cloud-based tool allows for anytime, anywhere collaboration across multiple platforms -- and because of its prevalence in the business world. "Our students are using a tool that was used to coordinate the Super Bowl last year," remarks Love. "Their future employers will be familiar with what they did in school as much as our grads will be familiar with what's happening in their new work place."

Once they've completed the Managing Group Projects course, students will continue to use Smartsheet to organize and manage group projects throughout their college career. "Our students have latched right onto it," explains Professor Jo Ellen Moore, who began incorporating the tool into her coursework this year. "It's their team's project headquarters, where their can create their project plan, see the status of each task, upload documents and files to a central project management spreadsheet, facilitating their teamwork both inside and outside of class."

Smartsheet has also made it easier to evaluate students' involvement and investment in group projects. "In the past, when doing group project work, I required students to fill out documents to keep me updated on their progress," remarks Love, "and honestly, it was very hard to get them to follow through on that. Now that students are using Smartsheet, they're actually updating their spreadsheet and annotating documents and communicating with each other. It's helping them stay coordinated and it's helping me evaluate their success at working within a group."

Instructor Katie Robinson helped develop the curriculum for and teaches Understanding the Business Environment, which piloted its first class in Spring 2012 and is now mandatory for all undergrads. Write Experience integrates into the school's existing Blackboard LMS, and assignments can be geared towards the business curriculum -- letters of interest, performance evaluations, formal reports, and so on. Professors and teaching assistants hand-evaluate one written assignment during the semester, but the majority of the writing assignments are evaluated through the Write Experience software. "We have over 300 students in this course per semester, so hand-grading every writing assignment isn't a real possibility," explains Robinson. "Students can access Write Experience anytime and anywhere, they can revise their assignment based on the software's feedback right up until the assignment's due date, and they're able to review each other's work and provide peer feedback, which is so important."

Using software to evaluate a skill like writing is new for most students. Robinson has found that many students are initially hesitant about relying on a piece of software to evaluate their writing, but after the first assignment and throughout the semester, their experience with the software teaches them the importance of revising their written correspondences and they quickly see the value in the process.

Students only have access to Write Experience during their time in this course, but the skills that they learn stay with them throughout the rest of their career at SIU. "The software is making them think before they submit, so even everyday business correspondence like drafting an email to a higher-up versus drafting an email to a colleague or a peer is positively impacted," remarks Robinson. "When I receive emails from students now, I can easily tell which have already completed this course."

About the Author

Jennifer Demski is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY.

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