Peer Review

Business Education and Liberal Learning

Business students tend overwhelmingly to be instrumental consumers of education (Colby et al 2011). This means they generally want each facet of their education to create value in terms of future career success. On the other hand, liberal learning takes a broader view that education is aimed at developing the whole person. The focus is on the terminal value of the educated citizen in addition to the instrumental value of career success.

“It has often been the case that some students, seemingly motivated only by utilitarian concerns, simply never consider or abandon the hope of finding meaning and purpose that is truly satisfying. They need initiation into critical thought, in part so that they may reflect upon the careerism to which they have become subject,” writes Sharon Daloz Parks (2000, 164). Given such an environment, how does a liberal approach to education fit and make sense? This dichotomy between what business students want and what educators seek to provide is the challenge of business education at liberal arts colleges.

Using Complex Writing Assignments to Develop Liberal Learners

Evidence from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (2011) indicates employers are seeking college graduates with the essential skills of critical and analytical reasoning, ethical decision making, complex problem solving, and oral and written communication. This evidence suggests that liberal learning should be embedded in business education to provide greater breadth. However, Colby, Ehrlich, Sullivan, and Dolle (2011) argue that undergraduate business curricula are primarily effective at teaching applied writing skills needed for memos and reports. How can business educators use more complex forms of writing assignments to develop liberal learners?

As an alternate approach to applied writing, writing for inquiry has been proposed as a viable solution for helping business students develop the essential skills needed in the modern economy (Colby et al 2011). “The task of writing as inquiry, therefore, begins with the careful identification of a productive question, proceeds through research and investigation to construct a satisfying answer, formulates claims based on these explorations and constructs arguments to elaborate and support these claims, insights and judgments,” (Colby et al 2011,104). The underlying assumption of this pedagogy is that you can create knowledge through writing.

At a small Midwestern liberal arts college with a large business program, the tensions between the practical focus of students and the desire for liberal learning principles arose in a senior capstone course. This led to the forming of a faculty partnership between the authors—a business professor and a librarian—to more fully address liberal learning in the course through a writing-for-inquiry-based project. The librarian suggested adding reflective journaling about the process of completing the project with the original aim of assessing information literacy, but the unintended outcome was even more valuable. The examination of results from the combined assignment of a capstone analytic paper with a linked reflective journal provides evidence that students were able to fully engage in the writing-for-inquiry process and address multiple facets of liberal learning.

To help students understand the entirety of the writing-for-inquiry process, the project was designed with a series of staged assignments culminating in the production and submission of a final five-thousand-word analytic research paper. At each of the stages, students received feedback on their work. Carol Collier Kuhlthau’s (2004) information search process model examines the student research experience through considerations of the thoughts, feelings, and actions required by a robust research task. The business professor and librarian used Kuhlthau’s model to set expectations with students and to openly discuss the need for intervention in research. These reviews allowed the educators to determine where classroom interventions were most appropriate and target specific concerns relevant to the student experience.


To examine the success of the writing for inquiry model, the authors used a longitudinal mixed-method assessment to follow advancements in student performance and engagement as the assignment evolved. Over the course of three semesters, qualitative data were analyzed from student reflections and guided class discussions. In addition, quantitative analysis was done on the student papers by analyzing the average word count of the papers, the number of sources being cited, and the Flesch-Kincaid grade level of the writing. Qualitative data were “deidentified” and coded for key ideas emerging from a close reading of the data over time. The quantitative analysis was done with deidentified final papers using tools in Microsoft Word to establish word count and Flesch-Kincaid grade level.


Analysis of the qualitative material from student journals provided key insights in the areas of personal feelings throughout the process, motivation, and how they sought assistance. Although originally intended as a means of assessing information literacy, this data became more valuable when analyzed to help uncover student experiences of writing for inquiry and to understand their progress in making meaning out of the assignment. The educators found that incorporating reflection enhanced the depth of the student research experience and closely tied the business capstone to the liberal learning tenets of the institution.

Over half of the students reported in the first reflection that they were overwhelmed, confused, frustrated, or uncertain with the research and writing process. These emotions were at a peak when the students were trying to develop their topics. “When trying to find a thesis or theme for the paper, I found that I had the tendency to think on the broad spectrum because I wasn’t familiar enough with the different aspects of corporate social responsibility,” said a student who ultimately wrote about corporate philanthropy. Kuhlthau’s (2004) process indicates this level of uncertainty is to be expected at this stage in the process, but framing the discussion in the context of personal thoughts and feelings helps students to make their experience explicit and offers reassurance on the benefits of selecting a personally meaningful topic that would later result in increased motivation and perseverance.

The intense feelings subsided after selecting a topic and getting into the research phase and then rose again as the student entered the drafting phase of the paper. Knowing how students were responding emotionally to the process helped guide class discussions and interventions at key points. “I have felt rather annoyed or frustrated with the amount of information available,” reported a student in the early stages. In a later reflection a student reported, “I believe that I have narrowed my topic enough so that it is not too broad. I feel my research problem is relevant to what I am going to be doing after college. I feel I have been able to make this much progress simply by taking the time and doing the research.”

The reflections also told us that students were gaining familiarity with a broad range of sources appropriate to their research. They began to utilize terminology in the reflections such as keyword selection, source credibility, and the thesaurus feature of a database. Use of such terminology indicated information presented in class was being retained and adopted.

