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Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning



In university courses which have a vocational orientation, students are often given assignments that require them to relate the theory they are learning to real-life-like situations, in ways that are intended to mirror tasks they may eventually encounter in the workplace. Whatever the limitations imposed by the institutional context on the ability of this kind of exercise to initiate students into professional discourse (Freedman et al. 1994), it continues to be a highly-regarded teaching tool.

In this chapter I consider, in the light of the work by Freedman and others on the differences between academic and professional learning and the ways professional discourse is learned, how this kind of assignment can function. The discussion draws on the analysis of a sample of eleven 2nd and 3rd year assignment tasks (from Business and Economics subjects) that present a scenario and require the student to adopt a professional role. The tasks examined differed quite widely in degree of explicitness about the role the student writer was to adopt, and how this translated into expectations of genre and audience. There were also varying levels of detail in the contextualisation of the task. I look at the way these assignments create a rhetorical context to elicit professional discourse, and how they deal with issues identified in the literature as potential barriers to learning.


Professional textual practices are taught and learnt in many ways. These include methods which have varying degrees of distance from the actual workplace, ranging from on the job training, through work placements and client projects, to simulations and role plays in academic courses. Those university courses which have a vocational orientation, such as Law and Medicine, commonly use simulations to initiate students into the practices and language of the professions they are preparing them for. In Business schools, which sometimes have a less specific professional orientation, there is also a long history of using real-life situations in teaching, going back to the development of the case method (borrowed from university law schools) in the Harvard Business School in the early twentieth century (Di Gaetani 1989). These simulations have the double purposes of applying theory to practical situations and, as Zhu (2004) has noted, socialising students into the business world by making them ‘[assume] business roles, [write] for business audiences, and [adopt] business communication styles’ (p. 125). In other words, one of their purposes seems to be to have students practise the discourse of the business professions.

However, some researchers have questioned the degree to which professional discourse can be taught in the classroom, suggesting that it is so shaped by the workplace context that it is only there that it can be fully learnt (Anson and Forsberg 1990; Freedman and Adam 1996; Freedman et al. 1994; Knoblauch 1989; Forman and Rymer 1999). Others are more optimistic, and argue that the professional context can be incorporated into the classroom in various ways that at least permit students to begin building an understanding of the ways professional discourse operates (Blakeslee 2001; Pardoe 2000; Russell 1997).

My purpose in this chapter is to look at issues of academic and professional discourse, in relation to assignments that try to incorporate the professional context into the classroom by requiring the writer to adopt a professional role. In the process of learning the discourse of a professional community, these assignments occupy a position on the borderline between the academic and professional contexts. In his synthesis of activity theory and genre theory, Russell (1997) argues that the activity system of the university has interpenetrating boundaries with other activity systems, including professional ones, partly as a result of the intertextual links between classroom and other genres. It can be argued that by positing a professional context, these assignments provide a set of conditions to elicit a communicative act, through the production of which the student is expected to move closer to the target community.

In my role as an academic skills adviser I often encounter students who have difficulties with these types of ‘professional context’ assignments, suggesting that the learning activities they constitute are not unproblematic. For that reason I decided to examine more closely some examples of such assignments from the final two years of a Bachelor of Business course, to see how they were constructed, and how they might function as prompts for the production of a piece of professional communication. To inform this analysis I will first review some of the extensive research on the learning of professional discourse: what can be learnt in the classroom, and what conditions make this learning most effective.


The use of scenarios to create a context and a prompt for a communicative act is not restricted to vocationally oriented courses. It is a technique that is widely used in the communicative approach in foreign language teaching. Coming closer to academic writing, work in composition studies has suggested that the use of scenarios which specify audience can have a positive impact on writing quality in any situation. Some benefits suggested are increased motivation and more audience-based strategies of persuasion, improved writing by inexperienced writers, and increased audience awareness (Roen and Willey 1988; Redd-Boyd and Slater 1989; Rozumalski and Graves 1995; Scharton 1989).

