Communication skills are not only important for demonstrating what has been learned, they are an integral part of the learning process. For effective learning to occur, students need to be actively engaged with the subject matter which they are learning. The constructivist model of learning emphasises the importance of such active engagement for helping learners to make sense of information and concepts, to build personal meaning, and to become 'discipline literate'. Active engagement in learning and learning with and from others in a social context have been positively linked with the development of intellectual skills (Voss, Wiley & Carretero, 1995), a key goal of higher education. Students who are actively engaged with the content of the subject through talking and writing about it, are more likely to gain personal meaning and to achieve deep learning. They are also better able to transfer what they have learned in class to problem-solving outside the classroom.
Speaking and writing are both important tools for learning as they allow the learner to think about and make sense of new knowledge and ideas. Students who have well developed oral and writing skills can engage actively in learning through peer and group discussion, questioning, and debating using talk, and through note-making, summarising, expository writing, journalling, keeping a learning log, etc. using writing.
However, many students do not come to university with such skills already well developed. As a result, they are not able to take full advantage of the opportunities in and out of class, to participate in learning activities which require them to speak or write in order to learn. Furthermore, students with poor communication skills are at a disadvantage when their learning is assessed through class presentations, student led seminars, essays and examinations which require good oral and writing skills.
Oral and writing skills are also important for managing the learning process. Students who are confident about their speaking and writing skills are more likely to ask questions and seek help from others, and to use journalling and other forms of writing to regulate and reflect on their learning. Conversely, students who lack confidence in their speaking and writing skills are likely to remain silent in class when they don't understand rather than asking for help. They are also less likely to use personal writing spontaneously to clarify, record and reflect on, their learning
Students need help to develop and use their communication skills throughout their course of study. Typically, such help when it is available, has been most commonly offered as an extra 'add on' or adjunct to regular course work rather than as an integral part of subject learning (Latchem et al. 1994). As a result, students (and teaching staff) often perceive communication courses as less relevant or important than the major discipline study area, and sometimes even as 'remedial' and only for students who are 'deficient' and need to be 'fixed up'. Furthermore, there is evidence that 'generic' communication courses because of their very nature, may not help students to develop discipline-specific communication skills (Colomb, 1988; Radloff & Zadnik, 1995).
More recently, there has been a growing emphasis on the value of 'learning to learn' skills including communication skills, for lifelong learning (Candy, Crebert & O'Leary, 1994) and growing evidence that there are advantages to developing such skills in the context of regular subject learning (Volet, in press). As a result, tertiary teachers have become increasingly aware of the need to focus on the process of learning, the 'how' and not only on the content of learning, the 'what'. Support for the development of oral and writing skills is part of this new emphasis on providing direct instruction in the process of learning.
In order to deal with such issues and others relating to lifelong learning and professional life, such as team work, time management, conference presentations, editing proceedings, conference organisation, fund raising etc, we have developed a communications unit for Physics majors. The modified unit was first run in 1994. Based on student feedback and staff reflection, the curriculum was further developed and the unit has been run for a second time in 1995. Students have been overwhelmingly positive in their evaluation of the unit and its contribution to the development of communication skills which are relevant for science students and future science professionals. Details of the 1994 unit and its evaluation have been previously presented at the 1995 Teaching Learning Forum (Zadnik & Radloff, 1995). Based on our experiences over the last two years we offer some suggestions for how to develop communication skills which students will value and find useful.
The key to best developing students' communication skills in the context of their discipline is through careful planning and preparation. Prior to presenting a unit designed to advance students' communication skills, we:
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|Please cite as: Radloff, A., de la Harpe, B. and Zadnik, M. G. (1996). Developing communication skills in the context of a science degree. In Abbott, J. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Teaching and Learning Within and Across Disciplines, p129-133. Proceedings of the 5th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1996. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1996/radloffa.html|