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Communication: The “Soft Skill” that is in Demand

What are the communication skills needed for this generation of students to succeed in a 21st Century world? How might students learn these skills in our colleges and universities? How can we integrate the development of these skills throughout diverse curricula of a modern university?

Employers routinely lament that college graduates arrive in the workplace lacking many key communication skills. A 2006 survey of 400 CEO’s reveals that employers rate applied communication skills such as teamwork/collaboration, an ability to successfully engage diverse colleagues, oral communication and written communication skills as very important to success in the 21st Century workplace. These employers also observe that no more than 10% of four-year college graduates as having excellent abilities within this set of skills (The Conference Board, 2006).

Student-Centered Discussions and Communication Skill Development

How can higher education faculty incorporate more communications skills development into the curriculum without adding more courses and without adding additional assignments to existing classes? We believe that student-centered discussions are critical to an integration of communications skills into a curricular.  Many faculty use some form of discussion in their classroom. Typically the teacher is at the center the discussion. The teacher asks students questions, and students respond. The teacher may direct one student’s response to another student, but the teacher is essentially the one who is directing, or orchestrating, the discussion. In student-centered discussion courses, the students themselves direct the discussion. One student serves as the facilitator of the discussion for a small group, and the discussion flows from student to student. The facilitator is not a “teacher” or “discussion leader.” The facilitator is someone who helps the discussion move along in exploring and developing the thinking of the group. The role of the facilitator is to keep the group discussions open and productive, not to lead them in predetermined directions.

Students are trained as facilitators. In the student-centered discussion approach, the instructor often plays the role of observer. The instructor makes notes throughout the discussion to be used in assessing student performance so as to provide students with direct, individual feedback and to be used as reference material for subsequent class lectures. In the student-centered classroom, teams of roughly 5-8 students form a discussion group. Typically these discussion groups stay together for the entire semester. This helps the students to develop a comfort level with each other, which can help their acquisition of collaborative discussion skills. It is helpful if teachers assign discussion groups so as to balance out the distribution of students (in terms of class standing, gender, majors, etc.). The atmosphere of the discussion in a student-centered classroom is described as a “sanctuary,” a protected space for reflective interactions. Students feel free to express their thoughts without fear. The role of each student in a discussion group is to help other students develop their own ideas, to develop contrasting or novel ideas, and to develop the thinking of the group. Discussions are not debates, and intellectual showing off is discouraged. Discussions are a success when each student develops his/her own insights and when the group makes discoveries about the subject of the discussion that each individual may never have reached on his/her own. Course content in the student-centered class can be integrated into the class in a variety of formats. In some cases, the teacher first presents the content, and the students then develop their own understanding of the content through the discussion.

In other cases, the student-centered discussion sets the context for a later content presentation to be delivered by the teacher. The discussion groups become, in effect, a learning team that explores questions about the content area and develops its own thinking into possibilities. The role of the teacher in the student-centered classroom is to be a mentor for students, in addition to the more traditional roles taken on by a teacher. The teacher gives the students feedback on their discussions and makes suggestions for improvement. This is done in a face-to-face meeting with support from the observation notes made by the teacher. Finally, the student-centered discussions have a discussion process they use.

This means the there is a structure to encourage the development of the discussion group’s thinking over time (it is not as if each class is starting from scratch, undirected, or is unstructured like a free-flowing “bull session”). This process essentially moves through stages of exploring questions (including different perspectives, or different ways of framing the key questions), exploring possible responses to those questions, and exploring what some possible consequences of those responses might be. As students are trained to be discussion facilitators, they also learn how to become effective discussion participants. The student-centered classroom requires and reinforces a much higher level of social skill than is typically required in a university classroom. The incorporation of the student-centered discussion process into the classroom has the potential of enhancing the level of communication skills. In effect the student-centered discussion classroom is the platform for integrating communications skills development across the curriculum.

Communication Skills Enhancement

What specific communications skills are enhanced by student-centered discussions? Exhibit 1 contains a list of these skills.

Exhibit 1

Communication Skills that are Enhanced by Student-Centered Courses

Level 1

• The ability to communicate in meetings and in discussion with others

• The ability to listen and comprehend during a conversation

• The ability to facilitate a discussion in a small group

Level 2

• The ability to present your idea to a wide variety of people with different levels of knowledge

• The ability of, and commitment to, active listening

Level 3

• The ability to communicate across cultures

• The ability to show genuine empathy


The skills shown in Exhibit 1 are not those that universities typically stress. But these are the communication skills that employers are looking for from college graduates.  These skills are developed as an organic outgrowth of the discussions. The development of these skills helps students acquire these skills on a natural way. Very little class time is used on this skill development since the skill development is an essential component of the discussions themselves and incorporated into the teacher’s evaluation of the discussion.



Reference: The Conference Board, 2006. Are They Really Ready to Work? Employers’ Perspectives on

the Basic Knowledge and Applied Skills of New Entrants to the 21st Century U.S.


(accessed on May 29, 2009).