How can I improve the quality of participation in a class discussion? What can I do to remind students that listening is as important as speaking and careful reading is as important as clear writing? These are tough questions with which I still struggle, so I sat down over break with Anita Chikkatur (Educational Studies) and Adriana Estill (English and American Studies) to learn one way they have tackled the challenge of getting their students to better understand and develop communication skills in four areas — listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Anita and Adriana encourage students to reflect on each aspect of communication and encourage growth in all four areas through the use of a communicative competence checklist.
What prompted the communicative competence checklist?
When I asked Adriana and Anita what led them to develop and adopt the communicative competence checklist, they noted that writing and speaking often come to students’ minds first when thinking about communication, but they lose sight of the vital flip side of those coins — reading and listening. Faculty, too, tend to focus more on fostering writing and speaking skills. Adriana and Anita use the checklist to foster self-reflection as students work to develop reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills.
In our conversation, Anita noted, “The participation category [of a course grade] is blunt tool for engagement.” Too often students think about class participation as the number of times they speak up, rather than considering the way in which they make contributions to a discussion and how they listen to the contributions of others. The goal of the communicative competence checklist is to help students identify the multiple elements that go into being an effective writer, reader, speaker, and listener, and then to assess their strengths and areas for improvement.
How does one use the communicative competence checklist?
In their classes, Adriana and Anita have introduced the checklist to students at the beginning of the course with some framing remarks about the four areas of communication and the specific skills associated with each area. The checklist helps students break down the multiple elements that are important for reading critically, listening well, making contributions in a discussion, etc. After getting an introduction to the four areas of communicative competence and the specific elements in each area, students are asked to identify 2-3 skills in each of the four areas that they want to work on improving over the course of the term. In the middle of the term, students are asked to revisit the skills that they identified as wanting to improve, and to reflect on the progress they have made. The specificity of goals and the time and space set up for self-reflection ensure that students generally stay on track with their sense of their skills and degree of improvement. Both Adriana and Anita agree that the quality of self-reflection and honesty in engaging in the reflection process is as important as the actual progress on specific skills. Anita and Adriana give students feedback on their midterm reflections, and most students are receptive to the midterm feedback they receive. At the end of the course, the students are once again asked to reflect on their progress over the whole term. The communicative competence reflections contribute to the participation grade in the course.
What are some of the benefits of using the communicative competence checklist?
- Students better understand specific (lower order and higher order) skills that go into reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Particularly for reading and listening, many students aren’t aware of the elements that are important for developing these skills; the checklist explicitly articulates those elements.
- Class participation can be difficult to measure, and students can push back against participation grades if the criteria are vague. Rather than keeping a mental checklist of the quality of participation by various members of the class or trying to figure out why a particular student didn’t participate in class, the communicative competence checklist takes much of the burden off of the instructor. Students are asked to identify, for example, the challenges they face in terms of speaking up in class and how they are trying to address those challenges. It allows the instructor to better appreciate areas of student growth that might not be visible inside the classroom.
- The student reflections as part of the communicative competence checklist can prompt discussions at the meta level about personality, gender, race, social status, and their influence on the communication patterns that students have developed.
- The communicative competence checklist fosters a growth mindset. The self you are is not the self you have to be — you can always identify areas that you want to improve.
If you want to try using this in your class, Adriana and Anita are happy to have others borrow and adapt the checklist.