Teaching Learning Group
The development of effective communication skills is widely recognised as an important goal of university education and is valued by employers and needed for professional advancement. The second year Physics core unit 'Scientific Communication 202' was perceived by students as a 'non-science' unit and irrelevant to their academic and career aspirations. In order to deal with student concerns, we shifted the emphasis of the unit from teacher-centred instruction of 'generic' communication skills to student-centred learning of discipline-specific communication skills. Students, rather than being passive recipients of information, were given the ownership and responsibility for organising and participating in their own scientific conference. Student reaction has been very positive both in terms of the learning process and learning outcomes. The unit is now more effective for developing students' communication skills in the context of Physics. We believe that this innovative approach to teaching can be readily adapted in other disciplines.
Prior to 1994, a second year Curtin University Physics core unit, Scientific Communications 202, was taught in two sections: a two hour a week lecture on generic written and verbal communication skills by the School of Communication and Cultural Studies (75% weighting of total assessment), and a one hour a week lecture or seminar primarily on research activities by the Department of Applied Physics (25% weighting). The two sections were taught largely independently of each other and hence the unit lacked cohesion and students perceived it as a 'non-science' unit and irrelevant to their academic and career aspirations. In response to feedback from students and staff, the unit was changed with the aim of making it more effective as a means of developing students' communication skills in the context of Physics.
In order to make the unit more integrated and 'student centred' with increased student involvement, we introduced a student organised and participatory scientific conference for the Physics component of the unit in the second semester of 1994. Students were asked to plan and present a one day Physics conference. This activity was selected because it:
Students were invited to assess each other's conference presentations and papers and to assess themselves in terms of participation in the course. After some discussion the students declined these invitations, preferring to leave all assessment to the staff teaching the unit.
The students had no difficulty in finding topics of interest. Given the variation in the chosen topics the theme suggested by one student, David Ellement, as the 'Diversity of Physics' was very appropriate. The students set up the following sub-committees: Publicity; Publications; Program Structure; Monitoring Standards; Activities; Logo and Letterhead; and Registration and Treasury and decided on issues such as the theme of the conference, invited a keynote speaker, organised the venue, equipment, refreshments etc, prepared publicity material, presented papers and edited a proceedings volume.
The sub-committees met in their own time, and met as the Main Committee weekly for an hour before the normal Physics session at which the sub-committee chairs presented progress reports. The Physics lecturer provided suggestions on aspects of the conference organisation and information on specific topics, such as scientific publications and effective presentations. One subcommittee was able to obtain sponsorship of the $800 required to print 100 copies of the proceedings (Mulder and Adams, 1994). The proceedings were judged by the National Library of Australia in Canberra to be of sufficient merit to be given an ISBN number.
Students decided that since they were going to the considerable trouble of organising and giving talks that there ought to be a genuine conference audience. They wrote to a number of local high schools inviting teachers and students to attend. Eight teachers and 110 predominantly year eleven high school students accepted their invitation. A number of staff from Physics, the School of Communication and Cultural Studies and a few first year Physics students also attended the conference. At the end of the day, all were asked to complete a feedback questionnaire.
The conference, entitled 'Diversity of Physics' was held on 26 September, 1994, the Monday of the week free from formal classes. David Ellement, the conference coordinator, opened the conference and Dr Jamie Biggs, the Government Astronomer at the Perth Observatory, gave the keynote address. Each of the 19 students presented for ten minutes and then responded to questions and comments from the audience for a further five minutes. Talks on similar topics were grouped together and chaired by students who kept presenters to time. The 'Program Committee' ensured that there were 30 minute breaks for morning and afternoon tea and 45 minutes for lunch. Students made a considerable effort to present their talks in a professional manner and at a level appropriate to the audience. Feedback from the participating students, teaching staff and the high school student audience indicated overwhelmingly that the conference was an outstanding success. Moreover, the students enjoyed the opportunity to share their interests in a wide range of Physics topics with an appreciative audience.
