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Teaching and Learning Forum 2006 [ Refereed papers ]
University units specialising in scientific communication are valuable for teaching generic skills

Peter Hutton and Jo Pluske
Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences
The University of Western Australia

The method of teaching scientific communication is critical for achieving the university objective of producing well-rounded individuals capable of mature and critical thinking with an eye to the future well-being of society. Within the confines of a preliminary study, we investigated student perspectives as an indicator of the effectiveness of the teaching of scientific communication skills within the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (FNAS) at The University of Western Australia. Three groups of people associated with FNAS (graduates and undergraduates with and without training in specialised units in scientific communication) participated in an email questionnaire. Respondents reacted to questions designed to ascertain the credibility of specialised communication units and the impact that these units have had on attaining generic skills. Both graduates and undergraduates with training in specialised units in scientific communication highly valued these units and the generic skills that they had learned. The graduates felt that it was crucial to teach these skills within specialised units and other units should reinforce this knowledge. Undergraduates without specialised training in scientific communication units felt less strongly that the communication skills that they had learned had given them an advantage (P=0.002). This group also placed less value on the importance of communication units to their university learning (P=0.001). Results from this study indicate that teaching generic skills in scientific communication within specialised units returns positive outcomes and paves the way for more research in this field.


Introduction

Universities worldwide are under constant pressure to define the education that they offer through a description of the generic qualities and skills that their graduates posses. At the University of Western Australia, the experience of learning aims to be more than simply training students for employment. The university seeks to produce well-rounded individuals capable of mature and critical thinking with an eye to the future well-being of society (Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning 2006). However, Australian university teachers are not united on either the nature of these outcomes or the teaching and learning processes that might facilitate the development of these outcomes (Barrie 2004). The objectives of a university in teaching graduate attributes must become unified if it is to produce graduates that will thrive in the constant change and uncertainty that is modern life (Barrie 2005).

The development of generic skills has been motivated by the belief that there are skills that all graduates should possess that are applicable to a wide range of tasks and contexts beyond the university setting (Gilbert et al. 2004). Generic graduate attributes are considered to be the qualities, skills, and understandings a university community views as important for its students to develop during their time at the institution (Bowden et al. 2000). Generic attributes include thinking skills, communication skills, teamwork skills, information management, creativity, ethical practice and integrity (Hager et al. 2002). The definition of what the university community views as important can now be interpreted as "to enhance the learning capability and employability of graduates" (Hager et al. 2002). These are transferable qualities that not only include expertise and technical knowledge in a discipline but also social good in an unknown future (Bowden et al. 2000). Therefore, if generic skills are transferable skills they increase social good in an unknown future.

A recent study by the Department of Education Training and Youth Affairs (2000) investigated employer satisfaction with graduate skills. The investigators found that "lack of communication skills", was most commonly cited by employers as a skill deficiency in graduate recruits. Employers view communication skills as employability skills and according to Brown (2002) these are what they desire entry-level employees to posses rather than technology competencies.

Thus, the role of the university must be to develop relationships between industry and higher education by teaching generic (transferable) skills to students. The generic skills learned at university need to be those that are used in the wide variety of workplace environments that graduates enter. Generic skills are actually employability skills because they can be used to add social good in an unknown future. This preliminary study focuses on the teaching of generic skills in scientific communication within FNAS at The University of Western Australia.

How generic skills are currently being taught at FNAS

If we assume that the teaching of generic skills is of the highest priority in the training of university graduates we must consider the most appropriate method of teaching these skills. Currently, within FNAS, there are at least two schools of thought on this subject. The first philosophy favours specialised units that illustrate and develop skills. The second favours developing the principles of scientific communication within other units rather than having units that specialise in scientific communication.

The outcome for one communication unit within FNAS is to develop skills and understanding of communication, extension, scientific information and human behaviour in order to further the contribution of natural and agricultural sciences to society (Llewellyn & Martin 2005). FNAS degrees that do not teach communication units aim to develop generic skills within the individual units, thereby developing skills in context.

Specialised communication units

The experience of learning within specialised communication units at FNAS is not confined to traditional classroom methods but rather by active involvement of the students in a 'hands-on' approach. Activities include; rewriting published articles that are badly written, presenting a short seminar based on the rules of scientific communication, and rewriting a scientific article into popular science format. The rewritten article is then published in a newsletter called "Between the Lines".

