University of Technology Sydney: Embedding communication practices into the first year Science degree program

Background

In 2013-14, the university-wide Graduate Attributes (GAs) Project ensured that the development and assessment of the GAs in every faculty were mapped within the programs of study. In the Faculty of Science, as part of the mapping process, the communication skills graduate attribute (GA 6) and the professional skills GA (GA3) were aligned with the Program learning outcomes.

The core first year subjects Principles of Scientific Practice (PSP) and Biocomplexity were identified as the communication skills (CS) milestone subjects to develop and assess CS in the first year of study.

These subjects establish foundational threshold communication standards for the students, including: developing strategies for reading and evaluating the scientific literature; writing scientific reports; using appropriate paraphrasing and referencing skills and practising oral communication skills.

These foundational communication and professional skills are discipline specific and embedded into the core subjects.

Current approach

Principles of Scientific Practice (PSP)

The design of PSP integrates the teaching and learning of communication skills into first year Science. This first semester in first year (FY) subject is taught using a blended learning approach which enables active and collaborative learning. The dynamic learning environment and carefully scaffolded assessment tasks enhance the students’ learning of the communication skills introduced and developed in this subject.

At UTS, a blended approach means that the subject content is presented in the online pre-work (through interactive online modules), practised and applied in the workshops, and consolidated in the post-workshop activities (Figure 1).

Reading skills are introduced in week 2, speaking skills in week 6 and writing skills in weeks 8 and 9. The online interactive modules on writing unpack each section of a scientific report.

Communication skills are directly assessed through: an employability skills interview; a written scientific report on an experiment conducted in the practicals and a group presentation. The assessment rubrics reflect the emphasis on CS and constitute 50% of each assignment.

Marking moderation sessions are run for the teaching assistants.

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Figure 1. The blended learning model systematically develops academic and professional communication skills in the first year Science curriculum.

Biocomplexity

The major assignment in this semester 2 first year core subject further develops the CS introduced in semester 1. The students consolidate their understanding of each section of a scientific report through writing a report based on a month long experiment.

The students build their academic and scientific writing skills through their completion of an academic integrity interactive online module and workshop. The focus is on further developing the students’ referencing and paraphrasing skills.

Communication and professional skills are included and heavily weighted in the assessment rubric for the writing assignment. For example, criterion include: Referencing – the quality of the references and accurate and appropriate citation; Writing – demonstrated ability to communicate clearly to a scientific audience

Marking moderation sessions are run for the teaching assistants.

Issues:

The teaching assistants need training through benchmarking and marking moderation sessions to reduce marker variability

Positioning the development and assessment of CS as core business throughout the Science program requires: resolute leadership across the faculty; professional development for time poor academics.

High impact practice

This whole of first year approach to developing students’ communication skills:

  • uses cross-disciplinary teams to ensure first year students professional and communication skills are developed and assessed
  • focuses on integrating CS into teaching and learning

It is:

  • scalable: it targets all first year students in the faculty. (Links to paper and poster)
  • sustainable: communication skills are discipline-specific and embedded into a subject.

Next steps

Members of the cross-disciplinary team (responsible for rolling out PSP) are working with subject coordinators teaching second and third year subjects on developing an embedded systematic approach to developing communication skills throughout the degree program. For example, in the first semester of second year the writing skills of integrating and synthesising the literature will be introduced, practised and applied using an embedded blended learning approach.

To view a short video on how the online interactive modules work, click here