Faculty Today

Communication skills – talk the walk

This post is part of the Aspirations to Action series created as a follow-up to the Teaching What’s Important Symposium.

Whatever the end goal may be – whether it is to inform or raise awareness, establish trust or get support – communication is as important a skill as any. Learning how to address an audience, to inspire, to engage, and to hit a nerve will also help students organize their ideas and think about how these ideas could affect the world. And sometimes it is just good to know how to best explain debt financing to a botanist… It’s not enough to know the material; knowing how to adapt your message to a particular audience is also important. So what are some of the ways to make sure that our students develop such communication skills? Here are a few McGill examples….


At the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, Prof. Terry Hébert asks his students to read a scientific article and produce a one-page summary in the form of an op-ed for the New York Times.  These summaries must be written in a manner that communicates science to a general audience.  The first two op-eds receive feedback from the instructors; the remaining piece is presented to a panel of lay reviewers. Combining both written and oral presentation skills, this strategy also inspires creativity, as it requires students to process and mold scientific material into a more user-friendly form. For more information on this assignment, check out the Online Writing Toolkit.


Prof. Tina Piper at McGill Law teaches communication skills also as a means of self-reflection and critique. Students are asked to develop educational programs on Canadian copyright laws. They are asked to create an artifact (e.g. a podcast, a lesson plan), present the program to a mixed audience (public, faculty and course attendees), and submit a final report detailing the program development process, reactions from the audience, the perceived effectiveness of the program, and overall reflections on group work.


Another example, combining both the op-ed and self-reflection strategies, is Prof. Rosalie Jukier also at McGill Law: her students write an op-ed on a timely and relevant topic, and then respond to one another via short letters to the editor. Prof. Jukier provides her students with guidelines for writing op-eds, offering examples of op-eds written by other professors at the faculty. Students are assessed on the choice of topic, and effectiveness and clarity of communication. The short letters to the editor encourage students to think about their own work, as well as the work of their peers, and how effectively it communicates the subject matter to a wider audience.   For more info on this assignment, check out the Online Writing Toolkit.

Filipa Pajević, Graduate Student Assistant, Teaching and Learning Services. PhD Student in Urban Planning, Policy and Design

For more information on the TWI Symposium please consider the following links: TWI Report and Storify.

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