THE PERSONAL APPLICATION ASSIGNMENT (PAA)

A variety of texts and articles over the past few years have argued for the use of an alternative approach to teaching organizational behavior, one that emphasizes experiential learning. This approach “emphasizes an existential, emergent view for learning organizational behavior” (McMullen, 1979), where the role of the instructor is that of learning facilitator, responsible for designing experiences for students to base learning upon, rather than as teacher, responsible for lecturing on theory and concepts. While gaining wide acceptance, this approach has nevertheless created problems in the assessment of students’ performance. Significant learnings in this model of teaching occur not only from the development of concepts, but also from the experiences themselves. McMullen (as well as others) has proposed the use of a personal application assignment to help solve the problem of performance assessment. This assignment is based upon the experiential learning model formulated by Kolb (1971). This model is discussed in more detail in the text chapter on learning styles.
Kolb’s model argues that learning occurs through a process which might begin with a concrete experience, which leads to reflective observation about the experience. Abstract conceptualization follows in which models, paradigms, strategies, and metaphors are applied to the results of the experience. Active experimentation concludes the cycle as the concepts are then put into practice, thus generating new concrete experience. Figure 1 shows the model more clearly.
Figure 1: Experiential Learning Model (Kolb)
 
Concrete experiences
Testing implications
of concepts in
new situations Observation and
reflections
 
Formation of abstract
concepts and generalizations
In one sense, persons able to learn using all four modes of the model will be better able to take away learning from the variety of contexts in which they interact. We feel that the Personal Application Assignment is a useful tool for both evaluation of a student’s work in courses taught using an experiential approach; and further, that the Personal Application Assignment can serve as a way to help students learn to learn. The PAA is both an evaluation and a teaching technique.
Our past history of teaching using this method has shown that the PAA, in order to be most useful, must include clear guidelines for the student. To that end we have undertaken to set forth the guidelines below to help students to understand the requirements for effective PAAs.
Guidelines on Grading, Topic Selection, and Confidentiality
First of all, we believe that a 20-point grading system simplifies understanding how each component of the paper is graded and weighted. There are five elements to the paper and each normally is weighted equally. These include the four elements in the learning style model and a fifth element that takes into account the introduction, integration, synthesis and general quality of writing in the PAA. The score given in each element depends upon how effectively the student has met all the criteria listed for that section of the paper. For the instructor’s part, we believe that instructors need to provide specific feedback as quickly as possible to students on why they were awarded points in each area and, more importantly, what they need to do to improve. To achieve these objectives the same summary sheet that guides the grading is provided to the student as feedback. This sheet is attached at the end of this handout.
The above paragraph referred to the weighting as “normally” being equal for all parts of the paper. In cases where the quality of the student writing is clearly below acceptable standards for college- level courses, this component or the entire paper may be given a significantly lower grade. (Preparing a good quality initial draft to be reviewed by a peer will help eliminate this potential problem. An initial draft is not the same as a first draft or rough draft. It should be a version the student has already revised one or more times. Students should be responsible for seeking out help with their writing skills if necessary.
Choosing a good topic is essential. Select an experience that relates to the assigned course topics. It should be an experience that you would like to understand better, (e.g., there was something about it that you do not totally understand, that intrigues you, that made you realize that you lacked certain managerial skills, or that was problematical or significant for you.) When students are excited about learning more about the incident, their papers are lively and interesting. The topic must be meaty enough to take it through the entire learning cycle. The incident does not have to be work related; an incident in any setting (sports, school, family, church, etc.) that relates to the course topics is acceptable.
You should select a recent experience (not something that happened back in high school). The more recent the experience, the more likely it is that you could take actions that could improve your current interactions with a supervisor, group member, roommate, or other person with whom you have an ongoing relationship. You also may select an experience which is not ongoing if this is more salient to you.
Two additional issues should be considered in choosing your topic. The first is confidentiality. Students sometime wish to write on a topic that is of a personal nature. They may be willing for the instructor to read their paper but not want this to be read by other students in the class. This is a reasonable request and confidentiality will be honored. Students who want their paper to be confidential should inform the instructor ahead of time and should write “confidential” at the top of the paper.
