Don’t Take Oral Communication Skills For Granted

By David Lariviere

Most of the buzz today about 21st-century skills is on critical thinking.

However, in a recent survey, oral communication was ranked as the top skill with 90 percent of hiring managers and 80 percent of business executives saying it was very important for college graduates to possess. Approximately 96 percent of employers surveyed by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE®) indicated that oral and written communication were essential career readiness competencies. Despite this finding, only 42 percent of employers rated graduates as being proficient.

ETS is doing extensive research to define oral communication and evaluate ways to train and measure oral communication skills. According to Managing Research Scientist Katrina Roohr, oral communication has two key components: content and delivery. “Content includes the purpose and reason for communicating while delivery includes effectively adapting the tone and message to the targeted audience,” she says.

Roohr explained that the focus on oral communication research grew out of the development of a new ETS general education higher skills assessment. She is completing a report on what oral communication means in higher education and the workplace while also examining an important aspect of oral communication — public speaking — and how to measure its competencies through automatic scoring, if possible.

The skills are expanding beyond those needed for face-to-face interaction to include those needed in a web-based environment. Leading meetings or giving presentations through these forms of media can be very different from the traditional face-to-face approach.

~ Katrina Roohr

The idea would be to develop methods and training materials that would help college students improve their presentation skills in terms of public speaking and PowerPoint®. “People don’t always realize what goes into (presentations) — that you need engagement and that how you’re presenting yourself actually matters.”

As technology changes the workplace, so do the best ways to effectively communicate in it, Roohr says. “The skills are expanding beyond those needed for face-to-face interaction to include those needed in a web-based environment. Leading meetings or giving presentations through these forms of media can be very different from the traditional face-to-face approach.”

Similarly, Research Scientist Michelle Martin-Raugh is studying negotiation skills. Individuals use their negotiation skills at work all the time, from negotiating with their co-workers about the best way to complete a project to negotiating with supervisors or clients who have competing priorities. ”Negotiation skills are an important social skill and can be considered as a subset of collaborative (or teamwork) skills,” she said.

Machine learning and data mining approaches coupled with sound psychological and psychometric expertise will be critical for developing valid, engaging assessments that reflect the new ways humans interact with the help of technology.

~ Michelle Martin-Raugh

Using the ETS Platform for Collaborative Assessment and Learning (EPCAL), Martin-Raugh is on a team that has developed a negotiation assessment prototype. The assessment pairs test takers as they engage in negotiation tasks where they receive points for reaching agreements that are favorable for themselves. As part of this task, they communicate using text-based chat. “Right now the assessment is summative but we hope that in the future we’ll be able to incorporate formative elements,” she said.

Understanding how technology is affecting 21st-century skills, like forming meaningful communicative arguments, is important as well, according to Martin-Raugh, explaining, “Communicating effectively over email, text-based chat or video chat is an important aspect of collaboration/teamwork skills. We are actually assessing negotiation fully virtually using text-based chat.”

She added, “I do think video-based assessments for negotiation are something we want to do in the future. I think noncognitive assessments in the future will make much greater use of technology via virtual assessments and assessments that rely on video/audio information.

“Machine learning and data mining approaches coupled with sound psychological and psychometric expertise will be critical for developing valid, engaging assessments that reflect the new ways humans interact with the help of technology.”

The work Roohr and Martin-Raugh are doing “aligns with (ETS’s) research to assess and develop skills for the new economy and lifelong success through learning,” says Roohr. “Knowing the importance of oral communication skills for success academically and in the workplace, our research intends to help create valid tools for measurement that can promote learning of these skills for individuals.”