Back to the Basics: Innovative Strategies to Prepare Traditional and Adult Learners in the Social Sciences for 21st Century Workforce

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A National Symposium

November 22–23, 2013

University of Miami
Miami, Florida

A study conducted by Hart and Associates on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (2010) reveals that employers believe that two and four year institutions need to place more emphasis on written and oral communication as well as critical thinking, and analytical reasoning skills. Writing is regarded as an important tool for enhancing students’ thinking in general. The process of committing an idea on paper usually forces the writer to clarify his thoughts and ideas. According to Flateby (as cited in Martinez, Kock, & Cass, 2011), writing should be emphasized not only by English faculty, but the entire campus community. Johnson C. Smith University, formerly offered “learning across the curriculum” courses to enhance students’ critical thinking, oral and written communication skills. These courses have since been phased out, resulting in academic programs to implement strategies to incorporate these skill sets in their existing curriculums. This article will examine some of the innovative strategies adopted by criminology and social work faculty to prepare our undergraduate majors for the 21st century workforce.

Criminology Initiatives

During the 2009-2010 academic year, the criminology program’s Criminal Justice Advisory Board (which consists of practitioners from various federal, state, and local law enforcement, courts, and correctional agencies) identified the critical need for criminal justice professionals with workplace appropriate writing skills. In turn, based on departmental faculty input and observation, and year-end departmental evaluation, there appeared to be a critical need to enhance the written oral communication skills of students. The following discusses two of the innovations within the criminology program.

Special Topics in Criminal Justice-Writing for Criminal Justice

Special Topics in Criminal Justice courses are a venue for faculty to offer relevant criminal justice related courses, based on emerging trends and issues, without having to submit a new course for approval through the university’s lengthy new curriculum approval process. In Spring 2011, one faculty member chose to offer Special Topics in Criminal Justice-Writing for Criminal Justice. The course was designed to develop students’ writing and critical thinking skills, for not only the criminal justice workplace, but also for graduate and professional school (given that graduates pursue both endeavors). Students were required to complete the following academic writing assignments:

  • Reaction Paper. Students had to identify a criminal justice issue or policy and write a reaction paper to invoke a positive or negative reaction to that topic.
  • Article Critique. Students had to critique a peer reviewed article.
  • Annotated Bibliography. Students had to prepare an annotated bibliography, properly formatted according to APA 6th edition format, in preparation for their policy analysis paper.
  • Annotated Outline. Students had to prepare an annotated outline, in preparation for their policy analysis paper.
  • Policy Analysis Paper. Students had to analyze a criminal justice policy, and make empirically based recommendations to improve or cease the policy.

In addition to the above, students had to complete the following professional writing assignments. These writing assignments were based on those they are reasonably expected to do in the criminal justice workforce.

  • Police Report. Students had to complete a police report, using a real template and narrative provided by a local police agency.
  • Victim Impact Statement. Students had to interview a pre-selected member of the university faculty and staff to interview them and write a victim impact statement, requiring them to actively interview, listen and write the reported information.
  • Interoffice Memorandum. Students had to write a memorandum, professional formatted, regarding a pre-assigned “scenario” in a criminal justice workplace.
  • Letter of transmission and resume. Students had to identify a job vacancy in their chosen career path and write a letter of transmission and send their resume.

In addition, students received information literacy instruction from library staff, a class lecture on APA 6th Edition format, and a class lecture on academic integrity and plagiarism. Each week, they were required to submit a writing assignment to the course professor for faculty-student feedback, and errors in their work were presented in the class, on the LCD projector (anonymously of course), for which they also received peer-to-peer feedback.

Instructional Rounds: A Dyadic Approach to Learning

This course sought to establish a dyadic-disciplinary “University Learning Community” to enhance (1) student scholarship via written and oral abilities, (2) instructional delivery, (3) professor knowledge and (4) student retention of the subject matter (Marzano, Pickering & Pollock, 2001). The multifaceted project encompassed three professors who served the role of observer (in the classroom setting) as well as participant observers (outside the classroom setting during a one day collaborative in-service retreat). There were three professors (two criminologists and one English professor) who evaluated student work on course content, APA 6th edition form and style, and English mechanics (respectively). Professors (team members) shared collaborative feedback with each other a minimum of five times throughout the course of the semester via a written and oral critical analysis of the strengths, weakness, opportunities, and threats during each lecture series. Feedback was not meant to be judgmental, but critical with each encounter. An assessment rubric was disseminated and utilized by each professor to “critically” assess each of the aforementioned instructional objectives.

The project utilized the instructional rounds model (similar to medical rounding) to engage students more and facilitate them towards producing more scholarly works. The instructional rounds model allowed peer-to-peer and peer-to-professor feedback on every element of the annotated bibliography and concept paper. Students groups contained a maximum of four individuals in a group. All professors governed each group to address challenges and concerns, as well as provided scholarly insight and critiques of writings and peer-feedback. Peer-to-peer feedback began with the choosing of a research topic, for which the professor assessed feasibility of completing research before the student begins annotated bibliography.

Once approved, students commenced writing. Student feedback was provided twice per week from peers. The professor provided feedback every ten days (or sooner as needed). Once the annotated bibliography was completed, the student began the concept paper (with the same feedback time frame as described above). Students incorporated feedback into each subsequent draft delimiting the amount of errors seen in previous drafts until deemed presentable and/or publishable. Once the written papers were completed, oral presentations were given on all research at the close of the term.

