Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

How can students be encouraged to develop appropriate communication skills for communicating scientific principles to non technical audiences?

Monica Leggett
Department of Applied Science
Edith Cowan University


How often have we heard complaints levelled at scientists about their lack of communication skills? How often have we, as scientists, sat through painful presentations at conferences, wondering why the reader of the paper was so oblivious of the audience? The problem is certainly not limited to scientists but science educators are currently exploring different ways of dealing with the issue (for example Zadnik, 1995).

There is a great need for scientists to communicate not only with each other but with the wider public. This is fed by altruism and self interest. The community, aware of the increased role played by science and technology, requires more reliable information for decision making. The same community also provides funding for research and expects accountability. Good communication skills are essential in both these endeavours.

Educational research has demonstrated tertiary students' lack of good learning skills and the need to specifically teach these. ( Chalmers and Fuller, 1995). All the units within our technology studies course have a skills component. The first year unit at the centre of this dilemma concerns energy and technology and includes the skill of writing about technical matters for non specialist audiences.

Background to the unit

The unit Energy and Technology is a first year technology studies unit (4 hours contact time for one semester) taken by students with a wide range of science backgrounds. The unit covers issues associated with energy use; energy sources; and the associated technology. In it we explore some of the underlying physical principles; the environmental impacts of decisions made and the complexity of the technology needed for efficient, effective energy use.

To maintain a balance between breadth and depth, the students are given the opportunity to explore one of six technologies in detail. This technology provides the context for the two assignments. The first assignment task is to give a tutorial presentation on this technology; the second assignment task is to write an article appropriate for a general audience. Both these tasks require students to communicate technical material to an interested but non specialist audience.

Action taken

In the past I have been disappointed by the standard of these written reports. It would appear from my discussions with students that the majority of them have submitted their first draft. In an attempt to overcome this difficulty, I decided, this year, to pay more attention to the editing process. Students assisted each other in this process during two successive tutorials. In the first of these tutorials, students edited two other student's work. They were instructed to concentrate on the content and the angle taken by the author. Students then had a week in which to respond to the criticism received and produce a second draft. The following week the focus of the editing process moved away from content to style. Feedback from the students indicated that they found this a useful exercise.

The process for the students

In the initial phase of their research for the assignments, students collected large quantities of technical data. They then had to select a subset of this material for the tutorial. As expected, many of the students found this difficult. They were reluctant to let go of technical material that they had collected with difficulty or struggled to comprehend. The written assignment challenged them to reduce this further, the editing process provided them with information about the reactions of non-specialists to their work (they only edited work on a topic different from their own). It was at this stage that they realised that many of their simplifications made little sense to readers without their background knowledge.

In parallel with their own assignment writing, students had the opportunity to read and edit material on two other topics written by their fellow students. They all agreed that editing someone else's work was easier than editing their own work. In addition most students found the comments they received helped them to edit their own work. In retrospect I provided insufficient guidance at this stage. The question I failed to address sufficiently was 'At what point does simplification become trivialisation?'.

The final stage of the editing process focussed on style. This proceeded smoothly and raised the quality of the final submissions.

Reflections on the problem

When marking the assignment, I was forced to address the question "At what point does simplification become trivialisation?". I realised that in individual cases, this was not a particularly difficult judgement, however I was working without clearly articulated principles. This being so it was unlikely that the 'rules of the game' would have been any clearer for the students.

Student assignments broadly fell into three categories as indicated in the diagram below. Category a) contained articles which were technical and obscure. When these articles were reviewed by confident students this difficulty was reported. Less confident students were impressed by the author's knowledge, assumed that the lack of understanding was their problem and so often gave favourable comments. In category b) the articles were easy to read but lacked substance, any complexity on conflict was ignored. They were quick to read but it was not easy for the editors to distinguish such articles from those in group c), so they attracted limited criticism. In category c) the articles were clear, easy to read, informative and thought provoking. There were few in this category at the first draft stage. My aim is to move all students towards c).

Categories of student assignments

One of the difficulties in moving students from a) to c) is that we are defying the unspoken rules of the science game - a game that identifies difficult and obscure as clever and promotes mathematics as the ultimate language of science. In this context, students are being asked to perform an act of translation from a language with high status to one of lower status. It is not surprising that a few students resist this process both as writers and editors.

The most valuable intervention point is probably the first edit. By this stage students have some first hand experience of the difficulties and the task of editing each others work is easier than editing their own. The key question then for me is:

How can I improve the quality of the feedback given by students to each other when editing for content?
Our discussion in this dilemma session will use this as a starting point.


Zadnik, M. (1995, February). Developing communication skills in the context of a science degree. Session presented to the 1996 Teaching and Learning Forum, Murdoch University, Perth.

Chalmers, Denise and Fuller, Richard (1995). Teaching for learning at University: Theory and practice. Perth: Edith Cowan University.

Please cite as: Leggett. M. (1997). How can students be encouraged to develop appropriate communication skills for communicating scientific principles to non technical audiences? In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p194-196. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/leggett.html

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