Embracing the Challenge: Teaching Communication Skills Online

Concurrent Session 1

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

We will outline the past, present, and anticipated future of teaching family science undergraduate students personal and professional communication skills at Western Michigan University. We hope to discover strategies and best practices from our peers in the field of online learning.


Kimberly Doudna is a faculty member in the Family Science area at Western Michigan University. She teaches a variety of courses, both online and face-to-face.

Extended Abstract

     While university students with soft skills are more employable (Finch, Hamilton, Baldwin, & Zehner, 2013), soft skills are not always viewed as a part of discipline specific knowledge (Chamorro-Premuzic, Arteche, Bremner, Greven, & Furnham, 2010). Communication skills are an example of soft skills (Chamorro-Premuzic, et al., 2010) and teaching these skills to family science students continues to be a point of pride for faculty members at Western Michigan University. Not only do faculty understand the value of undergraduates who are equipped with strong communication skills, but representatives from community agencies who sit on the Family Science Advisory Board do as well, noting that what matters to agencies is competence in personal communication, communication with families, and office communications.

     Currently, the family science program area at Western Michigan University is undergoing a shift in how communications skills are taught to students at the undergraduate and graduate levels. For nearly 20 years, instruction at the undergraduate level was heavily based on a communication model proposed by Miller and Miller (2011) and was subsequently included in the graduate level communication skills course. This model involved physically stepping on different parts of a mat on the floor while talking about an issue. While this curriculum met the needs of the undergraduate program at the time, the recent decision to offer all classes in an online format has created an opportunity for revision. Although the graduate programs will not be offered online, revelations about the source of the content in this curriculum as well as a need to simplify and streamline learning requires a similar shift. Given that the recent inclusion of an accelerated master’s program increases the percentage of undergraduate students who matriculate into the graduate program and take the graduate level course; a curriculum shift is also needed to reduce redundancy and increase rigor in this skill set.

     Presently, a number of faculty members are exploring how to update and revise the communication skills portion of the curriculum for an online learning environment. Of primary interest is the development of communication skills pedagogy using software that will allow students to engage in role-play conversations with virtual humans, along with receiving feedback and exploring different styles of communication. As a part of the overall assessment plan for majors in the program area, faculty members are working on developing measurable student learning outcomes in the area of communication skills. In the assessment plan, communication skills are measured using one assignment related to Miller and Miller’s (2011) model taught in the junior-level Intimate Relationships course. Students in Intimate Relationships learn about communication and conflict resolution strategies for interpersonal relationships, with a specific focus on martial, couple, and familial relationships. The learning objectives for communication skills emphasize students’ abilities to identify personal attitudes and behaviors, helpful and unhelpful mindsets and coping strategies, as well as styles of speaking and listening through analyzing individual emotional bidding styles and responding styles adopted from Gottman and DeClaire (2001) and practice communication and conflict resolution skills through the use of the model proposed by Miller and Miller (2011). By doing so, students are required to practice the skills and document their application of these two models on three different reports.

     In addition to the development of measurable student learning outcomes, faculty will soon analyze data provided by students to help guide our decision-making process regarding the communication skills instruction. Of particular interest is learning what students find valuable and what sorts of assignments best support their learning and professional skills. This information will support the overarching goal of preparing undergraduates to be successful in the field of family science and in their graduate education for those who pursue that route. Although this session would be most beneficial for those in Higher Ed, it is feasible to extract information from this presentation and apply it to K-12, Industry, Government and other fields. While all attendees are welcome to participate, the presenters hope to interact with experts and those at the intermediate level to help meet the goals of the presentation.

Through this discovery session, we plan to meet the following goals:

1. Provide attendees with a snapshot of how our communications skills portion of the curriculum has evolved thus far.

2. Clarify through informal conversations with attendees what our online options are and how those align with our student learning outcomes for communication skills.

3. Identify through informal conversations with attendees’ best practices in teaching communication skills that we can implement online.


Chamorro-Premuzic, T., Arteche, A., Bremner, A.J., Greven, C. and Furnham, A. (2010). Soft skills in higher education: importance and improvement ratings as a function of individual differences and academic performance. Educational Psychology: An International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology, 30 (2), 221 - 241.

Finch, D. J., Hamilton, L. K., Baldwin, R. & Zehner M. (2013). An exploratory study of factors affecting undergraduate employability. Education and Training, 55 (7), 681 – 704. DOI 10.1108/ET-07-2012-0077

Gottman, J. M., & DeClaire, J. (2001). The relationship cure. New York: Crown.

Miller, S., & Miller, P. A. (2011). Core communication: Skills and processes. Evergreen, CO: Interpersonal Communications Programs, Inc.