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Book critique assignments in management education.

Abstract

This article asserts that the book critique is a powerful tool for management education which responds to employers' need for managers with critical thinking and higher-order learning abilities. The alignment of the assignment with critical thinking, high-order learning, and leadership theories is explained. It is followed by a detailed discussion of the assignment's mechanics, including book selection, book critique outlines, student insecurities about writing the critique, as well as grading considerations.

Introduction

Business schools around the world are faced with new challenges for their undergraduate and graduate programs as a result of the ever-changing global economy (Harveston, 1998; Mintzberg, 2004). Employers increasingly demand graduates with not only subject matter competency, but also critical thinking and higher-order learning ability. But employers' demands even go beyond that: They also want graduates with the ability to "sell" their ideas to others in the workplace. This challenge, though, offers many opportunities for innovation and creativity in not just what is taught but also how and why. This article asserts that the book critique (also referred to as the book review) offers a powerful pedagogical tool for management education and one which responds to employers' need for managers with critical thinking and higher-order learning abilities. We begin the discussion by describing how the book critique aligns with the theories of critical thinking, higher-order learning, and leadership. The article will then discuss the mechanics of the assignment, including book selection, book critique outlines, student insecurities about writing the critique, as well as grading considerations.

Linkages to Theory

Critical Thinking

Although there is no consensus regarding the definition of critical thinking, there seems to be general agreement about the characteristics of those who are skilled in this area. For example, Elder and Paul (2002) posit that those skilled in critical thinking are able to take one's own thinking apart systematically, to analyze each part, assess it for quality and then improve it. They go on to say that the first step in this process is understanding the parts of thinking, which are purpose, questioning, information, inference, assumption, point of view, concepts, and implications. The book critique challenges students to confront all of these elements of thought, not only of the author, but also for themselves. For example, one specific task within the book critique is the identification of strengths and weaknesses of theses and evidence provided in the book. The personal recognition of what makes a thesis valid drives a student to focus on one's own view regarding well-constructed presentations of information. That said, the book critique challenges the student to consider new information, and perhaps work through cognitive dissonance that may have resulted from the reading. Ultimately, the book critique urges students to examine how the materials presented in a book influence their existing knowledge of the topic. Levine and Levine (1993) state that book critiques are useful because they enable students to focus their thoughts about a subject through a prism of describing and reacting to an author's complete presentation of a book. Many assignments in today's curricula revolve around researching and communicating what others think. In answering the question "What do I think about this book?," the student is challenged to engage in personal reflection. Boud (2001) described reflection as a "process of turning experience into learning, that is, a way of exploring experience in order to learn new things from it" (p. 10). Kirsch (1978) challenged his students to use the book critique as a process of learning who they are and what value systems they follow. He goes on to say that most students' credos are "undigested, unexamined, and often confused renderings of what they have been told in literature courses, or of what they think literate, cultivated, tasteful people believe" (p. 5).

The development of the ability to reflect, think critically, and develop one's personal point of view about something is consistent with what employers are looking for. Tay (2001) found organizations hiring MBAs more likely to hire those with critical thinking abilities. Additionally, Mintzberg (2004) asserts that effective managers must be able to take a step back and thoughtfully reflect on their experiences.

Higher-Order Learning

Most educators have long been familiar with Bloom's taxonomy (Bloom, 1969). This taxonomy of knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation represent increasingly higher levels of thinking, and developing assignments at the highest levels have always been a challenge. The linkage between critical thinking and Bloom's higher levels of learning are reflected in Scriven and Paul's (2004) definition of critical thinking: "the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action" (Defining Critical Thinking). The book critique places considerable emphasis on the two highest levels of the taxonomy, synthesis and evaluation. Students are challenged to synthesize what is usually hundreds of pages of text into a succinct and accurate description of the author's thesis and key supporting points. Mintzberg (2004) states that synthesis is the very essence of management, and that analysis without synthesis "reduces management to its skeleton" (p. 37).

In addition to requiring synthesis, the book critique also emphasizes evaluation. This assignment challenges the reader to compare ideas, assess the value of theories, make judgment calls based on the value of evidence, and recognize subjectivity, which are all taken from Bloom's evaluation stage of learning. In commenting on the book's merits, the student is challenged to evaluate the book's contributions vis-a-vis other literature in the field.

Thus, for instructors continuously striving to get their students thinking at the higher levels in Bloom's taxonomy and engaging in critical thinking, the book critique represents a unique assignment that does both. We next discuss yet another learning benefit of the assignment; that is, once having engaged in the critical and higher-order thinking just described, students must still communicate their point of view in a persuasive manner to others. That ability to persuade others to embrace one's ideas we have placed within the broad context of leadership.

Leadership

It has become increasingly important for managers today to be able to quickly assimilate and evaluate data in terms of its meaning and usefulness for achieving organizational goals (Northouse, 2004). The diversity of managers' experiences and ideas create a fuller, more complex pool of knowledge and talent within the organization. The formation and evolution of each manager's thoughts and self ideally add value to the organization and its functioning. Organizations containing homogeneous collections of employees are at risk of pitfalls such as groupthink, polarity, etc., which suggests the importance of managers being able to form an opinion that is independent of others.

