7th November 2015
Some informal ideas from Arran about developing communication skills in class.
Communication skills are one of the most important things that you will take with you from your three year experience at university – perhaps even more important than facts about the content of the subject discipline, which will soon be forgotten. Students often associate communication skills with giving formal presentations, but while presentation skills are important there are also a wide range of other communication skills that are equally, or more, important. There are skills in active listening, in communicating effectively in groups, and in discussing theoretical concepts in a convincing, clear and consistent way. Here are a few skills, and hints at how you can develop them:
a) Active Listening. The value of class time lies in face-to-face communication between the facilitator and students, and among the students in group-work and whole class discussion. There are three ways that face to face communication can go depending on how people listen:
Zero-way communication: One participant is speaking but the listeners are chatting, checking their email or reading magazines. Communication is happening, but the only message that is being conveyed is one of disinterest by the audience to the speaker.
One-way communication: Listeners are not reading magazines but they are passive, just absorbing information and not responding to what the speaker is saying. This is preferable to zero-way communication, but information received passively in this way is likely to be soon forgotten, and without any sign that the listeners are engaging the speaker is likely to start droning in a monotone.
Two-way communication. The speaker is speaking but the listeners are actively listening, which means that they are thinking carefully about what the speaker is saying, and responding to it. The responses occur in the mind of the listener: being surprised, puzzled, delighted, confused, agreeing, disagreeing, noticing an inconsistency, appreciating a point well made. The responses manifest themselves externally through facial expression or minimal responses such as nodding, smiling, frowning or laughing. When the audience is responding through active listening it allows the speaker to clarify, modify or accentuate what they are saying to match the mood of the audience. And the positive feeling of talking to a group who are actively listening encourages the speaker to speak more enthusiastically, making the talk more interesting and leading to a virtuous circle. For a nervous student, having a group of classmates actively listening to them can build their confidence and actually transform how they see themselves.
b) Responding verbally. There are numerous points within a class where it is possible to respond verbally to arguments being presented by the facilitator or other students. The response could be to ask for clarification, to challenge a point made, to provide information or background context that is missing, to share an example of what is being discussed that you have come across in your own life, or to express how the subject makes you feel. Verbal responses are enormously beneficial for everyone’s learning, including the learning of the facilitator, and the more active the class is the better the learning experience will be.
The skill here is in recognising the moment when it is appropriate to comment without it being an aggressive interruption (that is, finding a suitable Transition Relevance Place), and recognising what would be appropriate and useful to say. There is much more freedom that you expect, though, so do experiment by asking for clarification, providing a clarification yourself, expressing agreement or disagreement. Of course you also need to have something useful to say. It is very helpful if you have read widely about the topic (not just the chapter in the textbook), and have brought a few quotes or points to share with you. It is also helpful to bring your own examples to class so that you can comment on them and throw them into the mix. Classes will be much more interesting if everyone contributes ideas, opinions, examples and quotes from their background reading.
c) Group work. The key skills for communicating in group work are i) staying relevant to the issue at hand, ii) speaking up when all is quiet, iii) encouraging others to speak if you find you are the main person speaking, and iv) using active listening to encourage the others in the group when they are speaking. Sometimes a group can quickly finish talking about a specific question, and at this point it is possible for the conversation to wander off to other things. However, it is also possible to expand from the question to consider the wider context, to consider other questions which relate to the first question, and discuss the implications of the answers for the society around us. It is also possible to be critical of the question itself and have a meta-discussion about whether the question is suitable or not, or whether the theories covered are adequate to fully answer the question.
d) Theory and Analysis. One of the key communication skills to gain is to be able to discuss linguistic theories with others. To take an example, there is Judith Butler’s theory of performativity, where identities are considered to be a surface performance rather than being an integral part of who we are. This is a profound issue, and there is work from other theorists which agrees with Butler and other work which disagrees with her. You also have your own opinion about the theory, which is based on your critical reading of arguments for and against as well your own experience. You need to be able to have an intelligent, sophisticated discussion about the theory with those around you, bringing in the ideas you gave read and using the terminology, but still expressing yourself clearly and convincingly. Often the discussion requires applying a theory to particular examples or data. In this case, rather than just chatting about the examples in general terms you can use the concepts and terminology of the theory to discuss the data you are looking at. By applying theory to real examples and sharing what you find with others you can convey sophisticated insights into the world around us. Skills in discussing theory and the findings of analysis are not easy to gain, but are extremely valuable in being able to speak with a naturally authoritative voice on key issues that concern you in the future.
You can gain communication skills from every class you attend, whether you have to give a formal presentation yourself or interact with other students to discuss data and ideas. Even just listening to the facilitator and other students is a chance to practice active listening. There are a few things that you can do to prepare. Firstly, read something relevant to the topic and bring some quotations or notes with you. Secondly, bring some examples with you from something you have come across in your everyday life. If it is a phonetics class, for example, you could bring in a newspaper article which debates whether H is pronounced ‘haich’ or ‘aich’. Become skilled at finding the appropriate moment for contributing, then share the ideas you got from your reading, examples you’ve brought and your own opinions, ideas and feelings. The more interaction that goes on in class the more learning that will occur. Up to a point, however! It’s also useful to be aware of contributing so much that others are left silent, so knowing when and how to encouraging others to speak is an important communication skill in itself.