7 Ways to Build Communication Soft Skill Training Into Any Assignment
Educators focused on preparing students for real-world work expectations know that many employers desire soft skills as much as technical knowledge or industry-specific training. Marcel M. Robles, in Business Communication Quarterly, cites research stating that "75% of long-term job success depends on people skills." Those valuable, transferable, and cross-industry skills include work ethic, problem solving, leadership, and communication. Of all these soft skills, employers most frequently say good communication is their highest priority.
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Strong communication is actually a set of various soft skills and can be taught at every level, in every subject, with technology enhancements. Students now have fast, easy, and secure ways to practice effective communication, and educators can use these practical and easy-to-add requirements to most writing, presentation, or subject-matter assignments.
Start Simple: The Assignment Sheet
The first step of any job is figuring out what needs to be done and how to complete a project correctly. Often a project's parameters must be determined before the actual work can begin.
Educators can facilitate collaborative inquiry and planning by having students review and discuss the assignment requirements in small groups. Rather than simply explaining an assignment, which makes students passive information recipients, let them determine the best way to approach a new task; then prepare an assignment sheet summary and plan of action. All this collaborative inquiry will enhance the soft skills of textual interpretation, negotiation, forming consensus, project planning, and nonverbal communication.
Every document, even the standard five-paragraph essay, is a genre that comes with its own formatting, content, and style expectations. When designing assignments, make sure you specify which genre students must create. In their future professions, students will always know what genre they're working with—reports, emails, data sheets, patient charts, scholarly articles, contracts, proposals, and so on. By assigning specific genres, you'll reinforce students' responsibility to examine and understand their expectations and limitations before they begin a task.
Always Provide a Rhetorical Situation
In addition to needing a genre, every task also needs a clear rhetorical situation—that is, an audience, purpose, context, and set of constraints. An email to your professor requesting a grade change is a rhetorical situation. So is a grant application for a community nonprofit, a sales pitch, an earnings report, or a court appearance.
However, a "summary of the Civil War" does not present a clear situation. Neither does "a presentation on what you learned from the chapter." While these are both valuable kinds of learning opportunities, students need to know what kind of end product they must create, and for whom. Only then can they practice rhetorical analysis and the valuable soft skill of shaping their message for an audience.
Employ Problem-Based Learning
Rather than having students complete assignments only for the sake of demonstrating knowledge in the classroom, giving a real problem to solve accomplishes two important goals: providing the rhetorical situation and engaging higher-level thinking. Educators certainly don't need to look far to find real-world problems that students can tackle.
Problems can by hyperlocal, like a cost-benefit analysis of building a new gym, or as global as Cape Town's water shortage. And students' approaches, whether PowerPoint presentations, oral presentations, or portfolios, will all be assigned real and specific audiences, purposes, and constraints.
Make Students Ask Questions
One communication skill that seems to be getting lost is the ability to formulate and pursue good questions. Perhaps out of eagerness to have all the answers, we neglect to cultivate the crucial skills of inquiry, listening, curiosity, and research.
Some simple ways we can teach the value of questions are requiring a project proposal or outline composed only of questions to pursue, conducting peer reviews that ask only open-ended questions, or assigning a research question that must be answered with another question. Using technology to communicate instantly can be a great aid to these kinds of assignments.
Ask a question on Twitter and see how many responses are questions rather than declarations; create a blog in your LMS for ongoing discussions and questions, where you can also post an Answer of the Day to encourage students to craft truly good questions.
Make Grading Communicative
Rather than simply giving grades, use grading as a chance to encourage communication. This can be achieved with some help from technology, too. Using Microsoft Word's Review functions, or the grading function on your LMS, you can leave feedback in the form of revision questions. Take the process one step further by requiring students to respond to the feedback they receive.
A great exercise is having students explain whether they agree or disagree with revision suggestions or even agreeing or disagreeing with a grade. In the workplace, students will rarely receive feedback without some kind of call to action. Knowing how to give and receive feedback, adapt to changing requirements or specifications, and engage in feedback as a process will make them valuable future team leaders.
Make Work Collaborative
Finally, as much as possible, students should collaborate. Despite some students' negative reactions to group work, there is no better communication training than collaborative work. Even when there are difficulties, students are learning valuable lessons about delegation, leadership, management, civility, and conflict resolution. Students can manage their group work with tools like Doodle for meeting arrangements, When I Work for taking shifts, or any other various apps designed especially for group work.
No one assignment or class can teach communication soft skills. But with small communication requirements in every task, students can continually practice and refine the multitude of communication skills they'll need to serve as positive team members and effective leaders.