This page focuses on the course 15.279 Management Communication for Undergraduates as it was taught by Dr. Lori Breslow and Dr. Terence Heagney in Fall 2012.
This course is intended to help students develop their writing, presentation, and communication skills as future managers. Development of these skills is achieved through feedback from the instructor and teaching assistant, as well as from peers. The course has been a requirement for undergraduates majoring in management for over two decades.
The theme that underlies the course is that professional communication is strategic. Communicators need to think about their audience, as well as the purpose of their message and the context in which they are communicating. After completing the course, students should have a strong foundation in professional writing, speaking, working in teams, and communicating across cultures. But more importantly, they should have a fuller understanding of how communication works in professional settings.
Dr. Lori Breslow addressing her class. (Image courtesy of MIT OpenCourseWare.)
Below, Dr. Lori Breslow describes various aspects of how she teaches 15.279 Management Communication for Undergraduates.
- One challenge is that you, as an instructor, need to give up some of what you might love to talk about in your discipline. For example, I only talk about communication theory if I think it is going to help students be better professional communicators.
- Students have a wide range of abilities; some are excellent writers, others effective speakers, and still others have strong interpersonal communication skills. I try to identify how I can help the greatest number of students improve the most during the semester.
- We stress that the students have responsibility for helping each other improve. We educate them in peer feedback because they will eventually have positions where they will have to give colleagues, subordinates, and possibly even their superiors, feedback.
- If you give people too much feedback, it will overwhelm them. For example, for the first presentation, we only identify a couple of things we want the students to work on, even though there may be other problems they need to address. Once the students master those one or two skills, we can move on to other ways they can improve.
Impromptu Presentations and Activities
- The dreaded impromptu: I pick on students and give them a topic to speak on. From the time they get the topic to the time they arrive at the front of the classroom, they will have to come up with a 2-minute presentation. And while that sounds torturous, it is designed to help students learn how to organize their thoughts coherently and speak extemporaneously, which they will need to do in the workplace.
- Topics can run the gamut from a personal experience or interest to the topics in the course, assigned readings, or current events. We ask students to fill out a brief survey in the beginning of class so we have some knowledge of their background and can play to their strengths. For example, if a student has been a captain of a team, I ask him or her to speak about leadership skills.
- Role play: For a class on small talk, I will pull some students to the front of the class and tell them to pretend they are at a business dinner. One of the students plays someone who is interviewing somebody else, and they all have to role play a dinner while making use of small talk.
Oral Presentation Labs
- The first presentation: Students give presentations in labs of six students each. We are very strict that each student only has 5 minutes to present. We follow the formal presentation with a question-and-answer period, because we want to give students the opportunity to practice Q&A as well. The students receive feedback from each other during the presentation and from us in a written evaluation.
- The second presentation: During this 7-minute presentation, the audience is allowed to interrupt and ask questions at any point. The students need to know their main message in case they get interrupted 15 seconds into the presentation, which can happen in the real world and is especially likely when students are in junior-level positions. They need to know the order of their slides so they can go right to that slide and say, “I’m going to address that question and here are the data that supports my response.”
- Presentations are graded on a 1 to 10 scale. For the first presentation, students who get 7.5 or below must present again on the same topic but focus on the skills that require improvement.
- Typically, 60-70% of the students have to do a revision for the first presentation. For the second round, only about 25% require a revision because by that point, students have done many presentations in class and they have gotten quite good.
- All presentations are videotaped. We force students to watch themselves on video and send us an email with two or three things they liked about their performance, and two or three areas in which they would like to improve. At least at MIT, students tend to be very hard on themselves and only focus on what they have done badly. We want them to continue to do what they have done well, which is why we ask for the good points in addition to things that need improvement.
- We use a few business cases that we have written especially for this course, in which the protagonist has some kind of communication challenge or has mishandled a communication situation. We figure out why or how the person made the blunder, what he or she should do to remedy the situation, or what he or she should have done in the beginning to avoid it.
- In the late 90’s, we made a concerted effort to give up almost all lecturing and do much more in a workshop mode because research shows that interactive pedagogies often strengthen learning.
- My students keep in touch with me, and over the years, a number of them have said, “I realize that it would also be helpful if you would talk about this in the course.” For example, we created a case called “Difficult Conversations” because an alumnus wrote back and said, “I find that I have to talk with my boss and it’s often an uncomfortable situation. How do I do that?” A lot of content evolution has been based upon what alumni have told us.
- Required for management majors
Every spring and fall semester
| ||Enrollment ||By Year ||By Major |
|Fall ||~ 50 |
(two sections offered)
|Primarily sophomores ||Primarily management majors |
|Spring ||~ 25 |
(often one section only)
|Sophomores, juniors, and seniors ||Varies widely |
Ideal Class Size
Class sections are generally restricted to 25 students to ensure personalized feedback. Enrollment runs higher in the fall with priority given to management majors so that recently declared majors can engage with students with similar career and academic interests.
How Student Time Was Spent
During an average week, students were expected to spend 12 hours on the course, roughly divided as follows:
3 hours per week
- Attendance is expected at two, 1.5-hour-long class sessions each week.
- 26 class sessions total
- Almost all class time is spent in a workshop format with students writing, speaking, and working in teams.
- Instructors give guidelines about best practices in professional communication, but in every class, students are given exercises and assignments that require them to put their skills to work.
Out of Class
9 hours per week
- Writing assignments include formats that are most often used in management (reports, memos, and e-mails). Students do at least two drafts for major writing assignments so they can incorporate feedback from the instructor, teaching assistant, and peers based on criteria and/or rubrics.
- “Problem sets” focus on specific writing skills (e.g., writing concisely).
- Oral presentations are recorded on video for review, feedback, and improvement.
- Team report and presentation
- Readings in preparation for class
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No classes throughout MIT
Final presentations in class
No class session scheduled
Oral presentation labs
Lead Instructor (Dr. Lori Breslow / Dr. Terence Heagney)
The lead instructor is responsible for developing curriculum, facilitating in-class activities, delivering short lectures, and both supervising TA grading and grading him or herself. During times when students work in teams in the classroom, the instructor and the teaching assistant provide feedback on the skills students are practicing, what they observe regarding interaction styles, and ways to improve communication within those teams. Dr. Breslow and Dr. Heagney each taught a class section of the course in Fall 2012.
The teaching assistant is selected from second-year Sloan MBA students who have successfully completed the graduate equivalent of this course and have applied for the position. The application process includes submitting a resume and CV, as well as performing well in an exercise in providing feedback for several hypothetical student assignments.