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  • Creating and Improving a Career Success Strategies Course for Undergraduate Business Students: An Analysis of Outcomes and Future Directions

    November 01, 2020 | By Carly Trimboli, Victoria Buckley, and Keith Sun

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    TAGS: competencies, program development, journal, coronavirus

    NACE Journal, November 2020

    Background

    Every undergraduate student enrolled in the Carl H. Lindner College of Business (Lindner) is required to pass “Career Success Strategies,” a one-credit-hour course that is uniquely structured for freshmen, business honors students, and transfer or transition students. Each of the nine career coaches in the Lindner career services office teaches a section of the course throughout the year, with an average of 60 students per class. The structure of the Lindner curriculum ensures students are introduced to career services immediately and early on in their studies. Since Lindner adopted the course as a degree requirement in the fall of 2015, course enrollment has increased 78%, and 6,442 students have benefitted from the course to date.

    From resume writing to interviewing skills and salary negotiation, the course covers everything a Lindner student should know before applying to co-ops or internships and securing their first or next full-time job. Employers consistently comment on the positive impression our students make in preparing for employer events, networking, and job interviews, and professional behavior on the job. While completing professional experiences is not mandatory for business students, many students elect to participate in these opportunities due to the reputation of the University of Cincinnati as the No. 1 public university for co-ops.1

    The course follows the NACE career readiness competencies as a guiding tool for selecting appropriate course content. Learning outcomes and content are assessed according to the competencies by evaluating in-class engagement, applicability of material to the real world, and class assignments. (See Figure 1 for a shortened example of two competencies.)

    A sub-team of career coaches who are particularly interested in course development design the curriculum, lecture presentations, and Canvas course to provide consistent structure for all students. Once the curriculum is finalized for each term, instructors take ownership and personalize their courses to fit their teaching style and preferences.

    Since fall 2015, evaluation of content and the desire for continuous improvement has driven course development. Early evaluation and assessment measures included departmental course evaluations, feedback from student focus groups, and input from an advisory board made up of employers and faculty. Formalized assessment of course content began in 2017 with the departmental course evaluations, where our team added four questions for specific content feedback. We sought knowledge on individual student progress in the career development journey using these Likert scale statements (1-5: 1-Strongly Disagree, 2-Disagree, 3-Neither Agree Nor Disagree, 4-Agree, 5-Strongly Agree):

    • As a result of this course, I understand how to search for a co-op, internship, or full-time job. 
    • As a result of this course, I am more prepared to network with employers. 
    • As a result of this course, I am more prepared for interviews.
    • As a result of this course, I understand how to create a strong professional LinkedIn profile. 

    These initial data provided us with feedback that students were lacking confidence in interview preparation. At the time, interviewing skills accounted for just one week of the course. The data we received encouraged us to dedicate more time to interview preparation, increasing the lesson to two weeks of coverage. In addition, we decided to implement an official before-after assessment in all “Career Success Strategies” courses to further explore students’ confidence in their career readiness and ensure our courses met their needs.

    Measurement and Methods

    Our calendar year runs on a semester system, consisting of a fall term (August - December), spring term (January - April), and summer term (May - August). We offer the “Career Success Strategies” course each term, with student populations traditionally divided into graduating seniors for summer courses, transfer students and honors freshmen for fall courses, and traditional freshmen for spring courses.
    In the first week of each semester, we ask participating students to fill out a self-assessment on Survey Monkey to determine their perceived proficiency in 12 career competencies:

    • I know how to develop a strong resume.
    • I know how to develop a strong LinkedIn profile.
    • I know how to prepare for a career fair or similar event.
    • I know how to create a polished elevator pitch.
    • I can execute a successful job search on LinkedIn, Handshake, and other job-search engines.
    • I know how to develop a plan to prepare for a job interview.
    • I am confident in my interviewing skills.
    • I can build and leverage a professional network in a job search.
    • I can identify a potentially unethical or scam company when job searching.
    • I can articulate my skills and job market trends in salary negotiation.
    • I am prepared to be successful in a future internship, co-op, or full-time job.
    • I am comfortable engaging with employers.

    In the last week of the semester, we again ask students to fill out the very same assessment. To date, the assessment has not been required as a graded assignment, but students are strongly encouraged to submit the completed assessment.

