Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

A new approach to a communications unit:
A student organised conference

Mario Zadnik
Department of Applied Physics

Alex Radloff
Teaching Learning Group
Curtin University

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.


The development of effective communication skills is widely recognised as an important goal of tertiary education. Unfortunately, students often perceive courses aimed at helping them develop communication skills as peripheral and largely irrelevant to their interests and needs. In this paper, we describe how we attempted to deal with such negative student perceptions by changing a communications skills unit to make it more student-centred and discipline relevant.

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:

The students

Originally, 22 students enrolled in the Communications unit. However three students (2 females and one male) withdrew after two weeks. They stated that they were not willing to give the talk and as the unit is a Physics core unit, they planned to re-enrol the following year hoping that the unit would revert to the previous format, thereby avoiding the anxiety of delivering the talk. Of the 19 students (2 females and 17 males) who participated in the organisation of the conference and presented at the conference, three did not complete the requirements of the unit and in particular, did not provide the written papers for the conference proceedings.

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.

Organisation and presentation of the conference

The idea of a student-organised conference, publication of the proceedings, and the reasons for the new approach were explained to students in the first Physics class and the unit objectives were outlined. For the following week, students were asked to decide on a Physics topic they were interested in presenting at the conference and the overall theme for the conference, and to consider what sub-committees needed to be set up and to which committee they wished to contribute.

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 reactions

The innovation was monitored and evaluated by a member of staff from the Teaching Learning Group (the second author) by means of a mid-semester questionnaire, an end-of-semester questionnaire, observation of two Physics class sessions, attendance at the conference, a verbal debrief of the class at the end of the semester, and student written reports on the conference. There were also regular discussions with the Physics coordinator (the first author) throughout the semester.

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:

Students also reported positively on their learning. In the mid-semester questionnaire, students mentioned a number of things they had learned by that point in the semester. These included: The end-of-semester feedback showed that the majority of students (13 of 14 who completed the questionnaire) believed that the unit had met their learning needs. Student comments included: Students also reported that they particularly enjoyed the emphasis on group work, interacting with other students and having ownership of the activity. Student comments included: Students expressed concern about certain aspects of the unit. These included:

Lecturer's reflections

The innovation appeared to work extremely well in meeting the goals which prompted the changes to the unit. Students were very active and tackled the various tasks related to the conference with enthusiasm and energy. Students interacted with each other a great deal and participated in class discussions and activities to a greater extent than had previously been the case in this unit. There was a shift in the role of the lecturer from the 'expert delivering content' towards responding to student needs as they arose and acting as a resource person and adviser. The lecturer believes that he was successful in this role and has contributed to the development of student skills in areas which will enhance their employability and professionalism as physicists.

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.

Discussion and conclusions

The organisation and presentation of a conference as the focus for the development of student communication skills proved to be a great success. Students developed a range of communication and interpersonal skills, engaged in a 'real life' activity which gave them a chance to experience the intellectual challenge of organising and participating in a conference, an important aspect of a scientist's work, and experienced the highs and lows of taking ownership and responsibility for their own learning. The conference format also gave students a chance to interact with the wider community and share their knowledge about Physics through the involvement of school students as the conference audience.

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 approaches
It 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.


Applebee, A. N. (1986). Problems in process approaches: Toward a reconceptualisation of process instruction. In A. R. Petrosky and D. Bartholomae (Eds.), The Teaching of writing. Eighty-fifth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, (pp. 95-113). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

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

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