According to Lindsay (1995), the philosophy behind scientific communication units at FNAS is that, because most professionals are short of time yet are compelled to keep up with new work in their field they become selective and critical. If information is presented that has the same appeal as five pages of telephone directory, your name and your work will remain unread, unquoted and unimportant.

Teachers within scientific communication units attempt to eliminate the "telephone directory" phenomenon and teach generic skills to enhance the learning capability and employability of graduates. The outcomes for students are that they should become aware of the high importance of effective scientific communication and begin to understand how to communicate to both scientists and lay people.

Student perceptions of specialised communication units

Although the intentions behind specialised communication units prioritise the learning of generic skills, how do we gauge the success of these outcomes? Two logical areas of investigation are employer perceptions of graduate skills and student perceptions of university training in generic skills (Brown 2002). This study investigated the perceptions of two undergraduate groups of students from FNAS, and one group of recently graduated students, in the teaching of scientific communication. The aim was to determine the effectiveness of teaching generic skills in scientific communication in specialised units rather than being incorporated into other units within undergraduate degrees.

The most credible participants in this study were likely to be graduate students because they had the opportunity to reflect on their learning within the context of the workplace. Our hypotheses were that students who had completed training in scientific communication units and were in the workplace would rate these units more highly than undergraduate students. Undergraduate students who had participated in scientific communication units would understand the importance of learning generic skills and accordingly rate their skills and these units highly. Undergraduate students who had not participated in scientific communication units would rate their communication skills to be at a lower level than the other two groups and not perceive the importance of these units in their university learning.

Materials and methods

The population targeted for this study were FNAS:
  1. Graduates (2000-2004) with training in specialised units in scientific communication;
  2. Undergraduates with training in specialised units in scientific communication;
  3. Undergraduates without training in specialised units in scientific communication.
Responses from participants were sought from an e-mail questionnaire that was validated by pre-testing on a small group of staff and students and altered accordingly. The questionnaire was e-mailed to 471 people who were randomly selected from FNAS and UWA records.

The data were analysed on SPSS version 12 for windows. Descriptive statistics were used to compile response frequencies and histograms. Levene's test was used to ensure that homogeneity of variances was not violated (p > 0.05). Mean response values were compared by one-way ANOVA with post hoc multiple comparisons using Tukey's honestly significant difference test.

Results

Sample population

The response rate from graduate participants was higher than the combined undergraduate (U-SC and U+SC) response rate (Table 1).

Table 1: Response percentages for participants in the FNAS teaching and learning questionnaire

GroupDisciplineParticipantsResponsesResponse (%)
Undergraduates without training in specialised units in scientific communication (U-SC)Landscape Management, School of Earth and Geographical Sciences, Zoology3773919
Undergraduates with training in specialised units in scientific communication (U+SC)Agriculture, Animal Science, Natural Resource Management, Horticulture/Viticulture31
Graduates with training in specialised units in scientific communication (Graduates)Postgraduate student, research, extension, government employee943032
Total47110021

Skills obtained in scientific communication

Most graduates (73%) and UG+SC (60%) indicated that units specialised in scientific communication had the most influence on their learning of these generic skills. The UG-SC group indicated that units specialised in scientific communication had little influence on their learning of these generic skills (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1: The influence of specialised communication units for obtaining skills in scientific communication.
1 = Most influence, 7 = Least influence. Groups with different letter annotation
contain response means that differ using a significance level of 0.05.

So where did the U-SC students get their communication skills?

U-SC students acquired most of these skills from assignment feedback (32%) and knowledgeable lecturers (29%). Other sources for acquired skills included published literature (17%), other students (11%), specialised communication units (7%) and conferences (4%).

The most useful units of the undergraduate degree

Participants nominated the units that were the most important to them during their undergraduate degree. Of the students who had participated in scientific communication units, 51% of U+SC and 49% of graduates included them as the most important units or as important as the most important units. There was no significant difference in response means between the two groups (P=0.42).

Participants were also asked to score a number of core units on their importance in the undergraduate degree. When scoring scientific communication units, 62% of graduates and 55% of U+SC rated specialised communication units as "very important" (Figure 2). There was no significant difference in response means between the two groups (P=0.88).

Figure 2

Figure 2: Importance of scientific communication units to U+SC and graduate participants.
Groups with different letter annotation contain response means that differ at a significance level of 0.05.