    The assessment consists of two sections. The first section consists of initial questions asking students for their name, instructor, age range, race/ethnicity, gender, GPA, previous history with Lindner career services, and student status. The second section consists of 12 questions matching the 12 career competencies. Students answer the 12 questions using five-point Likert scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree). In turn, each option is scored using the same scale, e.g., strongly disagree is scored as 1; strongly agree is scored as 5).

    We implemented the before-after assessments starting with the summer 2018 term and concluded with the most recent summer 2020 term, totaling seven sequential semesters. An overall number of 2,270 students participated in the before assessment, and an overall number of 1,395 students participated in the after assessment.

    Analysis

    At the start of the course, students rated themselves highest on “I am comfortable engaging with employers” at an average of 3.88 before the course. (See Figure 2.) We interpreted this to mean that most students have had previous employment and are familiar with a workplace environment, whether it happened to be a formal internship, a campus administrative job, or a part-time job.

    In the after assessment, students rated themselves lowest on “I can articulate my skills and job market trends in salary negotiation” at an average of 4.05. This suggests students may require more practice and coaching to be comfortable negotiating job offers and salary than an academic course can provide.

    Based on our overall data, students self-rated themselves as having gained greater competency in all 12 categories, ranging from a 10% improvement to as much as a 63% improvement based on the after assessment at the end of the course. (See Figure 3.)

    Age comparison: We compared students 22 years of age and under to students older than 22. (See Figure 4.) Older students consistently rated themselves as having greater competency in three categories compared to younger students before the course started. These categories were how to develop a strong resume, how to develop a strong LinkedIn profile, and how to create a polished elevator pitch.  This did not surprise us, given that a nontraditional student has usually held longer periods of employment and has accumulated more life experience. However, by the end of the course, the difference between older and younger students on their self-ratings had shrunk in most of the competencies. We concluded that a course such as ours can potentially help students with less life experience catch up to more experienced students on their readiness to navigate the job market.

    Gender comparison: We compared students who identified as female to students who identified as male. (See Figure 5.) Female students rated themselves lower than male students on nine out of the 12 competencies before the course started. However, by the end of the course, female students had surpassed their male peers, rating themselves slightly higher on every competency, except for “I am confident in my interviewing skills”  and “I can articulate my skills and job market trends in salary negotiation.”

    This suggests that female students still struggle with the competencies that are tied to social confidence and assertiveness, a possible reflection of traditional gender roles and contemporary social norms. Nevertheless, the difference between female and male students on these same two competencies decreased by the end of the course. This serves as an encouraging sign that the course helps reduce gender disparities in career competency.

    Ethnicity comparison: We compared underrepresented (UR) minorities to white students. (See Figure 6.) From our data, we determined that there were no meaningful differences both before the course and at the end of the course. The greatest difference between groups was 4% for the results before the course, and only a 2% difference for the results at the end of the course. Both populations achieved similar gains in each of the 12 career competencies.

    History with career services: A later analysis we did was to look at how student ratings differed based on whether or not they had any previous history of meeting with any career coach from Lindner career services. Students who had met with a career coach before the course rated themselves higher on each of the 12 career competencies compared to their peers, with an average of a 9% higher rating. By the end of the course, those students who had previously met with a career coach still rated themselves higher on every competency, but the average difference between the two groups decreased to 5%. We concluded that the course may have value in helping students make gains in career competencies toward those with previous career coaching assistance. However, the continued gap between the two student samples points to the value of career coaching as a way to improve student career competencies—a slight advantage that may easily translate into greater competitiveness on the job market.

    Going online: A final analysis compared the most recent transition to online courses given the context of COVID-19. (See Figure 7.) The “Career Success Strategies” course in the summer semester of 2020 was the first of our courses to be completely online, i.e., no face-to-face course elements. After reviewing the percent improvements in each of the 12 career competencies for this course compared to past summer semesters, we concluded that students made equal gains in all 12 career competencies and even did slightly better in a few categories. Therefore, the data suggest that a fully remote and online course at a traditional, four-year residential institution like ours can achieve similarly successful outcomes.

    Course Improvements

    The data from the before-after assessment has allowed for continuous improvement of the course. Minor adjustments are made each semester to support areas in which students reported the least gains in confidence. The iterative design allows the course to better address learner variability and to adapt to changes in the student population. When comparing the 2018-19 school year to the 2019-20 school year, we were able to view higher self-reported gains by students in nine out of the 12 career competencies. (See Figure 8.)

