Teaching Students to be Good Communicators: Flying by the Seat of My Pants

by Mike Lewis, Associate Professor, Chemistry

I spent the last part of last week at the Southeast Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society.  A fourth year PhD student came to the conference with me, and she gave two oral presentations.  One was on a project she has been talking about for a while – she has probably given close to a half dozen presentations on the topic over the past 18 months to two years.  The second talk was on a project for which she has yet to give a conference presentation, in oral or poster format.  As usual, she delivered a strong presentation on what has been her primary project – she had numerous questions from interested listeners, and she handled them very well, answering with clarity and depth.  Her delivery of the second presentation, on the project that is less comfortable for her, was also quite good, though it was not as strong as for the first presentation.  Furthermore, there were a couple questions she was unable to answer.  She handled these questions well, saying she wasn’t sure of the answer, and that they could talk afterwards and hopefully get an answer for the questioner.  I talked to this questioner afterwards and he started by saying what a great talk my student had given, and that she must be fourth or fifth year graduate student given how polished she seemed.  It was in thinking about this response, coupled with the unavoidable comparison between the two talks I had watched her present, that lead to the topic of this blog: how is it that we impart knowledge to our students (teach?) on being able to effectively communicate information about our respective disciplines?

Although it was through watching my graduate student that I began thinking about this topic, this is certainly applicable to undergraduate and graduate students alike.  I have had 8 graduate students and 26 undergraduate students work in my research lab; on average I have generally had about two graduate students and three to five undergraduates in my group at any given time over my eight and a half years at SLU.  I can’t speak for other Departments, but this fairly normal for Chemistry, and I can only assume that all of us involve students in our research and outside-the-classroom work in some manner.  All of the graduate students and most of the undergraduate students who have worked with me have presented their research in some forum, be it a local, regional, or national conference.  Most end up doing quite well, at least by the end of their tenure in my research group, though a few end up being weak.  Not surprisingly, for the undergraduates there is a definite correlation between the length of their time in my research group and the quality of their presentation skills.  What strikes me about this outcome, and about the fact that my graduate student gave an excellent talk on a subject she was still working towards mastering – a subject she was still not comfortable answering questions about – is that I don’t know exactly how they get to this point.  It certainly isn’t because they arrive in my research group with strong presentation skills – to a one, the students all show up fairly raw in this category.  And it certainly isn’t because of anything I actively do.  So what goes on in my group that leads to students developing strong presentation skills?  How do they develop the ability to communicate the details, and answer questions about the results, of their research?  In addition, if I start to think more actively about this topic, what else can I do to streamline and improve the outcomes of this process?

As far as what is currently being done, I definitely spend a lot of time with the graduate students in their first year or two in the group when it comes to crafting a presentation, be it oral or poster.  From a thematic standpoint, the students need to be taught to weave a story that starts broadly with literature background, and to frame our studies as a natural progression in the broader field, linking our work to important open questions in the area.  They also need guidance on seemingly mundane details, like the size of the font, the quality of the figures/graphs/tables, how much text to use on an overhead, and how much information to present.  After having worked with the graduate students on these issues during their first couple of years, I generally leave them to their own devices.  If they only had conference presentations from this point forward, their presentations skills would likely stagnate.  Luckily, this is about the time they start presenting their research to their thesis committees, and the need to defend their work seems to heighten their awareness of the quality of their presentations.  Considering I really don’t spend much time looking at their presentations after their second year, yet their presentations continue to improve, this appears to be the best explanation.  I’m sure it also helps that they continue to attend conferences and watch others present their research.

With my undergraduate students, I always look at the presentations when they’re completed, but I rarely spend much time training the students up front on how to construct a good presentation.  The undergraduates are always assigned a graduate student as their immediate research advisor, and the graduate students, without me asking, take the time to help the undergraduates put together their research presentations.  This not only helps the undergraduates hone their communication/presentation skills, but it also helps the graduate students improve their communication abilities – teaching others is always a great way to learn.

I think I’ve reached the word limit, so let me wrap up by going back to where I started.  I was pleasantly surprised to watch one my senior graduate students excel in giving a conference presentation that I had not previously seen, on a topic she had not previously presented on.  Through the catharsis of this blog I think I have started to outline some of the paths being taken in my group that allow students to get to the point of being good communicators of their research.  Moving forward I need to organize these thoughts into a document that I can more actively implement with future students.  I can also outline a group policy for graduate students helping with the training of undergraduate students in terms of developing communication skills.  This is a topic I haven’t thought much about in great depth, but I think this type of outside-the-classroom teaching is important, and I hope to give it more organized structure moving forward.  In actively thinking about the process I’m sure I can improve on my students communication skills.

Mike Lewis is an Associate Professor in the Chemistry department. He serves as a Faculty Fellow for the CTTL and chairs our Mentoring Committee. His areas of interest and expertise include teaching large classes, teaching and learning with technology, and mentoring new faculty.

 


3 Responses to “Teaching Students to be Good Communicators: Flying by the Seat of My Pants”

  1. Great piece, Mike! I enjoyed reading your posting and it made me think that some of the reasons this research group may be so successful in fostering thoughtful, confident researchers and conference presenters is that your research group leverages peer-to-peer learning (pairing undergrads with grad students, for example), experiential learning (writing, presenting and researching for authentic, professional audiences is often going to be taken much more seriously by learners than turning something in to the professor), and your commitment to modeling the ins and outs of the research and presentation process for students in the first two years are all pretty powerful learning catalysts. So, maybe part of this reflection points to the effective structures and strategies you’re already using and then helps all of us mull about how/why (explicitly) the things we do in class lead to the learning we hope to see.

  2. Good reflection points, Mike…
    Your post got me thinking of the good old days in Graduate School, and how I learned to present and write scientific papers. I remember being a part of a very nurturing peer group. No poster, abstract, oral presentation or written paper ever went from my desk to my advisor’s without some serious review by other grad students and postdocs in the lab.
    I remember the workflow, starting with my composition, through various rounds of peer review, advisor review and finally delivery.
    That’s seriously useful coaching. I am ever so grateful, and I think my advisor was grateful, too!

  3. Really interesting topic — and timely, I think. I keep hearing from faculty, across SLU and around the country, who want to know why their undergraduate and graduate students aren’t always effective communicators. One reason — one big reason — is that they often learn communication skills explicitly in one or two classes and by osmosis the rest of the time. The more we can do to make the implicit explicit — effective presentation skills or disciplinary conventions or effective teaching skills — the more intentional students can be about HOW we all do what we do and what we’re doing when we do it well. Provocative topic ….. thanks!