We are constantly pushing to learn new skills that affect how we interact in the real world. We learn to drive on the road with other vehicles, negotiating real situations. We learn to talk, play football and apply for employment, in real-life situations. We are motivated to learn these skills: driving gives us freedom to travel; we want to talk to be understood; we learn to play football for enjoyment and we learn the best ways to approach employers – because we need employment. Motivation to learn and immersion in ‘real life’ situations are both crucial elements in learning core skills.

Communication - a core skill 

People often say they can communicate well, and they can, in the situations they are familiar with. But what about when they need to learn new communication skills? To enter a workplace where the demands are different? It can be difficult to motivate students to develop these skills and they may not always see the reason for doing so.

What we need are opportunities where students are motivated and presented with ‘real life’ opportunities to practice working on these communication skills – Work Based Projects give us this opportunity. 

I teach on a distance learning engineering course at Teesside University: students are employed in engineering, learn through web based materials and communicate with their tutors using email and telephone. The course requires students to conduct a project in their workplace to bring about change. Most distance learning students have a lot of industrial experience; they know their jobs well but lack formal qualifications and are rarely given the opportunity to carry out higher level work. Students are keen to show their employer their abilities; they may want recognition, more interesting work or promotion. Students own their projects – it is their idea. It is their opportunity to demonstrate that they can work at a high level and they are motivated to perform well. This motivation provides a huge opportunity to develop students’ communication skills.

To formulate a project the student needs to discuss their idea with their employer; they need to persuade their employer that the project is worthwhile. When agreed with the employer the student submits a project proposal to their tutor, setting out the background, aims and objectives of the project. This is a challenge as the student needs to explain a workplace which is unfamiliar to the tutor. Students often use jargon or abbreviations without explanation, make assumptions about the tutor’s knowledge, use a mixture of tenses and grammar styles and use long rambling sentences. Project objectives are often unclear, setting vague project aims such as ‘to improve the production process’. In reality, the objectives need to be more specific and measurable – how much will it improve it? At what cost?

Projects require students to communicate with departments and external companies which they would not normally encounter. Many student projects have brought about real change in the workplace and recognition or promotion for the students skills. The employer recognises the benefits of these projects and cooperates with the process, bringing industry and education closer together.

The student writes a project report including summary, background, aims and objectives, results and discussion/recommendations. The student then presents the project to his/her employer or tutor.

I have found that students learn most effectively when they can apply their knowledge to real problems.

Throughout the project, students discuss progress and submit drafts to their tutor for comment and discussion. This may take many drafts, but by setting high standards we can take advantage of the student’s motivation to persist and develop the student’s skills. The rate of progression in the student’s ability and confidence to communicate during projects is very high – the combination of high motivation and assistance from the tutor produces an environment for rapid learning.

We need to recognise the unique benefits which can be gained from work based projects in developing communication skills. We need to take advantage of student motivation and the chance to carry out ‘real life’ projects to leverage this opportunity for the development of communication skills.

David is a graduate mechanical engineer with experience in manufacturing and design. He has an MA in Education and has worked in technical education, both in the UK and overseas.