Beyond the Essay: Briefing Memos

Today we have a guest post from Vincent Druliolle, an assistant professor at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. He can be reached at Vincent[dot]Druliolle[at]gmail[dot]com.

Undergraduates are repeatedly told that what they study is somehow relevant for practice, yet most assignments are structured as academic essays—even though only a handful of them will end up opting for an academic career. A few years ago, I decided that my students should have the opportunity to develop non-academic writing skills, and started assigning a briefing memo about an ongoing conflict.

The briefing memo is indeed a format widely used in government, international organisations, consultancies, and NGOs. However, because of the large range of topics and theoretical perspectives covered by my module and the limited number of teaching weeks, I had to find a way of integrating such an activity into my small-group seminars. I came up with the idea of making the memo a preparatory activity for my in-class simulation on peacebuilding and transitional justice.

The briefing memo differs from the traditional essay in both content and format. It is policy-oriented, because it is aimed at practitioners and decision-makers, and it presents information in a concise and attractive manner. It requires critically analysing source material beyond the standard academic literature, selecting what’s most relevant, and presenting it in a way that can convey the complexities of the conflict analysed.

Most students have never written a memo, but I don’t give them any guidelines. Instead, I ask them to look up examples that they can use as models. I prefer to ask the students to present their memos in class and discuss the difficulties of writing it. The first seminar of the simulation is thus about comparing and learning from the work of one’s fellow classmates. For class discussion, I recommend selecting at least a very good memo, a (very) bad one, and a few with significantly different formats and/or content. The greater the variety of memos, the better. I want the students to learn from each other, so I adopt the role of a facilitator, asking them to explain why they’ve chosen a given format and/or content, and fostering a class discussion about these aspects.

Many students admit that, as I warn them beforehand, it’s difficult at the beginning to figure out how they have to write the memo. Instead of assessing it at this stage, I ask the students to submit a revised version after the simulation that reflects what they’ve learnt from their classmates’ memos. Guidelines about how to write a memo can be provided at this stage or even afterward as part of a debriefing.

While writing the memo is an activity in its own right, in this case it is also a way for the students to acquire the knowledge necessary to participate in the simulation. They learn what information the memo should include because they have to put themselves in the shoes of the actors for whom the memo is written in the first place. In this way, the memo prepares students for the simulation, while the simulation provides an opportunity for them to reflect on the writing of the memo. And for the instructor, memos are quicker (and less boring) to mark than essays.