Graduate communication skills have been the Achilles heel of Australian higher education for over a decade and the media continually feature a range of associated concerns: entry levels, soft marking and the employability of graduates. While universities have attempted to address these concerns by offering a range of initiatives and interventions, the majority of which are offered outside of a student’s program, most fall short due to the difficulty in providing evidence that graduates have achieved threshold standards in oral and written communication skills.

Seeking to strengthen evidence-based approaches, we created the Distributed Expertise Model that aims to assist universities in developing, assessing and demonstrating graduates’ communication skills. The model, based on a whole-of-program approach, utilises current expertise already available in universities and identifies high impact practices for student learning. These practices apply to all students and are both sustainable and scalable across the program. In addition, these high impact practices strengthen the evidence-base and inform quality assurance processes.

Key questions we asked:

  • How do DVCs (Academic and/or Learning and Teaching) and program leaders know that their graduates have attained threshold oral and written communication skills?
  • Within programs, what takes place as part of the curriculum design to assure communication skills are developed and assessed across a student’s course?
  • What are the practices that have high impact?
  • How is the impact on student learning evaluated?
  • How scalable are the practices?
  • How can institutions demonstrate to external stakeholders that their graduates have achieved the communication skills for further study or employment?

In our discussions, consultations and research, we found that it was generally difficult for university leaders and program coordinators to know whether or not their graduates had met threshold standards for communication skills. This was due to:

  • The lack of articulated thresholds for oral and written communication skills at the program level;
  • The lack of assessment tasks that explicitly measured oral and written communication skills throughout the program; and
  • Limited or no implications should a student not attain appropriate levels of communicative ability.

This led to the finding that drove the project: that universities know that their graduates have achieved the threshold standards of oral and written communication skills because of the cumulative milestones for communication skills that students must meet before they can graduate.

There are limited examples of some milestones occurring across a range of programs in universities and these are outlined in this report. However, we found that on most occasions, assessment of communication skills was low stakes (meaning students could successfully pass their unit or degree even though their communication skills were assessed as below satisfactory level), limiting quality assurance of graduate outcomes.

Next: The DEM