With regard to overall motivation to complete the project, over thirty percent of all student comments discussed excitement or interest in the topic. Improved motivation is one of the benefits of being able to select a question related to their own interests but it is a trade-off for those who really feel overwhelming frustration at the early phase of selecting the topic. Other motivators cited frequently by students include pride in their accomplishment, the deadlines, the grade, and support and encouragement from others. “My motivation comes primarily from my desire to present a finished product that will make a solid contribution to this debate. …I have a goal of making an immediate difference in the global economy when I graduate and for me this paper is part of that process,” said a student who wrote on the role of the US dollar as a reserve currency. These comments also indicate that students were finding greater meaning in the work than just getting a good grade or getting a better job. The switch from instrumental motivations to deeper levels of usefulness showed up in the analysis of the comments. An example of the shift in motivation was expressed in the following: “In the beginning of the semester, my motivation to work on this paper was simply to get it done. I didn’t really know what the purpose of my paper was going to be and it seemed like just another long assignment that was going to take a lot of my time. But as I move closer to completion, I have started to form a paper that I really want to turn out well. So now my motivation comes from the drive to create a paper I am proud of and I am coming closer to that goal as the due date approaches.”

The analysis of the qualitative data also indicated that writing for inquiry can be used to develop deep personal insight. General comments at the conclusion of the process support the feeling that students are grateful for this opportunity to reconcile differing beliefs and ideas. One student discusses the progression of her topic from the price of HIV medication in developing countries, to whether pharmaceutical companies have a social responsibility to provide affordable HIV medication, to how pharmaceutical companies can work with local programs to provide affordable HIV medication in a sustainable business model. The progression clearly demonstrated deepening personal understanding of the scientific and moral complexities of the issue. Other comments supported the value the project had in helping students to make more sense out of complex issues, including, “I went in with assumptions that changed over time.”

The importance of seeking outside support was mentioned by over sixty-five percent of students. However, their responses revealed an unusual result regarding where they sought support. In this course, the librarian partner was identified as the most frequently utilized source of assistance. National surveys on information literacy suggest that librarians are typically regarded as less important resources, ranking below professors, friends, and family members (Head and Eisenberg 2010). It is clear that students need librarian support, as a recent study on usage of college libraries indicates fewer than seven in thirty students can conduct a reasonably effective search strategy (Kolowich 2011).

The final papers were quantitatively analyzed for word count, citation count, and Flesh-Kincaid grade level. The results by semester are reported in figure 1. There were clear increases in length of the papers and in the numbers of sources cited over time. A Flesch-Kincaid grade level analysis was used to evaluate the readability of the text. Based on the grade level of students, the results would be expected to fall above twelfth grade (Bovée et al 2003). These measurements are only proxies for quality (Hovde 2000), but the improvement rates were significant at a seventy percent increase in length and a sixty-two percent increase in cited sources. The Flesch-Kincaid grade levels demonstrated increased complexity in their writing, which was especially notable from students who, historically, had been tasked with purely applied writing assignments. This process brought their capstone paper experience into line with their peers in other academic disciplines at the institution.

Figure 1. Results by semester of final papers quantitatively analyzed for word count, citation count, and FlesCh-Kincaid grade level

Average Word Count
Average Sources Cited
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level
Fall 2008
Winter/spring 2009
Fall 2009
Winter/spring 2010
Fall 2010
Winter/spring 2011


Ultimately, when considering student learning, liberal educators aim to provide a holistic experience. Based on the evidence provided by this examination, moving business students from instrumental consumers of education toward liberally educated citizens can be achieved through a carefully designed writing-for-inquiry-based project with a reflective journaling component. The authors have demonstrated improved student engagement and performance on multiple dimensions. Each semester at the end of the project, students are asked to share their insights into the experience. Though students did not forget the challenges and frustrations that came along the way, they found meaning and value in the work. Perhaps one student captured the overall impact of the project in stating, “Writing this paper now is an excellent way for me to put all my broad knowledge and skills to the test at the end of my liberal arts education and see how my problem-solving skills and thought processing work.


Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2011. The LEAP Vision for Learning: Outcomes, Practices, Impact, and Employer’s Views. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Bovée, C. L., J. V. Thill, and B. E. Schatzman. 2003. Business Communication Today, 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Colby, A., T. Ehrlich, W. M. Sullivan, and J. R. Dolle. 2011. Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Collins, J. 2001. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. New York: Harper Collins.

Daloz Parks, S. 2000. Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Head, A. J., and M.l B. Eisenberg. 2011. “Truth be Told: How College Students Evaluate and Use Information in the Digital Age.” Project Information Literacy Progress Report,

Hovde, K. 2000. “Check the Citation: Library Instruction and Student Paper Bibliographies.” Research Strategies 17 (1): 3–9.

Kolowich, S. 2011. “What Students Don’t Know.” Inside Higher Ed. (blog)

Kuhthau, C. C. 2004. Seeking Meaning: A Process Approach to Library and Information Services., 2nd ed. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Moon, J. A. 2006. Learning Journals: A Handbook for Reflective Practice and Professional Development, 2nd ed. London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Julie A. Kliegl is an assistant professor of business administration at Wartburg College; Kari D. Weaver is an assistant professor of library science and library instruction coordinator at the University of South Carolina Aiken.

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