The literature on professional writing has given considerable attention to the learning of professional discourse, and within this to the use of scenarios. However, studies of professional writing emphasise the differences between the academic and professional contexts (Knoblauch 1989; Anson and Forsberg 1990; Freedman et al. 1994). The oft-cited study of Freedman et al. (1994), comparing university and workplace discourse in the same field, underlines the way the institutional context shapes writing, and argues that writing done in a university course, no matter what form it takes, is shaped primarily by the academic institutional context. The characteristics produced by this context are: orientation towards the demonstration of knowledge, fulfilling needs of the writer rather than the reader (acting as a learning process), evaluation as main reader purpose, and texts that have no life beyond their presentation for evaluation. This is in contrast to the professional context, where texts are produced in response to readers’ needs, and continue to be used and referred to in other texts. Forman and Rymer (1999), in their critique of the Harvard case method, also point to the force of the institutional context in shaping discourse. Price (this volume) presents the difficulty for the student as one of making choices between competing discourses (academic and professional). Other comparisons of professional and academic writing in the same discipline, considering judgements of writing quality and sophistication of rhetorical problem-solving, find differences of degree, rather than of quality (Charney et al. 2002; Flower 1989).

This is not to say, however, that nothing can be learnt from attempts to recreate a professional context within the classroom, while bearing in mind that the discourse thus produced will still differ in some important ways from professional discourse. Freedman et al. (1994) suggest that class simulations can help to provide students with ‘the intellectual stance, the ideology, and the values necessary for their professional lives’ (p. 221). Something similar seems to be suggested by Thompson and Alford’s (1997) investigation of the genres students must master in an engineering course. The engineering professors they interviewed indicated that the lab report required of students, although it did not superficially resemble a professional engineering report, was ‘a foundational document in the knowledge structures of engineering discourse’ (p. 3). From this we might conclude that writing a simulated professional genre facilitates acquiring the knowledge structures of business discourse. A number of other researchers see a process of guided learning, scaffolding students’ progress towards the professional world (Freedman and Adam 1996; Anson and Forsberg 1990; Blakeslee 2001; Duff, this volume).

Others also are optimistic about the possibilities of learning about the workplace in the classroom, but offer some cautions regarding the conditions for its success. Herrington (1985) maintains that a professional context can be created in the classroom, but that there must be no disjunction between the context created by the scenario and the context enacted in classroom. In Herrington’s study, this was done successfully through a course-long simulation, where teachers and students adopted roles in a fictitious company and these roles were maintained consistently in both classroom discussion and written assignments. The effect of context is approached in a slightly different way by Pardoe (2000). He concentrates on the ways students decide which aspects of a learning experience within a vocational course can be regarded as offering an insight into the profession, and which are a consequence of doing it in the classroom. This decision-making he calls ‘attribution’. What students learn from an activity depends on the way they attribute this experience. This can be a source of mismatches between student and teacher representations of the task (see Nelson 1990), for instance if the students attribute an aspect of the assignment to the university context when the lecturer regards it as an attribute of the professional context. Pardoe (2000) illustrates this with an example from a class in which students had to write an environmental impact assessment. The students made stronger statements than were warranted by the data they had been given, assuming that in the ‘real world’ they would have better data. The lecturer, however, assumed that they would learn that real-world data is often imperfect and any conclusions must be provisional. The implication of this is that teachers need to make explicit the significance they attach to a learning activity in order for the students to understand it in the way they intend. This could be seen as helping them to carry out the ‘boundary work’ between the academic and professional activity systems referred to by Russell (1997). Attribution also seems related to the issue of authenticity in the classroom raised by Blakeslee (2001); students’ perception of an assignment as ‘real’ is presumably a matter of their attributing its features to the workplace rather than the classroom.