There is one exception to the confidentiality rule. If a student describes conduct related to the University where significant University rules or State/Federal laws have been violated by other students or University staff, the instructor reserves the right to bring this issue to the attention of the appropriate administrator to ensure that the situation is remedied.
Elements of the PAA
1. Concrete Experience
In this part of the paper, students briefly describe what happens in the experience. A simple description of the events which occurred is not sufficient. The feelings experienced by the student as well as his or her thoughts and perceptions during the experience are relevant to this discussion.
Another way of looking at the concrete experience would be to recognize that it possesses an objective and a subjective component. The objective part presents the facts of the experience, like a newspaper account, without an attempt to analyze the content. The subjective part is the “here-and-now” personal experience of the event. This experience is composed of feelings, perceptions and thoughts.
Helpful hints: (1) It often helps students to replay the experience in their mind. After reviewing the experience, students should write a report of what they saw, heard, felt, thought, and heard and saw others doing. (2) Students should avoid presenting the detailed mechanics of the experience unless these are critical to the remainder of the paper. This section of the paper should be no longer than 1.5 pages long. (3) Students should avoid reporting the feelings and thoughts experienced after the experience being described. This retrospection is more appropriate in the reflective observation section.
Example:
We all sat at the table together. Not a sound came from any of us. Finally, after what felt like an hour to me, I simply had to say something. “Why are all of you taking this course?” I asked. One person, a small foreign looking man said, “I needed this course to complete my MBA.” Others laughed. Another person, a nicely dressed woman, said, “I’d like to get an easy ‘A.'” I thought to myself: What a bummer! I didn’t want to be in a group with people who didn’t take the subject matter seriously. When the meeting ended, my perceptions of the group had somehow changed. Maybe this was a good group to be in after all. Some of the members had similar interests to mine, and most of them were nice people that I could see getting along with. I felt somehow hopeful that this semester wouldn’t be so bad after all.
2. Reflective Observation
The student should ask him/herself: What did I observe in the experience and what possible meanings could these observations have? The key task here is to gather as many observations as possible by observing the experience from different points of view. The main skill to work on is perspective taking or what some people call “re-framing.” Try to look at this experience and describe it from different perspectives. For example, how did other participants view the situation and what did it mean to them? What would a neutral (“objective”) observer have seen and heard? If some time has passed since the experience, do you now see the situation differently? Look beneath the surface and try to explain why the people involved behaved the way they did. Reflect on these observations to discover the personal meaning that the situation had for you.
Helpful hints: (1) If possible, discuss the experience with others who were involved to gain their views and clarify your perceptions. (2) “Unhook” yourself from the experience and meditate about it in a relaxed atmosphere. Mull over your observations until their personal meaning comes clear to you. Try to figure out why people, and you in particular, behaved as they did. What can you learn about yourself, looking back on the experience? If you write about a conflict or interaction, be sure to analyze both sides and put yourself in the shoes of the other people involved.
Examples:
In thinking back on the meeting, I began to see how the group might have taken my comments. My comments were, after all, somewhat aggressive. Some might even call them belligerent. Had I said these things before this class, or at work, I must confess that I would have surprised even myself.
But it seemed there was more going on here than met my eye at the time. Sarah and Bob at first didn’t seem to be the kind of people to combine forces on this job, so why was I arguing against them this time? Then it dawned on me: Their departments were about to be combined into the same division! Why hadn’t I remembered that during the meeting?
Many thoughts raced through my head. Was the cause of last night’s “high” that we won the game? Was it the first time we had worked together as a group? Maybe the fact that member X wasn’t there that night helped! But I still had a nagging hunch that my involvement, downplayed as it was from previous meetings, helped.
3. Abstract Conceptualization
By relating assigned readings and lectures to what you experienced, you are demonstrating your ability to understand conceptually abstract material through your experiences. This process will help you refine your model of people and organizations. While some assigned readings and lectures will have varying degrees of relevance to your experience, it is important that you make several references and not limit your conceptualizing to just one source. Use at least two major concepts or theories from the course readings and cite them correctly e.g,, (Osland, Kolb & Rubin, 2001, p. 31).