Do scientific communication units improve communication skills?

Participants rated their undergraduate degree for the improvement that they gained in communication skills (Figure 3). Graduates felt more strongly that their skills had improved than U-SC (P=0.007) but there was no difference in response means between graduates versus U+SC (P=0.194) or U+SC versus U-SC (P=0.40)

Figure 3

Figure 3: Response to the statement "The degree improved my communication skills".
Groups with different letter annotation contain response means that differ at a significance level of 0.05.

Does Science and its Communication teach transferable skills?

Participants rated their undergraduate degree for the applicability of the learned communication skills to their current life (Figure 4). Graduates felt more strongly that their skills were transferable to the workplace than U-SC (P=0.005) but there was no difference in response means between graduates versus U+SC (P=0.17) or U+SC versus U-SC (P=0.39)

Figure 4

Figure 4: Response to the statement "Are the communication skills
that you learned during your degree applicable in your life now?"
Groups with different letter annotation contain response means that differ at a significance level of 0.05.

Does Science and its Communication give students the edge?

Participants rated their undergraduate degree for the advantage that their learned communication skills had given them over people outside FNAS (Figure 5). Both graduates and U+SC felt more strongly that their skills had given them an advantage than U-SC (P=0.00 and 0.002). There was no difference in response means between graduates versus U+SC (P=0.76).

Figure 5

Figure 5: Response to the question "Do you feel that the communication
skills you have learned have given you an advantage over other people?"
Groups with different letter annotation contain response means that differ at a significance level of 0.05.

The best method of teaching scientific communication

Participants selected or suggested their ideal approach to the way that scientific communication should be taught at FNAS (Figure 6).

Figure 6

Figure 6: The preferred method suggested for the teaching of scientific communication at FNAS.
Groups with different letter annotation contain response means that differ at a significance level of 0.05.

One hundred percent of graduates felt that specialised units in scientific communication should be used to illustrate and develop skills and that these skills should be developed further in all other units. The graduate response means differed from U+SC (P=0.001) and U-SC (P=0.006). There was no difference in mean response between undergraduate groups (P=0.381). However, undergraduate responses differed between the categories of specialised units and non-specialised units. U+SC preferred specialised units (18%) over non-specialised units (2%), whereas U-SC preferred non-specialised units (50%) over specialised units (0%).

When asked, "if an additional workshop for scientific communication was offered, would you attend?", 36% of graduates and 29% of U+SC indicated that they would definitely attend, whereas only 14% of U-SC indicated that they would definitely attend.

Student comments

We have included comments from participants that relate to specialised communication units. No negative comments were received concerning the validity of these units from any student within the three groups.

Undergraduates with no training in specialised communication units

"Units that teach communication skills were severely lacking in my degree. Most of what I have learned was from research papers and lecturers".

"I regret that I did not get the opportunity to do Science and its communication".

"I did not do any scientific communication units but I can certainly see the value in them"

Graduates

"The skills that I learned from the units in scientific communication are those that I most often use in my extension work. It is obvious at conferences and field days who have come from UWA agriculture and who have not. Unfortunately some potential employees miss out because they lack these essential skills"

"The most useful units I have ever done".

"The understanding of scientific communication is the one thing that sets UWA students apart from the others".

Discussion

The teaching of scientific communication at FNAS was evaluated through student and graduate perceptions via an email questionnaire. The aim was to determine the effectiveness of teaching generic skills in scientific communication in specialised units rather than being incorporated into other units within undergraduate degrees.

The first hypothesis, that graduates would rate scientific communication units more highly than undergraduate students, was partially supported. Graduate participants gave the study internal validity because they had the advantage of applying generic skills to their industry. Their strong opinions in favour of scientific communication units were consistent throughout the questionnaire and were highlighted by their unanimous belief that the best way to teach these skills is within specialised units and that other units should reinforce this knowledge. The inclusion of several strong comments in favour of specialised units was not a biased representation of the graduate group because only positive responses were received.

The first hypothesis was only partially supported because both graduates and U+SC equally recognised the high importance of scientific communication units. Accordingly, the second hypothesis, that undergraduate students who had participated in scientific communication units would understand the importance of learning generic skills and rate their skills and these units highly, was strongly supported. However, it was expected that graduates would clearly rate these units more highly than U+SC students because they had the opportunity to see how these skills transfer to industry.

