6 takeaways about improving students’ communication skills

Wouldn’t it be good to get in the same room with people who have spent years thinking about important learning and teaching issues? I had such an opportunity yesterday, when I attended a workshop by OLT (Office of Learning and Teaching) fellows A/Prof. Sophie Arkoudis and Dr Anne Harris looking on a thorny issue of communication skills of our graduates.

Missed it? Not to worry – here are my top 6 takeaways. A 3-hour workshop in 3 minutes!

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Good communication skills are critical for professional success and are at the core of student employability. Most universities (including Macquarie) have long recognised the importance of communication skills. Yet, there are major concerns whether students really get prepared for the communication demands of the modern workplace.

A/Prof. Sophie Arkoudis and Dr Anne Harris shared some thoughts on how to effectively embed communication skills across the curriculum.

1. target icon  Communication skills should be taught as a part of a program, not simply ‘outsourced’ to academic language specialists.  

The workshop presenters stressed the importance of integrating the development of communication skills into disciplinary teaching.

Why?

One reason is the reach. ‘Isolated’ programs and workshops tend to attract a limited number of students. Often those students who really struggle with communication do not take advantage of such offerings.

Another issue is time. Developing communication skills is a marathon, not a sprint. Students need to identify their weak areas and work on them. This tends to take months, or even years.

Moreover, communication skills need to be put in context. When students apply communication skills to their specific tasks (ideally, authentic assessments that resemble real life situations), they can see how these skills can be used beyond the classroom. Such assessment tasks tend to be more motivating and meaningful for students.

A brief takeaway: as widespread and familiar as running separate ‘academic communication’ workshops and courses is, this approach simply does not have the reach and the required timeframe to produce significant impact for a wide range of students. 

2. target icon  Programs need to define their own communication standards.

Another strong message from the workshop was that different programs are bound to have different communication requirements. A student in law, for example, has different communication needs than an IT student. Therefore, universities cannot provide a ‘one-size-fits-all’ standard for all the programs.

Rather, the presenters suggested, a program team should get together and define what communication standards they expect their graduates to achieve. Some useful questions may be “What does good communication look like in our discipline? What specific skills are required for it? How can students demonstrate them?”  Answers to these questions will provide program teams with details on what aspects of communication they can focus on.

A brief takeaway: as Macquarie is moving towards program-based design, it is important for Program Directors and Program team members define communication standards for their programs, and embed them on a program level.  

3.  target icon Industry should ‘have a say’ in what communication skills are to be taught/prioritised.

Another practice for program teams suggested by the workshop presenters is to liaise with industry partners. This advice directly mirrors Macquarie University Learning and Teaching Strategic Framework.

Working with industry partners is a high-impact activity, as it can give programs a ‘reality check’ on what skills are required by the job market, clarify many important details, such as key genres, types of audience, types of communication, etc. It can also inform the assessments (see the next point)

A brief takeaway: Wherever possible, industry partners should be consulted about graduates’ communication skills, and their advice incorporated in the curriculum design.

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Nice ideas, you may say, but HOW do we make communication a higher-stakes activity for students?

Here are 3 practical tips from the workshop.

1.  Light bulbIncreasing the weighting of the ‘communication component’ of core units

Communication skills seem to be ‘at the edges of curriculum’, in that they tend to be allocated 5-10% on a ‘typical’ assignment. This ‘low-stakes’ marking means that even if a student has poor communication skills, they can still pass and graduate.

One idea that I took from the workshop is to stop paying a ‘lip service’ to communication skills by including them as a low-stakes component in a large number of units, and instead, make them a more significant component (say, 30%) on fewer, but important units, like required core units.

If this were to happen, more attention needs to be paid to quality feedback for students on their communication skills. The workshop presenters suggested that unit convenors of these ‘core’ or ‘milestone’ units may want to liaise with an academic skills specialists to develop communication components of their units, and to upskill in providing quality feedback on different aspects of student communication.

2.   Light bulb Introducing a hurdle ‘communication’ assessment

Another practical tip that the presenters shared was to introduce a ‘hurdle communication assessment’. The logic  is the following: if the universities are serious about encouraging students to develop their communication skills, they need to reflect it in their assessment practices.

On a practical level, it could be done via a Portfolio approach, which requires students to collect evidence of their communication skills/development, and present this Portfolio as a separate assignment. It can be assessed every semester or every year.

If you are interested in Portfolio approach, talk to the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences Learning and Teaching team, who are successfully using a Portfolio approach in their teaching.

3. Light bulbMore authentic assessments

Authentic assessments aim to bring real-life examples and problems to university assessments. Some examples may include producing a report for real audience or writing a blog article on a real issue and publishing it on a personal blog, etc. Not only are such tasks more motivating and meaningful for students, but they can also be used for job-searching purposes. As mentioned earlier, industry partnerships can be invaluable in coming up with ideas for such assessments.

The final takeaway:

Communication skills are vital for students’ employability, and need to be at the core of our programs. If you are a Program Director or a Program team member, talk to your Faculty Learning and Teaching Team or Learning Skills advisors about the ways you can help your students to become better communicators. If you know any Program Directors who may need to read it, please share this article with them.

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “6 takeaways about improving students’ communication skills”

  1. Thank you, Olga, and it was good to hear your comments yesterday too. A further refinement to your practical tip 1 which I think I heard yesterday was that each milestone might be different. If as a student I show inadequate mastery of paragraphing in my Semester 1 first year course, that can be weighted, through an assessment, to get me to pay attention and take responsibility for improvement. If I still have significant problems by the end of second year, however, the implications can be more serious and my progress may be affected.

  2. Thanks Olga – you’ll be pleased to hear that the Law School is taking just such a program based approach to communication skills.
    We’ve mapped the skills across the program and looked at how and where we are teaching these skills: we found we were focused on assessing skills but needed to ‘teach’ them more. We’ve also upped the weighting for a communications assessment in one of the first year core units. We want to make sure MQ Law students are prepared to be great professional communicators.

    1. That’s great to know! Thank you for sharing! Perhaps, we can showcase your good work for the wider Mq community in another post? Happy to chat about it!

  3. Some great points Olga and so important to realise that whilst some students are natural communicators, others actually need to be taught. Definitely needed for their future professional lives.

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