DUE Strategic Themes: Catalyzing the Commons to Create a Culture of Communication

By Kathleen MacArthur, Assistant Dean for the Communication Requirement, Office of Faculty Support in collaboration with Sam Allen and Tania Baker, co-chairs of the Faculty Subcommittee on the Communication Requirement (SOCR)

On May 21, The Report on the Assessment of the Implementation of the Undergraduate Communication Requirement was posted to the Communication Requirement website (available to the MIT community at http://web.mit.edu/commreq background.html#assessment).

The CR assessment found significant improvements in the culture of communication here at MIT. The Faculty Subcommittee on the Communication Requirement (SOCR) and those who support this Subcommittee in the Office of Faculty Support (OFS) are pleased to report the high regard for the importance of communication in general and acceptance of the CR specifically. This improvement is one example of the way in which we have begun to catalyze the commons.

SOCR was charged by the Faculty with assessing the implementation of the CR. This assessment study, launched in Fall 2005, was a close collaboration between SOCR, the Teaching and Learning Lab (TLL), and OFS. The study 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 were designed by MIT’s Teaching and Learning Laboratory to collect data from students and faculty. The report also draws on data gathered from individual interviews and moderated roundtable discussions. TLL and MIT’s Office of Institutional Research performed the data analysis. Preparation 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 undergraduates 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 department (ci-m subjects) and prepare students for effective communication in their discipline. Currently, there are approximately 121 ci-h subjects and 134 ci-m subjects offered in 34 majors across all five Schools throughout the Institute.

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. 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.

The findings from the assessment present SOCR and the Institute with challenges and opportunities for the CR in the next phase of its development. Work is already underway to being further study and document best practices. As a result of this assessment, SOCR is pleased to recommend that the paced, 4-subject structure of the CR be maintained. 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.