Communication skills resource 4: Developing student skills
Two examples of good practice
There are various approaches to developing university students' communication skills. These range from holding one-on-one consultations with students, to providing add-on generic workshops and resources (usually through an academic language and learning centre), offering adjunct or stand-alone classes alongside mainstream subjects, and embedding communication skills teaching into subject curricula.
Below are two examples of communication skills development initiatives at La Trobe. The first is a stand-alone, 'adjunct', subject offered to first year students in the Business School, and the second is a program of communication skills content and assessment embedded within a core first year subject for students in the Health Sciences. These examples have been chosen from the many initiatives currently underway to illustrate some of the advantages of two different approaches to teaching communication skills.
La Trobe Business School: Business Writing (BUS1BW)
Context and purpose
Key staff in the Business school recognised that large numbers of students required communication skills development in addition to what was already embedded within subjects. Previously, a commercial online English language diagnostic tool with corresponding online tasks had been trialled on students in a common first year core subject. As this did not meet the identified requirements, staff requested that Student Learning design and help implement a tailored writing diagnostic task and a stand-alone writing subject to which students in need could be referred.
Content and design
The purpose of the diagnostic task was to identify students who were in need of English language support and refer them to the Business Writing (BUS1BW) subject and to direct all students to resources which would help them improve their writing skills. A copy of the diagnostic marking rubric is available on page 4 of this document.
The purpose of the Business Writing subject was to provide support with discipline-specific communication skills ranging from argument and use of evidence to logical structure, style and grammar. The subject intended learning outcomes were to:
- Identify structural and stylistic features of academic writing and to use these in students' own writing;
- Examine a variety of texts and to construct and defend written arguments using evidence to support claims;
- Identify features of scholarly writing, including accurate referencing.
Format and procedure
- All students in a common first year core subject were required to complete the diagnostic task on paper during the second class of semester 1.
- Tasks were marked by trained tutors and Peer Learning Advisors and returned to students in week 3.
- Referred students were contacted by email and asked to withdraw from one elective and enrol instead in the Business Writing subject.
- The subject commenced in week 4, taught by a Student Learning lecturer.
Strengths of the design
- A large number of students completed the diagnostic task.
- All students completing the diagnostic task received feedback on their performance and links to useful resources.
- Students in the Business Writing subject engaged in targeted and intensive communication skills development specific to their discipline.
|Criterion||High standard (A)||Acceptable standard (C)||Below standard|
|Text structure & organisation|
|Integrating & acknowledging sources|
|Criteria relating to content, critical analysis, etc.||2||1||0|
|Standard Met||Standard not met|
|You can go to the Current Students website for further help and resources.||You are highly recommended to enrol in BUS1BSW (Business Writing). Check your university email for further instructions|
Health Sciences: Inter-professional Practice (HLT1IPP)
Context and purpose
Interprofessional Practice (HLT1IPP) is designed to develop students' understanding of the foundation concepts that underpin effective professional practice as an allied health, nursing or human services professional. It aims to develop foundation skills in communication and reasoning, while also developing academic and information literacy skills required for successful university learning and study. The academic and communication skills component of HLT1IPP was developed by Student learning staff and includes a diagnostic writing task related to their first written assessment task.
Content and design
While the diagnostic task is designed to identify students 'at risk' for communication skills and refer them to appropriate support, it is also intended as consciousness-raising tool to alert students to the expected standard in academic writing.
To complete the task students need to locate two prescribed journal articles and use them to write definitions of 'consumer participation' and 'access and equity' in healthcare respectively (200-300 words).
The task forms part of their first written assignment and is formative to the extent that students have an opportunity revise their work after receiving feedback linked to support/resources, as well as specific instruction embedded in weekly workshops.
Format and procedure
- Students are provided with note-taking template and advice on paraphrasing and basic referencing conventions.
- Students complete the diagnostic task outside class time and submit it in their Week 2 workshop.
- Students are awarded 5% of their first essay mark for submitting the task by due date, regardless of quality.
- Students are marked on:
- paraphrasing and referencing
- fluency and accuracy (grammar, vocab, spelling and punctuation)
- Students assessed as 'good', 'needs work' or 'poor' on each criterion. (See appendix F for example.)
- Marking is completed by workshop facilitators using a set of samples annotated by SL staff.
- Tasks and feedback returned to students in Week 4.
- Students receive a grade for each criterion, written comments and a recommendation for further support if indicated.
- Students who fail to submit by due date are flagged for follow up by Succeed at La Trobe.
- Students identified as at risk are referred to a communication skills credit-bearing subject, adjunct workshops, and/or individual consultations with EAL/SL staff.
- Further teaching of academic literacies is embedded into subject curriculum throughout the semester.
Strengths of the design
- The diagnostic task prepares students for their first assessment task.
- The design encourages high uptake, as marks are awarded for completion.
- It focuses on macro to micro level skills, including locating, selecting and integrating information, using academic language, and English language competence at the sentence level.
- It provides simple feedback on a range of criteria.
What can be done in your subject?