However, a manager's ability to persuasively communicate their point of view to others is evidence of leadership potential (Kotter, 1996). In this regard, a well done book critique presents a persuasive statement about a particular book's value. Fink (2004) emphasizes that offering a cogent opinion involves immersing oneself in the facts and conflicting views and then stepping forward with the courage to write. Kirsch (1978) points out, however, that the reviewer should be challenged to "write short" (p. 7). Due to managers' life in the organizational fast lane, it is imperative that communications be brief and compelling.

Northouse (2004) asserts that leadership involves a process of influence. Kotter (1996) specifically identified under-communication of vision as an error of recent years in leadership. This "vision" is fundamentally a point of view about an organization's future. As has been discussed, that point of view is first developed in conjunction with being able to think critically. In addition to requiring critical thinking, the book critique allows students to become more comfortable with expressing both positive and negative views because the assignment transfers the judgment of quality to the student.

Having one's own story to tell does little good if it is not well-presented and communicated persuasively. Even the most inspiring vision of a leader remains dormant without successful communication. Research by Mayfield, Mayfield, & Kopf (1998) demonstrated the positive impact that a leader's effective use of language and communication can have on both staff satisfaction and performance. One element of effective communication that Kotter (1996) noted was simplicity. He suggests that all "jargon and techno babble" be removed so that information can be disseminated to larger groups and minimize "confusion, suspicion, and/or alienation" (8990). Effective communication development also lies within the book critique assignment. Students are exposed to a large body of information about which they must present judgment call in a succinct, well-organized manner. Whether or not a student's point of view is considered valid by others will depend on his/her ability to provide evidence in support of their point of view and on the effectiveness with which that evidence is presented. The same requirements for "selling" one's point of view hold true for leaders in organizations (Kotter, 1996). Persuasive delivery, written or verbal, is vital to the support of an idea, point of view, and/or vision, and the book critique is a device students can utilize to sharpen these skills.

Mechanics of the Book Critique

Book Selection

The selection process for possible books to critique can be done several ways. One of the authors has historically compiled a list of thought leaders and best-selling authors for the students. He has also left the option for a student to suggest a book for critique but is subject to the professor's approval. At the Organization Behavioral Teachers Conference (OBTC) in Scranton, PA, the authors discussed with other management educators from around the country their methods for selecting books for critique. Some professors choose to leave the book selection completely at the discretion of the student and do not approve or disapprove of any titles. While this method gives the student the freedom to select a text that is of interest to him/her, it may have little relevance to the professor's learning objective(s) for the course. Another method of selection involves the class collectively creating a master list of texts from which to choose. This method allows the professor the ability to keep selections within the scope of the course while giving students to the autonomy to make their own selections. Still other professors require students to read the same text. While there is no single best way of choosing the text(s) to be reviewed, the decision should be left to the professor based on his/her goals for the students.

Book Critique Questions

The answers to the following questions are commonly sought among educators that utilize the book critique. A discussion of the questions follows the list.

* Who is the author?

* What is the thesis of the book?

* Is the evidence appropriate for the theses?

* Was the book objective or did ir show bias?

* What presuppositions or basic assumptions does the author reveal in his/her work?

* Are assumptions legitimate or valid?

* Were arguments logical, well-supported, or convincing?

* How fairly does the author deal with information that contradicts his/her main premises?

* Does the author's style suit the intended audience?

* What theoretical issues or topics for further discussion does the work raise?

* What was your personal response?

* Would you recommend this book? To whom? Why?

* What contribution does the book make to the literature? As can be seen, the reader must consider many questions upon completion of the book. These questions serve as a guide for the reader as he or she considers the book's strengths and weaknesses. It also aids the reader in developing a more well-rounded opinion of the book aside from initial ideas of whether or not he/she liked the book. These questions probe the student to reflect on specifically why and/or how the author succeeded or fell short of the book's purpose.

Book Critique Outlines

As with the design of the assignment from the professor, there is fair variation in formatting the critiques' write up. The educator may leave the format to the student's discretion granted that the student covers all necessary materials. Sample Book Critique Outline

1. Introduction

a. Purpose of the book

b. Author's qualifications and viewpoints

2. Critical Summary

a. Thesis of the book

b. Summary on contents

3. Style and Presentation

a. Organization of the book

b. Writing

4. Conclusion

a. Historical contribution of the book (How does it fit into the prevailing interpretation of the subject? Does it break new ground? Does it revise older interpretations?)

b. Overall worth of the book (Would you recommend it? For what type of audience would it be best suited? Did the author achieve his/her purpose?)