Social Work Initiatives

Social Work Practice is a core course within the social work curriculum which is taught during the second semester of the junior year. Throughout the course, students learn the process of working with individuals, families, and small groups, as well as utilizing knowledge, values, and skills grounded in social work theory. The course is writing intensive because it requires students to write case notes, social cultural assessments, courts assessments, and other documents (all professional writing skills they will need in the social work profession). The major writing requirement of the course is that students must write a case analysis. The assignment requires students to develop a fictitious character experiencing a problem or crisis who is need of the services of a social worker. Within the case analysis students must complete the following activities:

  1. Conduct an assessment with the client regarding the problem that they are seeking services from a social worker.
  2. Develop a treatment plan outlining how students are going to work with the client to help them resolve their problem.
  3. Conduct five fictitious visits with the client keeping a workers journal outlining the specific social work practice skills and techniques utilized with the client.
  4. Develop and implement an evaluation plan indicating the effectiveness of the treatment plan.

Students must write up the case analysis as if they were a practicing social worker. Throughout the course, students are taught how to write the various components of the case analysis. In turn, students submit various components of the assignment for which they receive both peer feedback and professor feedback. Based on the feedback given, students have the opportunity to revise and resubmit their analysis two weeks prior to the assignment’s due date. Throughout the semester, students are required to complete a reflective journal for which they describe, from their perspective, their growth, proficiency, and skill level on the practice skills introduced to them in the course.

Faculty Observations

Special Topics in Criminal Justice-Writing for Criminal Justice

At the beginning of the semester, students appeared to experience anxiety, knowing that the quality of their writing would be the focus of the assignment. Because the students knew that their errors would be placed on the “large screen” in front of the entire class, they appeared to take more time and place more effort in their writing assignments (even though their errors were anonymous, there was concern about mistakes being visible to others). In addition, learning how to use the APA 6th Edition manual facilitated their use and understanding of the manual, based on the fewer number of APA errors in their work (and later, when some of these students completed their Senior Investigative Paper, them being observed actually using the manual). In addition, there were fewer incidents of plagiarized work (all student assignments were submitted to Turnitin). Given that this work was labor intensive in terms of the amount of writing assignments that faculty had to evaluate, this course would not work with a large class (i.e. more than 15 students).

Instructional Rounds: Understanding a Dyadic Approach to Learning

Given the desired results of the project, students demonstrated grade improvements in both written and oral skills, as well as a confidence “booster” in writing. The proposed project enhanced the fields of Criminology and English by training and affording more undergraduates to continue professional writing that was essential for graduate school admissions and the criminal justice workforce via empowering those who have engaged and inspiring those who wish to join the academy by leaving a legacy of scholarship.

Student Observations and Feedback

Special Topics in Criminal Justice-Writing for Criminal Justice

Students shared positive comments. The following open-ended comments were taken from end of course evaluations:

“Seeing my mistakes on the large screen made me more conscious of my writing errors.”

“Seeing my classmates” feedback and knowing that they would review my work was intimidating at first, but I liked hearing feedback from them as well as Dr. B.”

“I did not realize how much I did not know about professional writing until I took this class.”

“This [class] has helped me as I write my lit review for my Senior Paper.”

Instructional Rounds: Understanding a Dyadic Approach to Learning

Similar to the Special Topic Criminal Justice Writing for Criminal Justice course, students as well as faculty collectively exhibited positive feedback. The iteration of the writing facilitated a better understanding of what “it takes to be a better writer” was the common theme for student participants. Two students continued their research efforts and presented their research findings at a regional conference in Little Rock, Arkansas the following semester.

Social Work Practice I Reflective Journals

The students shared positive feedback. The Council on Social Work Education prescribes that all undergraduate social work students must complete a 400 hour internship (on the bachelor’s level). Students indicated that the assignment prepared them for their internship in regards to writing case notes and social histories. In turn, internship supervisors communicated through the students that they were impressed with their writing skills and assessment skills.

Reflection and Analysis

The American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) identifies a number of High Impact Educational Practices which are effective in working with students of diverse backgrounds (Kuh, 2008). One of the AACU’s recommended strategies are Writing Intensive Courses, such as the three writing initiatives described above. These three initiatives were created with not only the goal of helping students bridge theory and practice, but also assisting students in developing both their writing and critical thinking skills, necessary for the 21st century workforce. Given increasing demands of accountability, including pending changes as a result of President Obama’s proposed College Scorecard, colleges and universities must insure graduates have effective communication, critical thinking, and analytical skills to make them competitive candidates in their chosen career fields. The Criminology and Social Work courses and assignments at Johnson C. Smith University are innovative and effective pedagogy which assist in those endeavors.


Hart and Associates (2010). Raising the Bar: Employers’ Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn. Retrieved from

Kuh, G.D. (2008). High Impact Educational Practices and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: American Association of Colleges and Universities

Martinez, C., Kock, N., & Cass, J. (2011). Pain and pleasure in short essay writing: Factors predicting university students’ writing anxiety and writing self-efficacy. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 54 (5), 351-360.

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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