    Resumes: To boost learning in self-reported weak areas such as resume evaluation and elevator pitch development, we incorporated intentional opportunities for students to predict and interact with the content. We based this on the idea that predictive activities improve both retention and comprehension, as it forces students to reach for any possible information they can relate to the subject matter.2

    Resumes are the first topic covered in the course. To set the tone for the semester and to engage students, we developed a predictive resume activity. Prior to our lecture, we grouped students and asked them to evaluate examples of good and bad resumes. Each group presented on its findings using a document camera so the whole class could see the resume. They shared what stood out, what they thought was exceptionally good, and where the resumes were lacking. We then went through our lecture and were able to expand upon what the students had presented. A key point here is that erroneous assessments do not negatively affect the learning if feedback is provided quickly. Any misconceptions that students shared were corrected before students developed their own resumes.

    Elevator pitch: A second example of how our assessments yielded a change in content and delivery was specific to elevator pitches. After reviewing our initial results after the fall semester of 2018, we saw that students ranked themselves lowest in elevator pitches, even after the course. During our biannual employer advisory board meeting in the spring of 2019, we placed large post-it notes around the room with prompts and questions that students presented throughout the semester, specifically around career fair prep and elevator pitches. We asked the employer representatives—university relations and campus recruiters—to walk around and write down their thoughts, opinions, and preferences on these sheets. We integrated many of their comments into the career fair curriculum as a part of formal teaching, with employer anecdotes and advice from some of our top hiring companies, including Fifth Third Bank, Enterprise Holdings, Ernst & Young, and Great American Insurance Group.

    Now at the start of each class on elevator pitches, students are asked to write out what they would say in an elevator pitch. Some students think an elevator pitch is to promote a business or product; others have no idea what one is. We then broaden the prompt in class sessions and ask students to write out what they would say to an employer at the career fair. Again, some students struggle at first to come up with a substantial answer, but we encourage them to try. After the lecture, when we have discussed framework, common talking points, and delivery, we have the students re-write their elevator pitch and deliver it to a paired classmate. Students have reported greater understanding of an elevator pitch and have also been able to identify what was lacking in their original versions. Providing space to practice with a peer and receive feedback in a safe environment allows students to contextualize an elevator pitch and ultimately feel more confident when delivering one.

    We saw a small improvement using this approach: In 2018-19, there was a 61% improvement in the elevator pitch after completing the course in students’ self-ratings; in 2019-20, that rose to 65%.

    Job offer negotiation: A third curricular change that occurred based on the data analysis is the emphasis on job offer negotiation. Over the course of seven semesters, students reported low confidence in the after assessment in negotiating abilities. Even though there was improvement compared to the before assessment, job offer negotiation remained the lowest-rated competency on the after assessment.

    Upon examination, we suggest a few reasons. The job offer management lecture falls in the last few weeks of the semester, when students are less engaged with the course, which may lead to lower academic retention and mastery. An additional thought is that we do not provide students with the opportunity to practice these skills in class. To address both possible reasons, we have an interactive negotiation simulation planned for fall 2020. In this simulation, students evaluate a given job offer, select an item they would wish to negotiate, and select appropriate dialogue they would use in a conversation with a manager. The pilot simulation was developed using Google Forms and will eventually transition into an Articulate Storyline module.

    New course creations: A larger application of the course assessment data included the creation of an additional version of “Career Success Strategies” course, which began in the spring semester of 2020 to better serve the needs of our transfer and transition students.

    The Lindner student body consists of approximately 55 percent of transfer and transition students who start at another college on campus or at a different institution. In the past, many of these students expressed frustration that they were taking the “Career Success Strategies” course too late in their college years. Based on when they transitioned to Lindner, these students were taking the course in their second-to-last or last semester before graduation, after they had worked through the job-search process with minimal success.

    To remedy this, we created an expanded version of the course to reach the largest group of potential transition students—those currently enrolled in the College of Exploratory Studies. This three-credit-hour version is taught to freshmen who are part of the college’s “Exploring Business” learning community.  Students on track to meet the admission requirements to the Lindner College of Business are required to take the new “Preparing for Professional Experiences” course their second semester of freshman year. This course provides a strong connection point between the future business students and the Lindner Career Services office. The exploratory elements allow students to consider different interests and majors within the college before they commit. Instead of waiting until they transition into the college to participate in their “Career Success Strategies” course, these students are prepared and ready to engage in cooperative education opportunities as soon as they matriculate. Additionally, as this new course fulfills a curricular requirement early in their academic plan, we prevent the frustration that occurs when students wait to take the course as was the case in the past.