Student feedback indicated overwhelming support for the innovation. In the mid-semester feedback, the most frequent comment was that the activity was a lot of work but very worthwhile, and fun. At the end of the semester, students were asked to give three adjectives to describe their reactions to the unit. Typical responses included:
It helped my teamwork skills and increased my confidence in public speaking.
It gave me the opportunities to improve my writing skills, which other units often do not offer.
My main goal was to be able to be a more confident speaker, this was achieved. My written communication skills have also improved.
We largely governed what we wanted and needed to learn. We addressed many areas that we as students felt inadequate at.
Being part of a team. Everyone wanted to do a good job. We had the enthusiasm and everyone supported each other to do their best.
The conference organisation and presentation, Why? It was a great confidence builder and showed better communication between peers.
Yes, because it was student owned. Mario gave us the opportunity to run the event ourselves. He gave guidance we asked. Also, the enthusiasm and camaraderie it evolved between the students.
Getting to know more of my classmates, and the general exposure to aspects of Physics - I hadn't encountered yet.
Getting to work with people I hardly knew before. The class was given ownership of the conference. It was our conference, our failure if we screwed up our success if we did well. It was good to be given that responsibility rather than be told what to do all the time.
Some concerns were expressed about the unit. There was difficulty in fully integrating the Physics Conference with the 'English' component of the unit because of the generic nature of communications curriculum which is taught in a number of units across the university. As a result, there was limited opportunity to change aspects of the content and assessment to accommodate student needs.
The approach which the unit took - developing student communication skills in the context of their subject study - is in line with the recommendations of the Curtin University Communication-in-Context report (Latchem, Parker and Weir, 1994) recently passed by University Academic Board, namely that Schools
develop their own communication skills policies based on the needs of their disciplines and students and the expectations of the professional bodies and employers and provide discipline-specific communication skills units and/or adopt Communication-in-Context approachesIt is also supported by research on the teaching of communication skills especially writing. Every discipline has its own language and conventions and these are best learned in the context of the discipline (Applebee, 1986; Cowen, 1993; Lee, 1991). Students learn to write in different subjects by writing in those subjects rather than by writing in general composition classes divorced from the content and language of the particular subject. Thus, it follows that it is the discipline teacher who is best placed to help students develop their communication skills in that discipline. Furthermore, students are more likely to develop discipline-specific communication skills when these are taught in context. A student based conference provides a useful vehicle for encouraging the development of discipline specific communication skills since preparation and presentation of conference papers is an integral activity of many if not all disciplines.
The students who participated in the Physics conference developed many important life skills, such as effective written and verbal communication, teamwork, self motivation, networking, organisation of meetings, and writing of scientific papers and reports. These are all crucial to the students' development as future professionals and for enhancing their employment prospects. The acquisition of these skills was the objective of the unit and the students clearly attained them.
Cowen, K. (1993). Responding to the writing crisis in universities: Writing across the curriculum. Paper presented at the Queensland Branch HERDSA Conference, Brisbane, 15-16 April.
Latchem, C., Parker, L., & Weir, J. in association with staff from the Teaching Learning Group, School of Communication and Cultural Studies, Centre for International English, University Counselling Services, Centre for Aboriginal Education and Faculty of Education. (1994). Communication-in Context. A report on communication skills development for the Teaching and Learning Advisory Committee. Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia.
Lee, A. (1991). Language and literacy in undergraduate education. In F. Christie et al (Eds.), Teaching English literacy. Project of national significance on the preservice preparation of teachers to teach English literacy. (3 vols.). Darwin: Northern Territory University.
Mulder, M., & Adams, S. (1994). Diversity of Physics Scientific Conference, Department of Applied Physics, Curtin University of Technology.
Radloff, A. (1994). Scientific Communication 202: Feedback and preliminary evaluation of innovations to this unit in 1994 and recommendations for 1995. Internal report to the Dept of Applied Physics, Curtin University of Technology.
|Please cite as: Zadnik, M. and Radloff, A. (1995). A new approach to a communications unit: A student organised conference. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p292-296. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/zadnik.html|