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Honing Interpersonal Communication Skills for Difficult Situations: Evidence for the Effectiveness of an Online Instructional Resource

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Women in Engineering Division: Strategies Beyond the Classroom

Tagged Division

Women in Engineering

Tagged Topic


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.850.1 - 26.850.17



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Paper Authors


Amy Elizabeth Dawson Arizona State University

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Amy Dawson, M.A., is a doctoral student in the Counseling Psychology program at Arizona State University. Amy is also a research assistant for the NSF funded CareerWISE project housed at ASU.

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Bianca L. Bernstein Arizona State University

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Bianca L. Bernstein, Ph.D. is Professor of Counseling and Counseling Psychology in the College of Letters and Sciences at Arizona State University. Dr. Bernstein is Principal Investigator of the CareerWISE research program, supported by the National Science Foundation since 2006. Her over 250 publications and presentations and over $3.6 M in external support have focused on the application of psychological science to the career advancement of women and underrepresented minorities and the development of effective learning environments for graduate education.She is a AAAS fellow and has won a number of awards for her work on equity, inclusiveness and mentoring of students and faculty. Dr. Bernstein holds a bachelor’s in psychology from the University of California at Berkeley and graduate degrees in Counseling Psychology from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

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Kerrie Wilkins Arizona State University

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Kerrie Wilkins is a doctoral candidate in the Counseling Psychology program at Arizona State University. She received her Bachelor of Science in Experimental Psychology from the University of South Carolina Upstate and a Masters of Arts in Education from Arizona State University. Kerrie is a lead Research Assistant on the CareerWISE research project. Her research interest lies at the intersectionality between measurement, scale development and vocational psychology with the primary aim of promoting career advancement and persistence among women in STEM and cross cultural groups.

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Jennifer M. Bekki Arizona State University

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Honing Interpersonal Communication Skills for Difficult Situations:Evidence for the Effectiveness of an Online Instructional ResourceStudies have demonstrated the lower persistence of women compared to men in graduateengineering and science programs and the continuing shortage of women in engineering graduateprograms. One consequence of this is a gendered environment that makes communicatingeffectively, particularly in difficult situations, more challenging for women. There is evidence toshow, however, that effective interpersonal communication skills are linked to more productiveadvisor / advisee relationships and, in turn, increased persistence amongst women.The CareerWISE research group documents key sources of discouragement and support forwomen in STEM doctoral programs and offers internet-delivered personal resilience trainingtoward the goal of increasing women’s persistence in STEM fields despite challengingcircumstances. Recently, the online learning environment ( has beenbroadened to include an in-depth focus on interpersonal communication. This expanded contentincludes interactive simulations that provide training in the three critical interpersonalcommunication skills of active listening, receiving and responding to feedback, and self-expression.To evaluate the effectiveness of the new interpersonal communication focused content, aRandomized Controlled Trial (RCT) was conducted with N = 300 doctoral student women inSTEM recruited from a nationwide pool. Participants in the RCT were divided into two treatmentgroups, one that had access to the entire CareerWISE online resource, one that had access toeverything but the interactive simulations, and a wait-list control group. Key outcome measurescaptured from participants included self-reported knowledge of and self-efficacy in interpersonalcommunication skills, and ability to apply key interpersonal communication skills, with the lattermeasured two ways (a situational judgment test and free-form responses to scenarios).Comparisons based on outcome measures were made both between the two treatment groups andbetween each of the treatment groups and the wait-list control groupThe focus of this paper is on the results and implications from the RCT pertaining to theparticipants’ ability to apply their interpersonal communication skills as measured by responses toopen-ended questions. As part of the RCT, participants were asked to respond to two, short open-ended scenarios, each depicting a commonly faced interpersonal communication scenario forwomen graduate students. The first asked each participant to imagine that she’d received criticalfeedback from her advisor, and the second asked her to put herself in a situation in which she isconfused by a comment made by her advisor about another student. A scenario-based assessmentinstrument measured participant ability to describe how they would apply interpersonalcommunication skills in each scenario, and a rubric was used by trained raters to score theresponses.Results were compiled separately for each scenario. First, a one-way ANOVA showed thattreatment group membership had a statistically significant impact on the measure designed tocapture participant ability to apply interpersonal communication skills (p = 0.00 for the firstscenario and p = 0.01 for the second scenario). Follow-up comparisons were also performed toidentify statistically significant differences between each of the three groups for each scenario.For the first scenario, members of the treatment group that had access to the CareerWISE resourceincluding both the interactive simulations and written content were better able to describe howthey would apply interpersonal communication skills to a relevant scenario than members of thewait list control group (p = 0.00). Similarly, members of the treatment group that had access towritten content only (e.g., no access to interactive simulations) also scored significantly better thanmembers of the wait-list control group (p = 0.013). Finally, for both the first and second scenarios,members of the treatment group that had access to only written content scored statistically betteron the measure (p = 0.049 for scenario 1 and p = 0.001 for scenario 2) than members of thetreatment group that had access to both the interactive simulations and the written content.The paper will detail the background for the study, method, results, and implications for researchand application.

Dawson, A. E., & Bernstein, B. L., & Wilkins, K., & Bekki, J. M. (2015, June), Honing Interpersonal Communication Skills for Difficult Situations: Evidence for the Effectiveness of an Online Instructional Resource Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24187

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