Core Competency Spotlight: Effective Communication

students and instructor discussing 

Dr. Natasa Masanovic-Courtney listening to her students, 2018.

 UAA has identified four Core Competencies, key skillsets that help students achieve academic and post-graduation success:
  • Effective Communication
  • Creative and Critical Thinking
  • Intercultural Fluency
  • Personal, Professional, and Community Responsibility

For 2021-22, we are focusing on Effective Communication. This page offers several ways to emphasize Effective Communication in your courses and help students develop mastery of this competency.

Visit our Communication Tools and Peer Interaction Tools pages for more ways to integrate Effective Communication in online courses.


Model Clear Communication

Your syllabus, policies, instructions, readings, and feedback all model effective communication for your students:

  • Use a straightforward and supportive tone, with unambiguous, common-language sentences. Students like hearing you as a person! Humor can help them connect with you, but don’t let it obscure important information — keep it on the side or clearly marked as such.
  • In Blackboard, use a simple and consistent structure to organize materials. Clear and consistent headings for your units and materials also help students follow your course. Check out our self-enrolling Blackboard course #Pivot 3: Self-Paced Course Design & Development for examples.
  • Announce updates and remind students of due dates both orally and in writing. Weekly Blackboard announcements are a great tool for this! Repeating the same format and order each week helps reinforce communication expectations.

Treat informal writing as conversation, not formal writing. This is especially important for asynchronous online courses, where more interaction occurs via writing. Discussion boards, exit tickets, short reflection activities, and peer feedback give students practice writing for communicative goals. If you’re grading these, it can help to focus on the ideas students are communicating in these areas, not on grammatical precision or word count. Mechanical and usage errors are not uncommon for students who grew up speaking non-standard English or who have certain disabilities. Save the emphasis on “correct” writing for formal assignments and give clear guidelines for those.

Set Expectations

Give students clear communication guidelines for assignments and explain your grading criteria. One approach we recommend for this is Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT), which uses a deliberate framework to communicate assignment expectations. These documents from the 2020 UAA Academic Assessment Seminar with Dr. Suzanne Tapp can help you adjust your assignments and activities:

Communicate with Respect

Set clear expectations for behavior as a class and deliberately model a respectful, calm, engaged tone. For discussion-based courses, collaborating on ground rules for discussion before engaging with other topics can help model not just your expectations, but also how to practice them. The UAA book Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education has instructions for how best to do this with your students (link goes to a full PDF).

Practice Professional Norms

Explain how professionals in your field communicate. Good communication varies by context, so be very specific about the norms and expectations for your field. What argument structure makes a "good" academic paper differs substantially between philosophy, literary studies, and history, for example, and that's just within the liberal arts! Students who have excelled at the Writing and Communication prerequisites for your course will still need guidance on how to communicate in your discipline. It can help to not just give students examples, but discuss what makes them effective.

Distinguish Between Class Communication and Professional Norms

Distinguish between formal and informal communication, especially for asynchronous courses where much of the communication occurs by writing. Professional norms vary widely: how employees communicate on Slack or Zoom chat isn't the same as how they communicate in a client presentation or signed letter on letterhead. If you want students to treat email as akin to print letters rather than closer to texting, tell them and provide examples.

In many cases, you want students to follow UAA class communication norms for discussion boards, in-class activities, reflection papers, and emailing you, but to practice more formal norms for assessments like final presentations, lab reports, or stakeholder analyses. Be clear when students should follow which guidelines and understand that they’re still learning all of these levels of communication.

Practice Before Assessing

Even courses that don’t have official student learning outcomes assessing communication usually have assessments that involve some aspect of it. Give your students the opportunity to practice and develop those skills with feedback before grading their performance. Connect them with UAA resources like the Learning Commons to work on communication skills one-on-one.

If the communication method isn't essential to your field, consider giving students a choice (e.g., essay, presentation, video, website, or other project) of how they demonstrate their mastery.

Make It Relevant

In general, students are more motivated when their efforts feel useful. What kinds of communication will they need in the workplace? Instead of defaulting to standard class assignments, consider whether you can ground their assignments in a work or community scenario that they are likely to encounter. UAA instructors have had great success with health education brochures, mock interviews, video or “voicemail” recording answering a client’s questions, business reports, stakeholder analyses, sample lesson plans for K-8 classes, etc.

You can also help connect their work by asking them to contribute for future students. They could do this by summarizing a concept or area, giving advice, or creating a study guide, annotated bibliography, sample syllabus, or new Open Educational Resource.

Close the Feedback Loop

Give students time to process what they’ve read or heard, as well as time to think about their response and follow-up questions. All of us vary in our abilities to process communication according to subject, time of day, well-being, etc.  Unfamiliar vocabulary, new concepts, cultural differences, individual diversity, and familiarity with the speaker’s discourse can make this process more challenging. Short check-in and response activities can help verify whether students have accurately received the intended message and identify areas for clarification.

Give Specific Feedback

When reviewing work, tell students how they’re performing in relation to their communication target and what steps they should take to improve their performance. If you are grading writing effectiveness, for example, give explicit guidance on how to improve the writing. It may help to single out one or two assignments where you will focus on improving communication, as opposed to providing that feedback on every item.

Research shows many students don’t know how to apply common feedback terms like “awkward,” “vague,” or “be more concise” (Winstone, Nash, Rowntree, & Parker, 2017). Consider giving students a guide to your feedback (sample feedback guide for British students) or give explicit instructions for the next time. Directions like “Read all of your long sentences aloud and plan to cut at least 50% of them into multiple sentences” are easier to follow than “Clarify your sentences.” 

Guide Students on How to Use Feedback

Feedback isn't the same as grading! For some projects, it works better to give feedback on a draft or have students present to each other in small groups for feedback, then focus on grading the final product. Discuss how to incorporate feedback into their work.

You can also use feedback response activities or assignment/exam wrappers to motivate students to use the feedback. For example, ask students to do an exit ticket on graded exams with one question they still have about the topic and one study approach they want to try for the next exam.

 Assess and Document

Identify one or two activities that you can use to assess whether students are mastering the communication goals for your course. In some courses these will be formal assignments; for others, it might be something as simple as pair-work where students explain how they approached a problem or give each other feedback on a design project. Decide how you will evaluate these and keep a copy of those evaluations, whether that means graded work with feedback or just notes on student performance during an in-class activity.

Documenting students’ performance and growth on these activities helps you determine whether your course is teaching communication as you planned. Comparing performance at the start and end of the semester can make sure you’re rewarding learning, not just prior knowledge or experience, and show how much students gain. Your department or college may also ask for evidence of the Core Competencies to support program design or the accreditation review process.


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