By reviewing the assigned reading material, you should be able to identify several specific concepts or theories that relate to your experience. First, briefly define the concept or theory as you would for someone who was not familiar with it. What issue or problem does the theory examine? What variables are used to analyze the problem and how does the theory explain the link between causal variables and outcomes. What suggestions does the theory give as to effective management practices? Second, in a separate paragraph, apply the concept thoroughly to your experience. The tie-in should include the specific details of how the theory relates to and provides insight into your experience. Try to develop diagnostic questions based on the theory that help you to analyze your situation. Does the theory explain what causes certain behaviors or outcomes and were these causes present in your situation? Does the theory distinguish between effective and ineffective practices that help you to understand your situation? Does the experience support or refute parts of the theory? You are encouraged to suggest modifications to a theory to make it fit your particular situation better.
Helpful hints: (1) It is sometimes useful to identify theoretical concepts that interest you first and then search out and elaborate on a personal experience that relates to these concepts. (2) An alternative approach is to select an experience you wish to understand better and then select concepts that apply to your experience.
The example below shows how one concept was defined and applied in a student PAA.
Abstract Conceptualization Example
There are several organizational behavior concepts that help me understand this experience. One is the Thomas-Kilman theory of conflict (Osland, p. 284-285) which is based upon two axes, either the concern for one’s own interests or the concern for the interests of the other party. The five styles reflect a low or high position on these two axes and are labeled competition, compromise, avoidance, accommodation, and collaboration.
In the incident I described, my coach began with a collaborative style, high concern for both his own interests and the interests of the other party. He tried to work out a solution that would satisfy both of us but I neither saw nor heard his point of view. I just wanted to get my own way and practice in the same way I had on my previous team. I see now that the conflict style I used was the competitive style, high concern for my own interests and low concern for the interests of the other party. Looking back, this is the style I have used most often throughout my life; I usually got away with it before because I was such a good athlete. However, my experience with the coach supports the textbook’s description (p. 285) of the losses that may result from using this style. I lost everything when I was kicked off the team and I certainly alienated the coach and the other players and discouraged them from wanting to work with me.
4. Active Experimentation
This section of the paper should begin by summarizing what you learned about yourself as a result of writing the paper. What new personal insights and practical lessons did you learn about how to more effectively deal with these types of experiences. Make sure to focus on what you learned about yourself, rather than what you learned about someone else, general situations such as group behavior, or processes such as negotiation. This should be presented in a separate paragraph and not buried within your discussion of an action step.
Next you should present four action steps that you will take to make you more effective in the future in these situations. (Future actions must be based on the experience reported in the Concrete Experience.) These actions can be stated in the form of guidelines as to how you would act differently or resolutions as to steps you could take to develop or practice particular skills. You should elaborate in detail how you see your action ideas being carried out. A given step might include several related activities to complete it. Sometimes students have a tendency to list an action step and then shift to explaining why they would take the action without sufficiently explaining the actual behavior they would modify. For example, the statement “I would strive to communicate better because people feel I don’t listen very well” does not tell a reader very much about what you would do to communicate better. Saying that “I will strive to communicate better by using active listening techniques where I will paraphrase the other’s viewpoint before presenting my own opinion” is a better indication of how you will carry out this action step.
There should be a clear link between your action steps and the concepts presented in the abstract conceptualization section. If the theories you selected provide recommendations for improving management practices, you are encouraged to incorporate these ideas in formulating your action steps. Don’t just repeat tips from the text. Try to include at least one action resolution that is based upon new knowledge that you have gained about yourself. If you were to re-live your experience, what would you do differently? What would you do to improve the situation?
In past student PAA’s it is often difficult to sort out where one action step ends and another begins. Please provide a separate paragraph for each action step and number or otherwise demarcate the separate action steps. For example, “First, I would ….. My second action step would be …” This will help the reader differentiate between action steps and will ensure that you provide four distinct action steps as part of your plan. Explain why you would take these action steps. Why would the selected behaviors be likely to improve the situation?
