It is that time of year when instructors receive a greater number of reference letter requests, as undergraduate students prepare applications for jobs, graduate school or professional degree programs. I have received a few of these requests from former students as of late, which has led me to reflect on ways that I could assist students in achieving their long-term career and academic goals in addition to writing letters. Although a positive reference letter may help students achieve their goals, there are many other simple steps that I could take to further support students’ professional development. Here are five practical suggestions that I have (or plan to) implement in my own teaching, in order to further support my students’ professional development:
- Use authentic assessments: This is “a form of assessment in which students are asked to perform real-world tasks that demonstrate meaningful application of essential knowledge and skills” (Mueller 2016). I often use authentic assessments in place of mid-term exams in my own teaching, asking students to demonstrate their understanding of course concepts by performing skills or demonstrating competencies that are required by professionals in their field of study. Even if you cannot replace traditional assessments with authentic assessments, consider creating in-class opportunities for students to practice and refine relevant skills. This will also provide you with valuable insights about the students’ competencies, that you can draw on if you are asked to write a reference letter in the future.
- Develop a list of undergraduate journals: When undergraduate students tell me that they plan to apply for graduate school, I encourage them to consider attending an undergraduate conference or publishing a term paper in an undergraduate journal prior to submitting their applications. Conference participation and publications strengthen graduate school applications, but they also look good on job applications, as they speak to a student’s communication and writing skills. Consider keeping a list of undergraduate journals in your field that you can share with students on request. This list may also include details about the journals’ submission policies and the peer-review and publishing process, based on previous students’ experiences.
- Bring professionals into the classroom: There are many different benefits of bringing a guest lecturer into your classroom. For example, some research suggests that students found industry experts to be more credible than academic experts when learning about concepts with practical application (Van Hoek et al. 2011). From a professional development perspective, inviting industry or community experts into the classroom may create networking opportunities for your students. It may also provide opportunities for professionals to meet students that could fulfill their employment needs (Wolfe 2011).
- Create a listserv to share relevant opportunities: I regularly receive emails about jobs, internships and research assistantships that may be useful to undergraduate students. However, it is difficult to keep track of undergraduate students after a course ends. Consider creating an email list or a list listserv to distribute relevant opportunities to former students. Let upper-level undergraduate students know that you can add them to the list if they are interested and that they can ask to be removed from the list at any point. Although there are other ways that students can find jobs, internships and research opportunities, many opportunities are shared through personal networks or associations that require membership fees.
- Coach students on how to ask for a reference letter: If you are teaching an upper-level undergraduate class, consider reserving time towards the end of the term to provide students with advice on asking for reference letters. You may also consider developing a template email or a tip sheet that outlines what type of information you want from students requesting reference letters and includes information about resources that are available at the university to help with job applications and interview preparation. Alternatively, you can provide students with a link to this short article on University Affairs that provides students with great advice on asking for reference letters.
Mueller, J. (2016). Authentic Assessment Toolbox. http://jfmueller.faculty.noctrl.edu/toolbox/whatisit.htm
Sniezek, T. (2005). Avoiding the pitfalls of the invited speaker. Exchanges: The on-line journal of teaching and learning in the CSU.
Wolfe, A. (2011). Student Perceptions of Guest Speakers in Marketing Education. In Marketing Management Association 2006 Educators’ Conference Proceedings.
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