From this research a number of points emerge. While it is necessary to remember that the academic and workplace contexts are different, and opinions diverge on the degree to which the workplace context can be made present in the classroom, there is agreement that at least something about professional discourse can be learnt in an academic setting. Activities that contribute to this learning have several features: they create an authentic rhetorical context, and they are aware of and try to manage the inevitable disjunction between the professional and academic context, guiding the appropriate attribution of features to one or the other.

These points provide a basis for analysing the sample of assignment questions I have gathered. In particular I was seeking to discover how they create a rhetorical context, and whether they meet the conditions for success outlined above, namely taking into account the interplay of the professional and academic context and making clear how the assignment relates to both.


The examples analysed here were provided by six lecturers from a large Business and Economics faculty, who responded to a direct email request for samples of assignment questions from second and third year subjects. In the original sample of twenty assignments from ten different subjects, there were eleven that provided some elements of a scenario, and suggested a professional rhetorical context.

Assignment 2, quoted below, is a typical example. In this assignment from the discipline of management, the student is assigned a role (international manager of an Australian manufacturing company). A context (expansion into a new market) is briefly sketched, which provides the writer with a rhetorical purpose the task (evaluate the alternatives and make recommendations for this expansion). The genre in which this rhetorical purpose is to be realised is specified (business report), as is the audience (the CEO).

You are the international manager of an Australian business that has just invented a revolutionary high technology product that can perform the same functions as existing products but costs only half as much to manufacture. Several patents protect the unique design of your products. Your CEO has asked you to formulate a recommendation for how to expand into Western Europe or the Asia Pacific Rim. Your options are to (a) export from Australia; (b) license a European or Asian firm to manufacture and market the product in Europe or Asia; and (c) to set up a wholly owned subsidiary in Europe or Asia. Evaluate the pros and cons of each alternative and suggest a course of action to your CEO. Consider the impact of the local environment of your host market.

Assignments 1, 3, 6 and 7 follow a similar pattern. The remaining assignments fall into two groups. In assignments 8–11, from a tourism management unit, the students are presented with a detailed scenario which forms the basis of all their work for the semester. For reasons of space, I have omitted some of the detail.

A consultancy company has been formed to undertake an analysis of specific aspects of Frankston tourism. This company has undertaken an environmental analysis, in consultation with Tourism Frankston and the Frankston City Council, identifying specific strategic needs... This environmental analysis will be provided to your company during our first meeting.

There are a number of areas that require further investigation... Your research and advice company has been approached as a subcontractor to undertake specific research for one of these areas...

We require the achievement of this contract to proceed in four sequential stages...

The students are thus assigned roles as members of the ‘research and advice company’. The work they are required to do is set out in two pages of detailed instructions. In these, the outcomes of the first three stages mentioned above are specified as reports, with the first two serving as drafts for sections of the third. The audience for this report is not indicated. For the fourth stage, two genres (oral presentation and written summary) and an audience (stakeholders) are specified:

The final stage is the presentation to stakeholders of the achievement of the research area by your research and advice company... A summary document is also required for stakeholders to take away.

The remaining group (assignments 4 and 5) are structurally quite different. These assignments from a unit in business data analysis consist of groups of short-answer questions, of which the following is a typical example:

A market research consultant hired by the Pepsi-Cola Company is interested in determining who favours the Pepsi-Cola brand over the Coca-Cola brand in a particular urban location. A frame of customers from the market under investigation is given in the file (name supplied).

a) Compute the proportion of the customers in the given frame who favour Pepsi.

b) Choose a sample of size 30 stratified by gender with proportional sample sizes.

There follow further instructions for tasks to perform on this sample. In these assignment questions, although scenario is supplied, the student is not explicitly identified with an actor in the scenario.

Table 1 gives an analysis of the instructions for these eleven assignments according to discipline, writer role, audience, rhetorical purpose and genre. These categories were adapted from the generative framework proposed by Moore and Hough (this volume).

