Addressing the Communication Performance Gap in an Online Environment through Innovation: Students' Self-perceptions of Their Ability to Communicate Effectively

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Brief Abstract

What is the best way to design a course online to help students learn effective communication that can be replicated in the workforce?  This session will describe a preliminary study of online students’ perceptions of their ability to communicate effectively and innovative strategies to engage students online with communication skills.


Deborah Mixson-Brookshire has been a full-time faculty member at KSU for more than 18 years. During that time, she served KSU students and the campus community not only as a faculty member but also as an Assistant Dean and Director of Distance Learning in University College. Additionally, she has earned several certificates, including one in instructional design. To create an engaging classroom experience for her students, Deborah incorporates innovative experiential education tools, including distance learning, to ensure students achieve course outcomes. Her publications include myriad articles focused on her research interests: experiential learning, student success, and distance learning. Her national reputation has garnered her invitations to facilitate national and regional workshops at which she has shared her research and pedagogical methods in experiential and distance learning with colleagues throughout the country. Deborah is also a frequent presenter at international and national conferences, giving presentations that share her passion for teaching, student success, and distance learning.

Additional Authors

Ruth Goldfine is a Professor of English at Kennesaw State University where she has been a faculty member and administrator for nearly 20 years. In the classroom, she draws on high-impact practices to engage students in course content and implements experiential education strategies to enhance student learning. Her research focuses on the impact of technology on learning and interventions to promote student success.

Extended Abstract

In their 2019 research study “Genre Chameleon,” Patricia Droz and Lorie Jacobs concluded that “writing is essential in the workplace for salaried and unsalaried workers alike, and it travels with employees at every stage of their careers” (p. 79). Additionally, they learned that "effective writing and communication play a large role in hiring and promotion decisions" (p, 19) and that "the primary complaint from employers and senior employees is that recent graduates 'don’t sound professional' in their emails and that recent graduates do not consider their audience" (p. 80).

The findings of Droz and Jacobs echo those published by The College Board in 2004, which stated, "writing appears to be a 'marker' attribute of high-skill, high-wage, professional work. This is particularly true in sectors of the economy that are expanding, such as services, and the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors. Educational institutions interested in preparing students for rewarding and remunerative work should concentrate on developing graduates’ writing skills" (p. 19).  Additionally, The College Board’s report stated that “opportunities for salaried employment are limited for employees unable to communicate clearly" (p. 19). 

Despite the importance of writing and communication in the workplace, as demonstrated in the research, many graduates are not prepared to meet the demands of writing in the professions, thereby creating a communication performance gap between the needs of the employers and the capabilities of the students. To assess and better understand the performance gap in students’ communication capabilities, we intentionally created a study to gauge students’ perception of their ability to communicate effectively. Based on the findings of that study, we were able to identify some of the communication challenges in the online environment and students’ perceived abilities to meet those challenges. 

According to the College Board’s study, "developing the kinds of thoughtful writers needed in business, and elsewhere in the nation’s life, will require educators to understand writing as an activity calling for extended preparation across subject matters" (2004, p. 20). Additionally, given that so many courses and potential careers are in the online environment or, at a minimum, require communication in the online environment, educators need to not only address the performance gap in students’ communication capabilities but also to ensure students possess the necessary skills to write and communicate well in the online environment in order to ensure students have the ability to succeed in their chosen professions.

To help students bridge the communication performance gap, it is imperative that we as instructors take the time to provide innovative assignments, exercises, quizzes, and/or discussion boards that offer students the opportunity to enhance and further develop their communication skills.  With the overwhelming increase in online courses, instructors teaching these courses are provided with the ideal opportunity to guide students in improving their online communication abilities. 

Given the challenges faced by our students when they enter the workforce and our awareness of the performance gap in graduates’ writing skills as observed by employers, we wanted to examine students’ perceptions of their own ability to communicate effectively. Our preliminary findings include learning whether students’ abilities to communicate align with the communication needs of the workplaces they will be entering upon graduation.  Drawing on the findings of this study and the principles of threshold concepts, we will provide direction regarding how writing assignments in the online environment can be restructured across disciplines to help students develop or enhance their communication skills and better align their capabilities with the needs of the professional communities they will join after graduating.    

Teaching in the online environment can be challenging but innovative learning design and delivery methods to further engage the students to communicate effectively can lead to student success. During our session, we will share highlights of our preliminary study and provide innovative strategies for design and delivery to guide instructors in creating activities that engage students in learning opportunities that foster effective communication. These strategies, drawing on the principles of threshold concepts, will equip participants with the ability to engage students in thinking about their ability to communicate effectively and with assessment ideas to enhance the online communication and writing skills of students in all disciplines. Additionally, we will ask participants to share their challenges and/or insights into additional assessment opportunities that help bridge the communication performance gap.


College Entrance Examination Board. College Board, 2004, Writing: A Ticket to Work . . . Or a Ticket Out.

Droz, Patricia Welsh, and Lorie Stagg Jacobs. “Genre Chameleon: Email, Professional Writing Curriculum, and Workplace Writing Expectations.” Technical Communication, vol. 66, no. 1, Feb. 2019, pp. 68–92.