Creating a Culture of Communication:
Assessing the Implementation of the
Undergraduate Communication Requirement
At the end of March, the Subcommittee on the Communication Requirement (SOCR) began to present the findings and recommendations from the assessment of the implementation of the undergraduate Communication Requirement (CR). In the May/June 2006 issue of the Faculty Newsletter, the current SOCR chair, Suzanne Flynn, announced the launch of Phase One of the assessment. The assessment study is now complete, and a full final report will be posted on the Communication Requirement Website in May (web.mit.edu/commreq).
SOCR was charged by the faculty with assessing the implementation of the CR. This assessment study, launched in fall 2005, was not designed or intended to measure student communication skills per se, but rather the implementation of the new CR. The assessment also sought to obtain information about the experience of the communication-intensive (CI) classes from both faculty and students. Three survey instruments designed by MIT’s Teaching and Learning Laboratory (TLL) were used to collect data: the Communication Requirement Experience Survey or cres (administered to all MIT undergraduates in December 2006); a senior survey (administered to the Class of 2006 in May 2006); and a faculty survey (administered in May 2006). The report also draws on data gathered from individual interviews and moderated roundtable discussions. TLL and MIT’s Office of the Provost/Institutional Research performed the data analysis. Preparation of the assessment report was a collaborative effort between staff in TLL (report body) and members of SOCR (discussion and recommendations).
Beginning with the Class of 2005, the new CR replaced a narrower writing requirement that asked students to demonstrate competency in writing at two levels. Under the current CR, all MIT under-graduates must fulfill a Communication Requirement (CR) by completing a program of four CI subjects that integrate substantial instruction and practice in writing and oral communication.
Two of the required CI subjects are chosen from a group of designated humanities, arts, and social sciences subjects (CI-Hs) and provide students with generally useful skills in expository writing and speaking in the context of the subject’s focus. The other two required CI subjects are taken in the students’ major departments (CI-M subjects) and prepare them for effective communication in their discipline. As a consequence of this structure, a wide spectrum of communication-intensive subjects is offered in 34 majors across all five Schools throughout the Institute. Currently, there are approximately 121 CI-H subjects and 134 CI-M subjects encompassing a number of formats, including laboratory classes, seminars, senior theses, and independent research projects.
The assessment found that MIT students and faculty place a high value on communication skills and expertise, and students recognize their CR experiences as contributing to the development of these skills. Students and faculty generally agree that the four CI-subject structure of the CR is satisfactory. Furthermore, faculty are supportive of incorporating communication instruction and practice as part of their CI-M subjects. Faculty and students expressed little concern that this instruction is included at the expense of discipline-specific content. Students report that disciplinary content and communication experiences are generally well integrated in their CI-M subjects. They also report that CI activities facilitate learning in the disciplines, and seniors particularly value their CI-M experiences. The one caveat to these reassuring findings is that some students find that the CR unduly constrains their choice of subjects.
We found that MIT students clearly perceive a benefit to their instruction in communication skills. More than two-thirds of seniors reported in the senior survey that their communication skills improved over their four years at MIT. Within the CR, students placed the highest value on writing instruction in the CI-Hs and on instruction on oral presentations in the CI-Ms. Within these findings we were surprised to find that the students who enter MIT with weaker writing skills and who were required to take a CI-HW (CI-H subjects with particular emphasis on writing) retained “writing process” habits and continued to value peer and instructor and/or tutor feedback on written work as they proceeded through their undergraduate years. This finding merits further study by SOCR.
There is a broad range of instructional support across the CI subjects, e.g.,writing instructors from Writing Across the Curriculum, departmental or School-based specialists, and CI-H Writing Tutors. In all, 29 percent of CI-H subjects and 50 percent of CI-M subjects receive additional instructional support. More than 70 percent of the faculty respondents agreed that using instructors and tutors is an effective way to improve student writing. However, students and faculty reported different levels of satisfaction with these collaborative teaching efforts. Faculty who reported high satisfaction also reported being well matched with an instructor or tutor. In contrast, no single issue emerged in the responses from faculty who were less satisfied. It is important to note that SOCR and TLL did not survey this cohort of teaching staff for the current report. SOCR plans to study teaching collaborations between faculty and other teaching staff to identify what models promote effective collaboration.
The findings from the assessment present SOCR and the Institute with challenges and opportunities for the CR in the next phase of its development. As a result of this assessment, SOCR would like to emphasize the importance of these recommendations:
- Maintain the paced, four-subject structure of the CR.
- Move toward criteria for designation of CI subjects that focus more on educational objectives and may allow faculty more flexibility in designing CI subjects and integrating CI content.
- Inventory best practices for teaching communication skills and share this information with CI instructors and the MIT community.
The 1995 Report of the CUP Subcommittee on the Writing Requirement indicated that, “[t]he present culture at MIT does not encourage attention to communication skills.” The CR assessment documents significant improvements in the culture of communication here at MIT. We are pleased to recommend that the key components of the existing CR be retained and that areas identified for improvement be addressed. With this strong foundation in place and this assessment as a benchmark and guide, SOCR and the MIT community should work to continue to improve the CR experience, faculty support, and student learning.