I am an in-class and online business course instructor in Ottawa, Ontario; I strongly believe in the power of online learning and I am usually actively looking to expand the number of courses I teach.

If you find this information useful and are interested in more background material on me or to see some of my project management related material, please check out my webpage.

When I teach online courses, my feedback is even more critical, as I am missing out on the in-class coaching that exists within the traditional classroom setting.  As a result, I have found that I have had to elevate my formal feedback on assignments to compensate for this lack of one-on-one interactions.

Providing this level of feedback can be challenging, given the wide range of topics that can be covered within business related courses – particularly with assignments where students get to choose their own topics.  If you don’t have a strong approach to providing feedback, considerable uncertainty can exist on how to determine if the assignments that students produce on their selected topics are “good” or not.

After evaluating more than 1,500 business related assignment documents, I have developed a very effective formal approach to providing feedback, guidance and assessment that does not require extensive subject matter expertise within the particular field that the student has chosen for their assignment topic.

To demonstrate my approach, I’ll provide a few examples and use a project plan document to illustrate this technique.  As you can see, this approach allows you to assess assignments based on the student’s approach to the document, not the specifics that surround the subject matter.

So here are five recommended tips from my strategy that I can share with you:

Ensure that the internal links within the document have been established:

Many students approach each section of a business document individually, without giving regard to the overall high-level flow and interconnectivity of the document.  As such, they miss out on establishing links between one section of a document and other related sections.

For example, here are some of the lesser-recognized interconnectivity links that exist within a project plan:

  • The project’s objectives should be directly reflected within the project’s milestones.
  • The validity of each of the project’s assumptions should be challenged within the project’s risk management section.
  • Your project’s external dependencies (those people, agencies or organizations whose approval the project depends upon) need to be reflected in your project’s communication and stakeholder management sections.
  • Project acceptance criteria need to be based on the project requirements; if not, this can lead to untested requirements or to the project only being acceptable if additional activities above and beyond what was required are performed.

When I detect that these connections have not been established within the student’s approach to their plan, I provide feedback that reframes the inter-relationships within the sections of the project plan and the formal approach that is needed to produce a logical, holistic and well supported project plan.

Ensure that a common basis for the document has been established

While most students are taught how to develop a work breakdown structure (WBS) for their project, the importance of the WBS is not always understood.  As a result, gaps frequently appear within the various sections of students’ project plans.  The most common root cause of this is that the student did not use the WBS as the basis for each section.

These gaps in document continuity reveal themselves as entries in the WBS are not reflected within other sections of the document such as the project’s schedule, budget, responsibility assignment matrices, risk registry, quality plan and/or human resource plan.

When I detect that the student is not using their WBS as the common reference point throughout the project’s plan, I can then provide feedback that they have tasks that have not been defined, scheduled, budgeted, resourced and supported, and if this is the case, then these tasks are not going to get done.

Ensure that relevant content is presented

Many students attempt to add ideas and information into one section of a document without understanding how those entries will be used throughout the rest of the document.

I find that this problem frequently occurs in sections such as the assumptions, constraints or dependencies sections of the project plan.  In these sections, students will often add information that has no relevance to the overall planning process.

When this occurs, I try to stress to the students the importance of their role in not just presenting information in their plan, but also of the importance of guiding the reader in understanding and interpreting the information presented.  Particularly within an academic environment, I feel that it is essential for students to be able to support the relevance of the material they present by explaining its significance and impact on the planning process.

Correct usage of terms

One of the most common inhibiters to a student being able to address each section of a business document is a weak or misaligned understanding of business terminology.  I am often surprised by how many non-standard definitions exist for common business terms.

I personally feel that, without a strong definition of the expectations for each section of a business document, it becomes overwhelming to target the correct information into each section, regardless of how well the student understands the subject matter that they are writing about.  For example, within a project plan:

  • Students often struggle to determine the differences between strategy, purpose, goals and objectives.
  • Requirements are frequently used as constraints.
  • Assertions (with no uncertainty associated with them) appear listed as assumptions.
  • Quality issues appear listed as risks, and risks appear listed as constraints.

I personally feel that the lack of clear understanding of how each term should be used within a business document is one of the fundamental contributors to the challenges that students face in producing a high-quality, professional business document, and it’s one of the easiest problems to fix, too. By recognizing that the expectations for a business term are unclear, providing the correct expectations along with a few examples is usually enough to get the student back on track.

Cyclical nature of planning

We are all used to reading a book cover-to-cover, and therefore we assume that business documents are written the same way – that is, start with the first section and work through the sections one at a time in a single pass.

However, this is not how business documents are written.  Business documents require a cyclical approach, with earlier sections being revisited as later sections are clarified.  When assessing a student’s assignment, this is a particularly easy concept to check for.

Particularly with project management documents, a student usually has to make at least two passes (often more) before the information in the document is consistent throughout.  Simply check to see if the tasks and activities that are introduced in the later sections of the document (risks, quality, project management, communication or stakeholders) are reflected in the WBS.

Finding unsupported tasks gives me an opportunity to provide feedback to the student on the importance of taking multiple passes through the document to ensure its consistency and accuracy.


With a little practice, combined with strong knowledge of the interdependencies that exist within each of the standard business document sections, you will be able to provide your students with meaningful and beneficial feedback on a wide variety of topics, even when you don’t have strong industry expertise in a specific field or previous experience.