The distinction between the natural sciences and the arts is omnipresent in the way that students are educated, in high school as well as at university. This makes sense, the topics that are examined are different in such a way that the methodology asks for different skills. This causes quite the cultural difference. What effect does this have on the way that academic skills that are necessary for both parties (such as writing, presenting and arguing) are taught?
Academic communication skills are seldom a course in itself, they are generally part of courses about topics in the field. This means that the basic academic communication skills that every student obtains can differ immensely, depending on the field. For science and arts students, communication skills are mostly methodology, but both disciplines ask for a totally different approach. In the arts, you won’t be able to state facts and be done with it: multiple points of view from secondary literature have to be discussed. The natural sciences ask for less discussion but there is a larger focus on factualities. This automatically asks for a different style of communication and this enlarges the cultural difference between the arts and the natural sciences. This does not benefit interdisciplinary science or future collaboration in business.
Non-communicative science students?
At TrainTool, we notice that social studies take communication skills very seriously. Of all the students that learn how to interview, present, coach or pitch on our platform, 64% comes from the social sciences. The arts (25%) and natural sciences most of all (11%) are vastly outnumbered. Of course, the stereotype of male science students lacking social skills but not lacking glasses is a huge exaggeration that we could blame American television for (The Big Bang Theory, anyone?). The same goes for the stereotype of female arts students being irrational dreamers. But because these two groups of students are not famous for their communication skills, it’s striking that they are trained (online) the least in this respect, as they are on opposite ends of the spectrum.
The importance of feedback
It’s important for all students to learn how to adjust their communication to the style that their discipline requires. This becomes even more important in interdisciplinary collaboration, because you have to be able to let go of the usual norm. The same flexibility is expected of those that leave academia and go into business: in order to communicate well with colleagues or clients from a different discipline, you have to be able to switch between different registers of communication. Sarah North showed that this flexibility is not something that all students have mastered. So, how can a university make sure that, for example, science students develop a presentation style that will be valued in interdisciplinary research or in their later career?
It all comes down to practice and feedback. Practicing different communication techniques safely can be done with video role plays, for example. These can be done on a PC or smartphone. Teachers who use this method encourage students to give each other feedback within the app. Students share their recorded reactions on role plays (a presentation, for example, or a job interview question) with their fellow students. This does not have to stay within one course: ask an arts student to give a science student feedback and the other way around. The more diverse the group of students, the more they will learn from each other.
At Utrecht University, mutual feedback proved to be a success in online interview training: students mentioned that they learned a lot from each other. Read the case study below!
1 North, Sarah, ‘Different values, different skills? A comparison of essay writing by students from arts and science backgrounds’ Studies in Higher Education 30 (2005), 517-533.