Integrating English language communication skills into disciplinary curricula: options and strategies

This Fellowship program, led by Melbourne CSHE Associate Director Sophie Arkoudis, was funded by the Australian Government's Office of Learning and Teaching.

About the Fellowship

The Fellowship activities sought to offer strategies which would move the sector forward in addressing the issue of assuring students’ communication skills upon graduation.  The Fellowship activities have resulted in the following findings:

  • There is still much debate about where responsibilities lie for developing and assessing students communication skills
  • It is possible for some students to pass their course of study without being assessed on their communication skills
  • Communication skills should be core business in teaching and learning.

The issue of English language learning in Australian universities will increasingly challenge universities as the sector expands and broadens participation within a demand-driven system. In international education this has been a longstanding challenge. But now both domestic and international students are entering university study with varied English language ability.  Australian universities state that communication skills are important graduate attributes.  Yet there are perceptions within the community that graduates lack the necessary communication skills for employability. There is a gap between what universities espouse and community perceptions of graduates’ oral and written communication skills.  This raises questions about the quality of Australian higher education.  The fellowship focused on effective and economical ways of addressing the gap. The resources developed from the Fellowship have been designed to assist universities to strengthen their reputations regarding the English language standards of their graduates by:

  • Developing internal quality assurance processes to demonstrate that they assure their graduates’ English language standards
  • Utilising stronger evidence about graduate learning outcomes to recruit students from diverse backgrounds
  • Offering specific ways of responding to concerns and criticisms.

English language and literacy is integral to learning in higher education.  Traditionally, English language entry requirements have been used to assure English language and literacy standards in higher education. Universities have relied on assessing the readiness of students to undertake study where English is the medium of instruction, assuming that they will develop effective communication skills during the course of their study.  While English language entry standards are important and are a necessary part of a standards framework, more attention needs to be given to guaranteeing exit standards.  Currently it is possible for students with poor communication skills to graduate from Australian universities.

What can be done to address this?  Assessment of oral and written communication skills should be core business in university teaching and learning, alongside assessment of disciplinary knowledge.  How can this be achieved?  The impetus for change will come from universities adopting the stance that students will not be able to graduate unless they can demonstrate effective oral and written communication skills.

Findings

The fellowship findings suggest that while a number of higher education institutions have developed institutional strategies for assuring the communication skills of their graduates, practices can be disjointed and not connected to disciplinary assessment.  It is not possible to protect minimum standards for oral and written English language and literacy skills unless these are assessed, and the most appropriate place for this assessment to occur is within disciplinary teaching and learning.  However there is still much debate about who is responsible for developing students’ communication skills.  What is required is an integrated approach that includes a variety of strategies that fit together to develop and assess students’ communication skills. This does not mean that it is shared evenly but rather that it is distributed according to the professional responsibilities of key people involved in teaching and learning.  The idea of distributed responsibilities is useful in considering how various approaches contribute to ensuring students have attained threshold levels of English language communication upon graduation.  Distributed responsibilities include the following:

  • Teaching and Learning leaders (can include Deputy Vice-Chancellor or Pro Vice-Chancellor (Academic) and Associate Deans Teaching and Learning) – What is the evidence base that graduates have attained threshold oral and written communication skills upon completion?
  • Course coordinators – What communication skills are students expected to have on completion of the course?  Where and how are these assessed during the course of study?
  • Teaching academics – What are the learning outcomes for the unit in terms of communication skills?  How will these be taught and assessed?
  • Academic Language and Literacy Advisors – How can course coordinators and teaching academics include ALL advisors in developing resources for teaching communication skills?

All of the above should increase students’ awareness of their responsibilities towards developing their communication skills and of the importance of their communication skills for success in university study and employability.