Teaching and Learning Forum 96 [ Contents ]

Developing communication skills in the context of a science degree

A. Radloff
Teaching Learning Group
B. de la Harpe
Faculty of Education
M. G. Zadnik
Department of Applied Physics
Curtin University of Technology

Why communication skills are valued

One of the most important aspects of student learning is the development of effective communication skills. Communication skills are important for communicating new knowledge and ideas. Employers and professional bodies value and seek graduates with well developed communication skills, especially writing and oral skills. But they are often disappointed with the level of skills which they encounter (Cowen, 1993; Harvey, 1993). Tertiary teachers regularly complain about students' communication skills especially writing and oral skills. Such complaints are voiced about students at both undergraduate (Bate & Sharpe, 1990; Cowen, 1993) and post graduate levels and are growing with the increased diversity of the student body which now includes more students from non-traditional backgrounds including especially, students from Non English Speaking Backgrounds (NESB). Although there is an ongoing debate as to whether the 'literacy' skills of school leavers are improving, declining or remaining static, there is general agreement that the expectations for higher levels of these skills are growing in university courses and as career and work demands change and become more complex (Radloff & Samson, 1990; Wickert, 1989).

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.

Specific science and engineering issues

Science and engineering students are often perceived to have poorer communications skills than students in other disciplines. By the nature of the subjects selected at high school by these students, they come to university underdeveloped in communications skills. Skills such as effective communications need to be taught in the context of the discipline in which the student is majoring. Generic skills tend to be difficult to learn as there is no specific context in which the student can embed them and through this lack of relevance they tend to be quickly forgotten. Science and engineering, in the same way as other disciplines, have their own specific terminologies and language conventions, hence effective communications teaching needs to recognise and incorporate such terminology and conventions in instruction.

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.

How best to develop communication skills

To best develop students' communication skills we have found that three guiding principles should be followed; planning and preparation, value and usefulness of knowledge, and an environment that offers challenge and support. Each of these factors contributes to the success of communication instruction.

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:

Once the unit was thoroughly planned and prepared it was carefully introduced to the students. Special attention was placed on the perceived value and usefulness of the knowledge and skills to be gained. If students can see the inherent value and usefulness of the communication skills being developed to both their learning at university and to their future careers, they are more likely to embrace the skills and thus become more committed to the unit's objectives. If the teachers are also able to see the value they are more likely to experience a greater sense of purpose, commitment and satisfaction from teaching the unit. An upward spiral of spending more time planning and preparing meaningful activities will be set in motion with positive outcomes that benefit both the students and the teachers. Specifically, for this communication unit we: For a communication unit to be successful it should be implemented in an environment which offers an appropriate mix of challenge and support. While it is recognised that there is no ready formula for the appropriate level of challenge, providing a challenge does require judgements based on a clear articulation of the purpose of higher education, set against a strong understanding of the motives, skills and abilities of specific student groups (McInnis, James & McNaught, 1995). To assist in determining the degree of support and challenge needed we:


We believe that students and teachers gain from the approach we have described above. Paying attention to planning and preparation, emphasising the value of communication skills, and providing challenge and support, increases both student and teacher interest, motivation and the ability to communicate effectively in their discipline.


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Zadnik, M., & Radloff, A. (1995). A new approach to a communications unit: A student organised conference. In L. Summers (Ed.), Quality in teaching and learning: A focus on learning. Proceedings of the Teaching and Learning Forum '95 (pp. 292-296). Perth, WA: Edith Cowan University.

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

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