Video by UK Public Relations and Marketing. To view a transcript of the video, click here.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (Sept. 28, 2011) — When employers are asked about what's missing from the resumes of college graduates, it's less about certification and qualification than communication skills.
Employers of college graduates across the country are observing noticeable problems with writing, speaking, presenting and working in teams. Now the University of Kentucky is tackling this issue as part of its work toward reaffirmation of accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), a standard of quality among colleges and universities in the southern region of the U.S.
Perhaps communication skills should be picked up along the way toward a four-year undergraduate degree, but the feedback from employers suggests that's not happening. What good is a degree in any discipline, if you can't translate your knowledge and help others solve problems?
UK communication professor Amy Gaffney talks the talk in helping students of all backgrounds acquire these essential skills.
"It has become harder to distinguish between writing, speaking and interpersonal communication," she said. "Texting and email — that's the same as speaking. The lines are blurry, but the basic elements remain the same."
Last fall, UK began a grueling academic process of preparing documents to achieve reaffirmation of its SACS accreditation. As a part of the process, UK is required to initiate a Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP).
The QEP helps us help ourselves; in essence, the university targets a campuswide goal for improving student learning and investigates ways in which to achieve it.
SACS reaffirmation of accreditation is mandatory for the university, and the QEP is one of 12 core SACS reaffirmation requirements. While the plan itself is compulsory, the university has the ability to select the topic and determine how it's achieved.
"The goal of the QEP is not to encumber departments on campus with more requirements," explained QEP committee co-chair and UK communication professor Deanna Sellnow. "Instead, the QEP that UK selected will provide infrastructural support for faculty and students who choose to participate."
The QEP, with a current working title of "Multi-modal Communication Across the Curriculum," will continue the commitment of UK Core's Composition and Communication learning outcomes beyond the freshman or sophomore year, working with faculty and staff who choose to institute new communication-based curriculum or to formalize programs already in place.
“The QEP will not require anyone to create, revise, or implement communication-based assignments,” Sellnow said, “but it will provide support to those who want to do so.”
While the exact details are not fleshed out, the plan is to provide student tutoring assistance and faculty workshops and consultations that build on what is currently offered in the Writing Center, the Study, the Hub and the Center for Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT), but with a specific focus on improving integrated oral, written, visual and multimedia communication.
"We want to show students how to discover and develop ideas, as well as create and deliver effective presentations. And we want to help faculty teach these concepts and skills," said Gaffney. "But right now, it's about awareness."
Gaffney and the QEP document development team will be drafting and revising the 100-page “Multi-modal Communication Across the Curriculum” plan required by SACS this year. After SACS approval, UK's campus will implement the program beginning fall 2013.
Five years after instituting the programming, we'll grade ourselves and send a follow-up report to SACS.
Judging by employer feedback, the problems with student communication were no secret.
"There is an ongoing recognition that students need to communicate better," Gaffney said. "Employers have come back to university officials saying that they wish their students could do this, and UK needed to answer the call."
Gaffney, who has been at UK for about a year, became involved in SACS when the committee began soliciting ideas. She submitted the original idea and white paper, along with peers, for the winning concept of "Multi-modal Communication across the Curriculum."
As the QEP committee fleshes out the original white paper written by Gaffney's team and the campus decides what to name the initiative, UK will be instituting a program that develops speaking, writing, visual, and teamwork communication skills, through flat print, face-to-face, and digital channels.
Gaffney is the perfect match for the project. While pursuing her Ph.D. at North Carolina State, she worked with the concept of multimodal communication, and the more time she spent with it, the more it made sense to her.
As a part of her dissertation, Gaffney worked with landscape architecture students on their presentation skills. She worked with two faculty members and two classes each semester, assisting students with communication, but also professors with instructional guidance.
"They got better," she said. "Some of the students felt awkward giving a practice talk to their peers, but many of the issues we went over stuck with them for future presentations."
Students became more conscientious; and preparing for the presentation became as important as the design itself to completing the assignment.
Presentation skills are critical in becoming a landscape designer, but students didn't know what was expected of them. Gaffney helped to translate the expectations of the architectural faculty into training for students.
"Communication skills are so embedded in what they do that sometimes professors have a hard time teaching these skills to students," explained Gaffney. "How to respond to disagreements, questions or comments should be a part of the training, too."
Gaffney worked with students, but part of her work also focused on helping faculty members tease out what it means to communicate in a profession.
"Through my research, I discovered how to teach communicative concepts to students in a variety of disciplines and why it's important," she said. "Historical disciplinary differences have led to issues with writing, speaking and presenting in many areas, but every degree-seeking student needs these skills."
The fact that UK was moving toward a model of multimodal communication through UK Core originally drew Gaffney to campus. She's been teaching Composition and Communication I and II (CIS 110 and 111; the course is also taught as WRD 110 and 111) since her arrival.
With increased communication requirements in many of UK's departments, colleges, and even in grant proposals, Gaffney and her original crew knew that they had to keep the focus on students. "We have to make the assignments relevant and help students to work in teams, like in everyday life," she said. "This will affect their future."
There are obvious benefits to students and faculty, but community members and alumni will be positively affected as well, with the knowledge that they are getting the best graduates from UK.
"Other colleges and universities aren't even close to what we are proposing in our QEP at UK," said Gaffney. "We hope that they will use us as a resource."
The core of the QEP and enhancement plan is student learning. The more practice and feedback, structure and consideration the committee has, the better.
"We're just trying to get the word out about how important this is for students, faculty, staff, alumni and the community," Gaffney said.