There are at least three reasons for why U+SC students rated scientific communication units as highly as graduates in many of the responses. First, although, in many instances, when there were no differences in response means between graduate and U+SC groups, there were differences in response between individual categories. For example, when asked if scientific communication units had given an advantage, many more graduates (60%) than U+SC students (36%) responded that it had given them a big advantage. Second, the response percentage to the questionnaire was low across all groups and this may have resulted in a biased sample population. It may be that U+SC students who responded were those that had positive experiences in these units resulting in more positive responses than the total population mean. Third, the objectives and outcomes of scientific communication units are clearly defined and this allows U+SC students to understand the likely application of these skills to their career. This would lead the students to conclude that scientific communication units teach transferable skills that are likely to increase their employment opportunities.

The third hypothesis, that undergraduate students who had not participated in scientific communication units would rate their communication skills to be at a lower level than the other two groups and not perceive the importance of these units to their university learning, was partially supported. Although, U-SC students felt just as sure as U+SC students that their degree had improved their skills in communication and that these skills were transferable to their current life they did not feel as strongly that these skills would give them an advantage over other people. This indicates that perhaps their undergraduate degrees had taught them how to communicate their work within the context of each unit, indeed this is an outcome for students majoring in Zoology (a unit that does not teach scientific communication within specialised units). However, these skills are not necessarily transferable to industry and this is an important point that did not escape the U-SC students. They effectively identified that, when it comes to employability, they may not have a big advantage over other graduates in the area of communication. This is further supported by the graduate statement that potential employees miss out on positions because they lack these essential skills. Conversely, U+SC students identified that they had been taught skills that were very important to their future employability and that this had given them a distinct advantage over other people.

Furthermore, although U-SC students perceived that they had not been given an advantage in communication skills, many were of the opinion that these skills could be effectively taught in non-specialised units. This reflects that this group did not perceive the importance of communication units to their university learning and this supports the third hypothesis.

Surprisingly, a significant percentage of U-SC students claimed that they learned communication skills from specialised communication units, which would seem impossible since they did not undertake any of these units. It is likely that these students perceived "specialised communication units" to be non- specialised units that taught the fundamentals of scientific communication.

Conclusion

It is fundamental that scientists around the world communicate their reasoning and findings in a way that can be understood at all levels within the community. This preliminary study highlighted that students, past and present, recognise the importance of this statement and perceive the learning of generic skills in scientific communication to be of high importance. This conclusion is valid for those who learn scientific communication skills both within specialised and general units.

Teachers have different philosophies on how best to teach scientific communication. For example, within FNAS, the aim of degrees without specialised units in scientific communication is to develop communication skills within the context of the unit. While this study identified that such teaching may be effective, it is possible that students do not know or realise that these skills are applicable outside a specific unit. Alternatively, teaching generic skills in scientific communication within specialised units seems to generate skills that are transferable, thereby increasing social good in an unknown future. This finding supports the unit outcome for Science, Industry and Community 301 (Llewellyn & Martin, 2005) that aims at furthering the contribution of natural and agricultural sciences to society.

Given that scientific articles are the cornerstone of modern scientific writing, the importance of teaching generic skills in communicating science in the written form should be an integral part of any science oriented university degree (Lindsay, 1995). Likewise it could be said that communication in any form should feature strongly in a university degree. While results from this study indicate that providing specialised communication units to university students produce positive outcomes, how best to teach scientific communication should be the focus of continuing research.

Limitations

The group of graduate participants gave the investigation a high level of validity as they had participated in communication units, and were in the workforce, so had the opportunity to apply what they had learnt. However, there was no representative group for graduates without training in specialised scientific communication units. In addition, the survey response rate was low, particularly for the undergraduate groups. Possibly this was because the survey was administered via e-mail and hence potential respondents may have felt that their responses would not have remained confidential. Furthermore, there was no practical method used to test the participants' levels of generic skills in communication. Hence, the survey findings may not have reflected the perceptions of the true population. However, it must be noted that this was a non-funded student internship project with a limited time period. E-mail provided the most efficient method of addressing financial and time constraints. In addition, it would have been useful to examine the aims and contents of degrees that do not profess to provide specialised training in scientific communication. However, the outcomes from these degrees, in regard to the teaching of scientific communication, are not freely available at FNAS. The possibility is open to discussion that, once FNAS has developed degree and unit outcomes that are available online, research such as this will become easier and more meaningful.