The information above can be used to inform the development of other discipline-specific communication skills teaching initiatives. You may wish to:
- refer to it as a model,
- adapt some of the materials for use in your own subjects, or
- contact Student Learning at SL@latrobe.edu.au to help you design a similar initiative for your subject.
Tips for developing students' communication skills
In your own time
Find out about available resources
- Find out what language development resources and activities (e.g. online resources, drop-in sessions, workshops, thesis writing circles) are available to students through Student Learning (SL@latrobe.edu.au) and give this information to your students.
- Make contact with Student Learning in your College to explore how you can embed language development activities into your subject and/or provide adjunct activities and resources.
Find out about your class
- Consider the cultural and linguistic composition of your classes and look at relevant information and strategies for teaching effectively in culturally and linguistically diverse contexts. You can find useful guides in Tips for teaching EAL students and Additional Resources.
- Use the Communication Skills Audit Tool to analyse how language is being taught and assessed in your subject. This can help you identify areas for attention.
- Do an informal survey to find out whether students are having any language-related difficulties in your class and what their suggestions are for improvement. Difficulties could relate to comprehension, the structure and style of academic texts, or vocabulary for example, and could be experienced by local and international students alike.
Find out about your teaching
- Reflect on your classroom communication: Do you use a lot of idioms?, Do you explain as you go?, Are there terms which students might find difficult to understand?, Are you referring only to local contexts?, How do you introduce discipline-specific terms and concepts?, Do you use good teaching techniques such as frequent paraphrasing and lots of examples? To help you do this, you can either record a segment of your own teaching (20 minutes minimum) and listen to it, or ask a colleague to observe to your teaching and give you feedback.
In the classroom
Make the focus of the lesson clear
- Use simple direct language to explain the structure of the lesson, e.g. 'Last week we covered…This week we will cover…By the end of today's class you will have….'
- Point out key concepts so that students know what is important to learn in this subject area and why
Make your language accessible
- Provide information in both written and oral form
- Record your classes and make them available to students online before the scheduled class time where possible
- Become more aware of the language you use to introduce, explain and teach discipline-specific terms, language and concepts
- Note down new or difficult terminology on your presentation slides or on the board and encourage students to keep their own vocabulary files or lists, or consider working with Student Learning to develop a glossary
Provide opportunities for students to communicate
- Create activities where students need to interact, discuss and present. This can be done even in large lectures
- Provide opportunities for students to work in mixed groups with members from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Groups do not have to be fixed throughout the semester. Students can work in allocated mixed groups for some activities and groups of their choice for others
- For group presentations, ensure that all students are required to speak.
- Use ice-breaker activities in the first classes of semester to help students get to know each other and feel comfortable talking together
- Make your expectations about student participation clear from the beginning
- Instead of directing questions to the whole class or an individual and expecting an immediate response, allow students time to prepare their answers to questions. Even a minute or two can help students digest the question and think of how to phrase their answers
- Get students to discuss questions in pairs first and check each other's understanding of the topic before reporting back to the group
- Ensure group activities are structured, with written instructions for clear and concrete tasks, and (where possible) an assigned job or role for each member
- Provide adequate time for the completion of group tasks and for members to prepare the presentation of ideas/materials to the class.
In assessment tasks
Prepare your students
- Work with Student Learning lecturers to design classroom teaching and learning activities that develop the necessary communication skills students for each assessment task
- Ensure subjects have early assessment tasks in place. These can help identify students' language strengths and weaknesses and help you ensure adequate development of communication skills is provided, both within the subject and outside it
- Consider carrying out a communication skills diagnostic task early in the semester, either as part of an assessment task or as a discrete task. This can be designed and delivered in collaboration with Student Learning staff and can direct students to relevant resources
- Present assessment rubrics to students before they begin the task. Explain assessment criteria clearly and check that students understand the criteria and how marks will be apportioned
- Provide students with an exemplar for each assessment task where possible (i.e. a model text they can refer to, following the same structure but on a different topic). Annotate it for key features and use it to illustrate the criteria you will use for marking
Assess communication skills
- Ensure that subject elements are constructively aligned so that the communication skills which are being assessed are the communication skills which are stated in the intended learning outcomes and developed through the curriculum content
- Use marking rubrics which include language criteria. These will alert students to the communication skills they need to demonstrate and will ensure students are being marked on those skills. See Assessing Communication Skills for some examples. You can adapt these examples or work with Student Learning in your College to develop your own. Student Learning staff are also able to provide staff training in assessing communication skills
- Avoid using marking software which does not allow you to upload or create your own rubric. Some of the online rubrics are very rudimentary and/or are difficult for students to interpret
- Use peer- and self-assessment activities around communication skills to encourage self-regulated language learning. These should be based on simple and concrete criteria which students understand.
Give useful feedback
- Where possible, provide formative feedback (i.e. feedback that students can use to develop their skills) on assessment tasks before final drafts are submitted. This formative feedback should be in the form of comments only and should advise students on what was done well, what needs improvement and how to improve.
- Avoid giving voice feedback in online marking software. It can be difficult for students to understand and they are not able to take a record of the feedback to Student Learning staff for assistance.
- Once assignments have been returned, encourage students to read their feedback and write down what they will do to improve for next time.
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