Table 1 Analysis of assignment questions by discipline, author role, audience, rhetorical purpose and genre


These assignments generally create a rhetorical context by specifying author role, audience and genre. Within this framework, however, there is a range of detail in the scenarios and of explicitness in the instructions regarding each element. On the one hand Assignment 1 sets out, simply and explicitly, the role the writer is to adopt, the audience, the genre (journal article) and the rhetorical purpose (to introduce readers to the use of a software application for a particular accounting technique):

You have been approached to write an article of not more than 5,000 words for the Australian CPA – the journal of CPA Australia – giving the readers an introduction to building optimising models using Excel’s ‘Solver’...

On the other hand, assignments 8–11, which are all part of a client project, have a one-page description of the scenario, but the writer role and audience are embedded in the context: that of working for a ‘research and advice company’ contracted by a local council and tourism authority.

Another set of assignments (4 and 5) are interesting because they evoke a context without explicitly assigning the student a role within it, or calling for the production of a professional genre. These assignments are discrete problems in business data analysis and, very much in the style of ‘word problems’ in school mathematics textbooks, they present a scenario with actors and then ask the student to solve the problem, without however identifying the student with the actors in the scenario. An example of one of these questions was quoted at the beginning of this section. The distancing of the student from the actors in the scenario is even more striking in the following task from Assignment 4:

Auditors of a particular bank are interested in comparing the reported value of customer savings account balances with their own findings regarding the actual value of such assets. Rather than reviewing the records of each savings account at the bank, the auditors decide to examine a representative sample of savings account balances. The frame from which they will sample is given in the file (name supplied).

The student’s task is then outlined:

a) Select a systematic sample of 151 savings accounts.

b) Explain how the auditors might use the systematic sample identified in Part (a) to estimate the value of all savings account balances within this bank. (Instructions for further computation tasks follow.)

Here the students are not asked to write as though they are auditors, but to explain how an auditor might proceed. What is being required of them in this assignment is demonstration of knowledge about a professional role in a real-world context, rather than a simulation of that role.

Six assignments indicate an audience, either by directly naming the audience or the person who had commissioned the report (2, 3, 7, 11), by or by implication (1, 6). The characteristics of the audience which might have a bearing on the way the assignment was written are not elaborated, although sometimes indications are given. In Assignment 2, the students are told: ‘the CEO wants to see a report which is extremely well written and backed up by wide and relevant research, both current and historical’. One of the instructions for Assignment 1 was: ‘Your article must use appropriate language and spreadsheet examples for the intended “readership”’ (my emphasis), but it is left to the students to infer from the journal title who exactly that readership is and what language would be appropriate.

In none of the assignments is the student left to decide what genre(s) might be appropriate to the designated writer role and audience: the genre to be produced is always specified, sometimes with detailed instructions on content and/or formatting. These genres are generally congruent with the role and audience where stated: for example, a business report for a CEO, an oral presentation of research findings for project stakeholders, a journal article for readers of a particular journal.

The rhetorical purpose is often implicit in the information about genre, writer and audience. However, some assignments make it explicit with directive phrases like ‘Your article should briefly illustrate...’, ‘evaluate the pros and cons of each alternative and suggest a course of action...’, ‘the report is required to demonstrate...’, ‘explicitly provide recommendations...’.


The academic institutional context is very present in most of these assignments. Some of the instructions direct students to the lectures where relevant concepts have been discussed and many set out the number and type of information sources to use (for instance, a minimum of five refereed journal articles). The academic institutional context is further made present by accompanying material on formatting and disciplinary matters.

Freedman et al. (1994) find that the academic institutional context determines one rhetorical function for student writing, which they identify as the demonstration of learning (with the ultimate goal of being evaluated). They and others suggest that one of the main obstacles to the effectiveness of classroom simulation or scenario assignments is the disjunction between this function and the one posited by the assignment scenario. Such a disjunction is illustrated in Assignment 6, which sets out the following scenario:

You have been appointed as a fund manager trainee in Norton Investments (NI). In order to get confirmed as a professional fund manager, your supervisor in the fund management department of NI has asked you to set up a small investment fund and then manage it. Suppose you have received $100 million from investors who are pleased with your investment objectives, which suit their needs. Basically you are in a managed fund environment.

