Agony aunt

November 24, 2000

I am tired of reports that graduates leave university with poor communication skills. What help is available to improve things?

Martin Greenhow , senior tutor, mathematical sciences, Brunel University .

A: Last year, most of my tutees graduated with a broad range of skills, including communication and, in particular, information technology skills. They walked into jobs at a starting salary approaching mine. Industry values science and technology graduates, but our own teaching quality assessors knew better and deducted a point for our "problem" with transferable skills.

The assessors have a point. We should improve communication skills, but mainly as a tool to sharpen our students' understanding of their subject and to realise their academic potential, not just to satisfy employers.

What should be taught is relatively easy to specify (see my online study skills guide - address below). How this should be taught is problematic: the easy option would be to bolt on modules. But this means that students' performance in those modules could be safely ignored by all, including the very students who would have benefited most had they taken it seriously.

The hard option is to integrate communication into the degree requirement. But careful thought, supervision, marking and student presentations take time and must be sustained for improvement to last.

Rebecca Stott and Tory Young , Co-directors, Speak Write Project, Anglia Polytechnic University.

A: Expertise and innovation in improving students' oral and written communication skills have been disseminated with the support of the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning. The Student Skills Project (Sheffield Hallam University), for example, offers booklets and online materials for students ( ).

The Speak-Write Project, which we co-direct in the English department of Anglia Polytechnic University, has for the past four years piloted and launched a subject-specific approach to teaching communication skills. Materials are tailored to the workplace but rooted in the study of literary texts.

From December, they will be available as four books, which include practical activities.

Contact: and

Lynda Rollason , Careers advisory service, University of Aberystwyth.

A: We run an annual students skills competition alongside the careers information fair. Selected teams from most departments have to sell themselves and their skills to employers, academics and other students.

What do they have to do? Team finalists mount a stand at the fair and do a ten-minute theatre presentation on their subjects' employability skills to a panel of judges.

All the teams are "twinned" with an employer of their choice. This year, the team from international politics twinned with Reuters news agency and went to London for four days as guests. There they made a presentation to staff.

Teams can raise up to £600 in sponsorship to pay for anything they want on their stand and for the presentation. Communication skills are essential. The prize is money - £800 for the winning team, £500 for best stand and £500 for best presentation, book tokens for all - and a confidence boost.

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