New Orleans, Louisiana
June 26, 2016
June 26, 2016
August 28, 2016
Liberal Education/Engineering & Society
In 2006, our university initiated a program to enhance students’ communications skills by integrating communication assignments into existing courses in each academic discipline, providing a discipline-specific support facility, and offering an incentive award to recognize outstanding achievement. To quantitatively assess our progress in meeting our goals, we have routinely employed questionnaires directed at students, faculty members, and industry panels. These instruments provided valuable data that both validate our instructional strategies and identify changes to improve the program. Although we believed our surveys to be comprehensive, evidenced by publication in various peer-reviewed venues, we wondered what other information the students could have shared with us. To gain more insights from students, we employed a qualitative focus group approach, more common in social science research, because it can elicit more detailed and varied opinions and in-depth perceptions about a selected topic.
Our first task was to define the purpose of the study and then plan a series of probing questions to gather responses from our targeted groups. Students enrolled in spring semester engineering capstone courses were randomly selected to create a pool of participants for three focus group sessions with 7-10 participants each. To encourage participation, each student received a stipend for taking part in the group sessions. To encourage students to respond freely, experienced moderators, not members of the engineering faculty or staff, guided the hour-long discussions. The moderators encouraged all students to offer opinions, respond to one another’s ideas, and to express differing viewpoints if appropriate. Sometimes, moderators asked follow-up questions or requested clarification of a comment. After the first focus group session, the planning committee reviewed the results and made slight adjustments in the questions to probe further into some topics. All sessions were recorded and then transcribed, resulting in over 60 pages of annotated text. These transcriptions were then analyzed and interpreted by the moderators and the program coordinators to identify emerging trends.
Students readily offered opinions about our communications initiatives, citing those aspects they thought were effective and others that they felt need improvement. Although some problems were obvious to us, such as facility constraints (currently undergoing extensive renovations), we were surprised to learn of other perceived program shortfalls, such as inconsistent feedback on capstone oral presentations. Because most participants had experienced at least one industry internship and a few had also completed a co-op with industry, they offered self-assessments of how well prepared they were to communicate and interact in the context of professional settings. Challenges that students most often cited were related to interpersonal communications, intergenerational differences, and selection of the most appropriate mode of communication (face-to-face, phone, email, text, formal memo, etc.).
The focus group assessment identified a number of desirable programmatic changes that previously had not, perhaps could not, have been revealed when using a more quantitative questionnaire approach. We identified potential programmatic adjustments to increase the efficacy of the communication program, mitigate discrepancies among courses, and close perceived gaps between academic and industry communication standards or protocols. We are also exploring implementation challenges posed by student-identified initiatives such as introducing more interpersonal communication opportunities.
Liggett, S., & Bowles, D., & Galeucia, A., & Hull, W. R. (2016, June), Insights from Focus Groups: A Qualitative Assessment of Students' Perceptions of Their Communications Skills Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25727
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