Discussion points and issues

Due to time and financial constraints, it was feasible to complete a preliminary study only. Within these constraints, how should we have addressed the ethical consideration of freedom of knowledge without creating bias in the response? It was necessary to preface the motivations behind the questionnaire to the participants but did this result in some questions becoming leading, thus creating bias? It needs to be said that careful consideration was given to this issue and many questions were amended based on the feedback from academics and students who participated in the pretest. Would extending this study to include a greater population and using a mail or personal survey help to eliminate some of the biases present in this research? It would seem that the outcomes justify financial input into extending this research if we are to improve the experience of learning at university In addition, would the inclusion of employers in the survey population provide a third party representation that would provide another opinion about the teaching of generic skills?

From a university perspective, could we refine our definition of generic skills and hence assess for them in perhaps a more uniform way? For example, practical tests of skill levels could be established for a range of generic skill attributes (Pers. comm. D. R. Roberts 2005). This process might involve a panel of independent examiners from the university community with a common understanding of generic graduate attributes. This panel would establish criteria for examining the elements of scientific communication in written and oral work such as honours theses and honours seminar presentations. Students from groups U+SC and U-SC would be randomly selected for examination and the results used to determine if any differences could be attributed to different teaching techniques.

Acknowledgements

We thank Dr Allan Goody for assistance with University research project procedures.

We also thank Associate Professor Dale Roberts for his constructive feedback on our research.

References

Barrie, S. (2005). Graduates for a changing world. Teaching for Learning Showcase Keynote Address, February 2005, The University of Canberra. [verified 14 Jan 2006; PowerPoint slides] http://www.itl.usyd.edu.au/GraduateAttributes/UnitecPresentation.pdf

Barrie, S. (2004). A research based approach to generic graduate attributes policy. Higher Education Research and Development, 23(3), 261-275. [verified 14 Jan 2006] http://www.itl.usyd.edu.au/GraduateAttributes/barriepaper1.pdf

Bowden, J., Hart, G., King, B., Trigwell, K. & Watts, O. (2000). Generic capabilities of ATN University graduates. Canberra: Australian Government Department of Education Training and Youth Affairs. [verified 14 Jan 2006] http://www.clt.uts.edu.au/ATN.grad.cap.project.index.html

Brown, B. (2002). Myths and realities: Generic skills in career and technical education. Educational Resources Information Centre, Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, no 22.

Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning (2006). Teaching and Learning Forum 2006 [viewed 10 Jan 2006] http://www.catl.uwa.edu.au/tlf06/

Department of Education Training and Youth Affairs (DETYA) (2000). Employer satisfaction with graduate skills. Research Report 99/7, Evaluations and Investigations Program, Higher Education Division. Canberra: DETYA. http://www.dest.gov.au/archive/highered/eippubs/EIP99-7/execsum99_7.htm

Gilbert, R., Balatti, J., Turner, P. & Whitehouse, H. (2004). The generic skills debate in research higher degrees. Higher Education Research and Development, 23(3), 375-388.

Hager, P., Holland, S. & Beckett, D. (2002). Enhancing the learning and employability of graduates: The role of generic skills. Business / Higher Education Round Table Position Paper No.9. Melbourne, Australia. http://www.bhert.com/Position%20Paper%20No%209.pdf

Lindsay, D. R. (1995). A guide to scientific writing. Second edition, Addison Wesley Longman Australia.

Llewellyn, R. & Martin, G. (2005). Science, Industry and Community 301 Unit Outline, School of Agricultural and Resource Economics, The University of Western Australia.

Authors: Peter Hutton is a PhD candidate for research in rumen microbiology at the School of Animal Biology in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences. In 2005 he participated in the UWA teaching internship.
Contact details: Peter Hutton, Animal Science MO85, The University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley, Western Australia 6009. Email: huttop01@student.uwa.edu.au

Jo Pluske is a lecturer in the School of Agricultural and Resource Economics and a Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences CATLyst (liaison between the Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning and the Faculty) at the University of Western Australia.

Please cite as: Hutton, P. and Pluske, J. (2006). University units specialising in scientific communication are valuable for teaching generic skills. In Experience of Learning. Proceedings of the 15th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 1-2 February 2006. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2006/refereed/hutton.html

Copyright 2006 Peter Hutton and Jo Pluske. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.


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