Helpful hints: (1) Project a future experience in which you envision the implementation of your ideas and then elaborate on that experience as a way of demonstrating how your actions will be carried out. (2) Where does this situation exist in your life (home, work, school)? Do you need a support system to make it happen? How will you obtain the cooperation of others to jointly improve the situation? (3) Try to imagine the final results of your experimentation. What will it be like if you accomplish what you want to do?
Example of Action Steps:
How then can I best utilize and improve my achievement motivation? First, I must arrange for some accomplishment feedback. This will be done by designing or perceiving tasks so that I succeed bit-by-bit, gaining a reward each time and thus strengthening my desire to achieve more.
Second, I should look to “models of achievement.” If people around me succeed, it will further stimulate me. I will ask them how they go about setting realistic goals for themselves and observe how they get feedback from others regarding their performance.
Third, I should modify my self-image to include my desire for personal challenges and responsibilities and my requirement of continual feedback. (As a first step, I imagine myself as a person who requires or must have success, responsibility, challenge and variety.) I will seek out situations that are more likely to provide these challenges in the future.
Fourth, I must learn to control my reveries. Just beyond the borderline of awareness, many of us are constantly talking to ourselves. While it is fun to fantasize, I will try to make sure my aspirations are realistic given my current skills and time available to accomplish my various goals. I will spend time prioritizing my goals to ensure that I don’t try to do too much or too little.
Finally, although I would never admit so, I agree that salary is a potential “dissatisfier” for me. Therefore, I must insist on what I perceive as a “fair return” for my performance. I will discuss my salary expectations with my supervisor to ensure I know what is expected and also to ensure that my boss knows my expectations. Wish me luck!
Here is another example of a good action step, written by a student who wanted to stop being a passive follower and become more of a leader.
“I am going to take a more active role in team meetings. I will volunteer to be the team facilitator in at least one meeting during this semester. In all other meetings, I am going to make at least two process interventions to help the team function more effectively. To prepare myself, I am going to carefully observe other students who are excellent leaders, and I will read two articles on team leadership. I will also design an evaluation form on my team participation and ask my team to use it to evaluate me after the meeting I facilitate. Based on their feedback, I will continue working on possible weak areas during the rest of this course.”
5. Integration and Writing
The well written PAA has a focal issue and a story line with themes that are carried throughout each of the four sections. The idea of synergy applies here: “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” If integration is present, then the reader can attend to the content without distraction; if integration is absent, barriers prevent the reader from gaining a full appreciation of the content. Are the major themes that you have identified integrated throughout your paper? Make sure that the reflective observation takes into account the viewpoint of all the key people cited in the concrete experience. Do the concepts cited in abstract conceptualization fit well with these observations? Is there a clear link between the concepts or theories that you cite and the subsequent action steps that you formulate? Citing the theories is not just meant to be an academic exercise – it should help guide the analysis of the situation and the planning of practical steps for improving future situations.
Other barriers that prevent the reader from fully appreciating the paper’s content are spelling and grammatical errors, as well as the overall appearance of the final document. Since good writing skills are so important in the business world, there should be no errors in your paper. Use the spell check (and grammar check) on your computer before you hand it in. Sometimes reading a paper aloud will indicate where sections of a paper may need revision to simplify awkward or unclear sentences.
Helpful hints: (1) Troyka’s Handbook for Writers is a good refresher on writing skills. (2) The student should keep in mind the following points:
(a) Decide what one or two main points you wish to convey in each paragraph. The lead sentence in the paragraph should alert the reader to these points. Start a new paragraph to convey new main points. Paragraphs should be of moderate length. Not a page long!
(b) Keep sentences short. Avoid complex modifying phrases that distract from the main idea.
(c) Label each section: Concrete Experience, Reflective Observation, etc. Don’t place a heading at the bottom of the page with no following text.
(d) Transitions are important (between sentences, paragraphs, and sections) and make the paper flow.
(e) The four sections should be equally well developed and fairly similar in length
(f) The paper should not exceed 5 pages in length.
(f) Number the pages to help you and the reader make sure that no pages are missing.
(g) Use 1” margins and double space. Use a font size of 11 or 12.
(h) It is not necessary to put the paper in a folder or plastic sleeve. Simply staple the pages
together.
 
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