    Adapting to COVID-19: As a result of COVID-19, all of our courses for the fall semester of 2020 have moved to a partially online or completely online format. Although many of the strategies we have used to improve the course involve interactive activities and peer-to-peer connections, we have worked to translate these into an asynchronous online course.

    In summer 2020, we offered our first iteration of an online course. We relied heavily on converting traditional lectures to videos in full-length format and restructuring assignment values to place emphasis on the major components, i.e., resume, LinkedIn, mock interview. Once it was announced that fall 2020 courses would be online, we used the summer 2020 online course as a foundation and began to translate and embed the enhancements and engagement strategies we developed previously.

    One structural change included recreation of lecture content to shorter, bite-sized videos (5 to 7 minutes in length) to maintain student attention. One example of how we translated an assignment included a three-part elevator pitch discussion board assignment to engage students in the process of developing their pitch. Students post an initial attempt, critically respond to at least two peers assuming the role of a recruiter, and then revise their initial post based on the peer feedback. Prompts are provided so students have structure and language to construct thoughtful responses. When undertaken in an in-person class, this activity took a few minutes; the online format stretches it out to a week-long process. A bonus of this format is that students are not reacting in the moment and have time to review all posted pitches, reflect on their own, and take the time to revise their work.  

    Limitations and Future Directions

    Though we clearly see improvements in the 12 career competencies regardless of the semester term, we recognize a few limitations to our conclusions. First, a smaller number of students complete the after assessment than the before assessment. In addition, at the end of each semester, higher-achieving students are most likely to remain active in course assignments, and this could incline the improvements to higher gains than would be expected. We also recognize that not requiring students to submit the assessment as a graded assignment can incline the highest-achieving students to opt in to complete the after assessment. This may be an example of a volunteer bias.

    In the future, we hope to use the before assessment to immediately modify our course deliveries in real-time during the same semester. All of our data are currently reviewed retroactively, and we have not implemented changes until the following semester. Second, we are also considering using the data for individual career coaches’ professional development in teaching.  By segmenting the data based on instructor, we can examine areas of improvement for each career coach in teaching the course, whether that be, for example, resumes, elevator pitches, interviewing, or job offer negotiations. Third, we will examine the data for “Career Success Strategies” taught as a “blast” course, i.e., a one weekend intensive to cover the equivalent amount of content, with online assignments. This segment may help us see whether students make similar improvements in career competencies and retain concepts effectively when they are taught in such a compressed format. 

    Endnotes

    1 Colleges With Great Internship Programs. (n.d.). USNews & World Report. Retrieved August 31, 2020, from https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/rankings/internship-programs.

    2 Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

    Carly TrimboliCarly Trimboli is an associate director of career development in the Carl H. Lindner College of Business; she coaches marketing and sales students and partners with local employers to identify and hire top talent. She has worked at University of Cincinnati for 12 years and spent 10 of those years helping students develop professionally for their careers. Trimboli leads curriculum design and content for all career-related courses required for business students through continuous improvement, data-driven decision making, and best practices for instructional pedagogy. She has a Bachelor of Science in communication from Ohio University and a master’s in counselor education from The Ohio State University.

    Victoria BuckleyVictoria Buckley has been at the University of Cincinnati (UC) for five years. She is currently serving as an assistant director of career development, coaching real estate and business-undecided students. She also is the course designer and instructor for “Preparing for Professional Experiences” (BA 2081). Buckley is currently completing her M.Ed. in instructional design and technology at UC; she earned a M.A. in student affairs administration in higher education from Ball State University and a B.A. in English literature from University of Toledo. Her previous higher education experience includes housing and residence life and academic advising.

    Keith SunKeith Sun is an assistant director of career development for the Carl H. Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati, where he teaches undergraduate “Career Success Strategies” courses, coaches individual students, and cultivates relationships with regional employers. Sun has been a member of NACE for five years, and is also involved with the Midwest Association of Colleges and Employers and the Cooperative Education and Internship Association. He is currently finishing his M.B.A., and holds a master’s in clinical mental health counseling and a bachelor’s in neurobiology, physiology, and behavior.

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