(Source: "Writing a Book Review")

Student Insecurities

Students may often feel uncomfortable writing a book critique for the first time. Providing examples from both professional journals and former students can help in this regard. Some anxiety may come from students not feeling competent to comment on subjects about which they are not experts. This issue can partially be addressed by assigning the critique later in the academic term so that students have a stronger grasp of the course material and expectations. Feelings of uneasiness will still be present, but the critique is designed to challenge the student to face those fears, engage in critical thinking, and form one's own perspective.

Assessment Techniques

Due to various designs and courses for which a book critique is an option, there is no consensus on a single, best method or rubric for assessment, and grading can therefore be a challenge. Despite lack of agreement in the educational arena, there are several considerations for instructors when grading this type of assignment. One question that many instructors entertain is whether or not they must read the text in order to grade it. While being familiar with the content of the book is helpful to the person grading the assignment, some use grading rubrics that require the instructor only to look for inclusion of key elements of the critique. The rubric used in the evaluation of the student's critique should be linked back to the overall learning objectives for the assignment and the course. For example, the rubric used in a leadership course may place a certain amount of weight on the students' presentation of critical reactions (personally and professionally) as well as how the text materials have influenced their leadership views, if at all. Some instructors may choose to provide their students with a preferred structure for the organization of the paper. Instructors may also want to consider how well students address and support each pillar of the assignment based on the instructor's preferred structure.

Conclusion

The purpose of this article has been to present a creative approach for management educators to promote student development in critical thinking, higher-order learning, and leadership. Producing management graduates with strong abilities in these areas meets an important need in today's competitive marketplace. The mechanics of how to actually use the assignment have been described, including how to address challenges associated with student insecurities and grading.

Not only is there a strong theoretical and business rationale for the using this assignment, but preliminary research suggests that students themselves sec the value of the book critique as a learning tool. When we asked students in one graduate class (n=16) to comment on the extent to which they agreed that the book critique assignment was "challenging and contributed to their learning," the mean response was 4.31 on a 5-point scale. Further, this mean response score was higher than any other assignment in the course (e.g., learning journal: 3.94/5.0; group project: 3.81/5.0.) While these preliminary findings are certainly not generalizable, they are intended to provide encouragement to instructors to try using this assignment in their classes. The book critique offers a powerful pedagogical tool to develop in our management students the critical thinking, higher-order learning, and leadership abilities that employers in today's economy are most desiring.

References

"Book Critique Guide" (n.d.). Retrieved on June 2, 2005 from http://www.und.nodak.edu/dept/histdept/GDCritique.html

Boud, D. (2001). Using journal writing to enhance reflective practice. New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education, 90, 9-18.

Elder, L. & Paul, R. (2002). Critical thinking: Distinguishing between inferences and assumptions. Journal of Developmental Education, 25(3), 34-35.

Fink., C.C. (2004). Writing opinion for impact. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Harveston, P.D. (1998). Transformation of MBA programs to meet the challenge of international competition. The Journal of World Business, 33(2), 203-218.

Kirsch, R. (1978). The importance of book reviewing. In S. Kamerman (Ed.), Book Reviewing. Boston, MA: The Writer.

Kotter, J. (1996). Leading change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Levine & Levine. (1993). "Using a Book Critique as a Writing Assignment". Retrieved on August 24, 2005 from http://www.law.gonzaga.edu/Programs/Institute+for +Law+School+Teaching/The+Law+Teacher+ +Newsletter/Past+Issues+of+The+Law+Teacher/ Fall+1993/Book+Critique.htm

Mayfield, J.R., Mayfield, M.R., & Kopf, J. (1998). The effects of leader motivating language on subordinate performance and satisfaction. Human Resource Management, 37(3), 235-249.

Meisinger, S. (2004). Shortage of skilled workers threatens economy. HR Magazine, 49(12), 12.

Mintzberg, H. (2004). Managers not MBAs: A hard look at the soft practice of managing and management development. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Moody, J., Stewart, B., & Bolt-Lee, C. (2002). Showing the skilled business graduate: Expanding the toolkit. Business Communication Quarterly, 65(1), 21-36.

Northouse, P. (2004). Leadership: Theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Scriven, M. & Paul, R. (2004). Defining Critical Thinking. Retrieved on August 24, 2005 from http://www.criticalthinking.org/aboutCT/definingCT.shtml

Shropshire, C. (2004, Nov. 9). Hiring shifts to online process to help employers screen pool of applicants. Knight Ridder Tribune Business News, p. 1.

Tay, A. (2001). Management's perception of MBA graduates in Malaysia. The Journal of Management Development, 20(3), 258-274.

Writing a [Historical] Book Review". (n.d.) Retrieved on August 24, 2005 from http://www-personal.si.umich.edu/~rfrost/courses/writerev 1.html

John J. Sherlock, Western Carolina University Grant Morgan, Praxis Research Inc.

John J. Skerlock, Ed.D., is assistant professor of human resources at Western Carolina University and director of its graduate program in human resources; Grant Morgan, M.S., is a research associate with Praxis Research, Inc.
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Author:Morgan, Grant
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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