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Teaching Case Using a Research in Technical and Scientific Communication Class to Teach Essential Workplace Skills

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1 Author(s)
Lucy Bednar ; School of Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communication, MSC 2103, James Madison University, Harrisonburg

Teaching problem: Undergraduate research at the university level often focuses on the production of a traditional research paper, one with an academic orientation, often information heavy and analysis light, emphasizing the importance of secondary sources and documentation style over the process of inquiry. What approaches to undergraduate research would enable aspiring technical communicators to develop research skills that would better prepare them for success in a professional environment? Situating the case: The approaches described in this paper draw on the work of Mel Levine as presented in , in which he delineates several reasons why young people encounter problems when they enter professional environments: overly managed lives, no experience of delayed gratification, inability to think critically, limited knowledge of their own strengths and weaknesses, and an expectation of stability in the so-called adult world. Levine claims that these problems can be addressed by helping students develop a sense of inner direction as opposed to direction from without, an understanding of how to think critically and apply knowledge, a willingness to build and refine skills over time, and competent writing and speaking skills. In addition, the approaches described in this paper draw on three well-established research traditions: mixed methods research, problem-based research, and action research. How this case was studied: This paper describes the experiences of using two approaches to teach Research in Technical and Scientific Communication at a mid-sized state university in Virginia. The material was collected informally over a period of six years of teaching the course-through observation, student feedback, and completed research reports. About the case: Research in Technical and Scientific Communication required students to produce a research report within the context of real-world inquiry, appropriately focused for a specific audience and purpose, using both primary - nd secondary sources, and including analysis as well as information. Two approaches were used. The Real Client approach required students to investigate a small-scale, real-world problem or need, which became the focus of a research report that could be submitted to a specific audience for a specific purpose, both identified by the student early in the research process. The Impact of Technology approach required students to consider the impact of technology on modern life, investigate a narrower topic within this broad topic, and prepare a report that could be published in the university magazine or student newspaper. Examples of strong and weak research reports illustrate which features of each approach worked well and which posed challenges. Overall, students responded well to both approaches, but found the Impact of Technology approach more congenial because it was more familiar to them than the Real Client approach. Nonetheless, with both approaches, but especially with the Real Client approach, students seemed reluctant to make necessary contacts, conduct in-depth interviews, and include well-developed analysis. They were more comfortable gathering information anonymously through secondary source material or online surveys, and presenting that information with a limited amount of analysis. Both approaches served to move students toward a more realistic understanding of the kind of research needed in professional environments. Conclusions: These approaches also addressed the concerns raised by Levine. The study was limited by its informal nature, with observations and conclusions resulting from a six-year period of informal experimentation and refinement, during which the requirements for the research report were continually redesigned to better address what students would need to be successful in a workplace.

Published in:

IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication  (Volume:55 ,  Issue: 4 )