However, in the instruction package for this assignment, the extent and detail of the procedural matter and warnings about penalties for late submission and plagiarism give great prominence to the function of evaluation, and to the need to comply with conditions that bear no relation to the rhetorical function set out in the scenario. One could readily imagine a student, in Pardoe’s (2000) terms, attributing all of the features of this assignment to the academic context, at the expense of the professional features it was trying to elicit.

In some of the assignments there is an attempt to deal with this potential disjunction by incorporating the disciplinary requirements into the scenario itself: Assignments 8–11 have a number of administrative procedures that are designed to ensure that students complete all tasks, which are presented as stages in the contract. Failure to carry them out results in cancellation of the contract (which in fact means getting no mark for the assignment). Assignment 2 found an ingenious way of connecting the requirements of knowledge demonstration to the scenario by invoking a second rhetorical purpose, that of self-promotion, saying that the report should constitute ‘a solid justification for the recommendation... which would convince the CEO that you are a well-informed business manager, whose services and ideas are extremely valuable’.


From reading these assignment questions, it is not clear from what sources the students are expected to derive the knowledge they need to make appropriate lexico-syntactic and rhetorical choices for the type of discourse they are expected to produce. Assignment 1’s requirement to use appropriate language for the readership of the journal seems to assume that the students’ life experience will enable them to deduce what is appropriate in these circumstances (see also Price, this volume). Studies of the way professional discourse is learnt, both in the classroom and in the workplace, suggest that modelling plays an important role (Anson and Forsberg 1990; Freedman and Adam 1996), and this of course is not something that can be deduced from reading the assignment questions. It may well be that what appears to be assumed knowledge has been presented in some way in class. However, while the source of the disciplinary knowledge students should display is often referred to explicitly (e.g. in Assignment 3: ‘In order to do this you must draw on the concepts and theories introduced in Lectures 4 through 8 and demonstrate your understanding of how HRM can improve employee retention.’), little is said about how the rhetorical context provided should translate into words.


One way of bringing the professional context into the classroom is through assignments that create a scenario in which the student must adopt a professional role and engage in a professional communicative act. The assignment questions examined here show that one of the challenges in designing this kind of learning activity is managing the balance between the academic and the professional context. The research comparing academic and professional discourse suggests that since the academic rhetorical context exerts such a strong determining force, every effort needs to be made to prevent it from dominating the student’s interpretation of the task. For some the assignments studied here, the requirements of the academic context – marking criteria, submission dates, and disciplinary matters – risked overwhelming the professional context in the framing of the task. Solutions to this problem might include using formatting to achieve a clearer separation between the scenario and the other elements or, as was done in some of the assignments, finding a way of integrating some of these requirements into the scenario itself.

Another possible source of difficulty for students is the assumption that they already possess the knowledge they need to make appropriate rhetorical choices. Since this study did not include any classroom observation, it is not possible to say that this knowledge was not presented in some way in the course of lectures and class discussions. However, the fact that it is not signalled in the assignment instructions in the same way that disciplinary knowledge is may indicate that it needs to be treated more explicitly. This would be particularly true for classes with a high enrolment of international students, since much knowledge about workplace behaviour and expectations is culture-specific.

The insights gained through this analysis of assignment questions need to be developed through further investigation, using classroom observation and analysis of student writing, in order to determine the most effective ways of scaffolding the production of professional discourse through scenario assignments.


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Cite this chapter as: Pinder, J. 2007. ‘Eliciting professional discourse in assignments’. In Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning, edited by Marriott, H; Moore, T; Spence-Brown, R. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 3.1–3.12.

© Copyright 2007 Jan Pinder
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Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning

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