Using Discussion Pedagogy to Enhance Oral and Written Communication Skills

By Dallimore, Elise J Hertenstein, Julie H; Platt, Marjorie B

Abstract. This research project examines students’ reactions to in-class discussion as an instructional technique by investigating the effect of participation practices on communication-based skill development. The findings provide evidence that active preparation and participation in class discussion can be linked to students’ reports of improved oral and written communication skills. Conclusions suggest that discussion can be a useful addition to cross-curricular programs (such as writing and speaking across the curriculum) and standalone courses (such as public speaking). This technique can be used in combination with other strategies. Keywords: class participation, cold-calling, in-class discussion, oral and written communication

Attempts to demonstrate the importance of the communication studies’ discipline often include appeals to the value of communication-based skills such as writing and speaking in a wide range of professional and personal contexts. The need for communication competence has motivated many colleges and universities to institute required courses designed to enhance students’ writing and speaking skills and to implement university- wide initiatives designed to integrate the development of these skills in nonwriting and speaking courses.

In addition to institutionally based efforts, many individual faculty have made writing and speaking assignments part of their regular course curriculum. Both institutions and faculty ought to consider the ways in which particular pedagogical strategies might also foster student competence in writing and speaking. Advocated as an alternative to traditional lecture-based instruction, class discussion is active and linked to the development of critical- thinking and problem-solving skills. However, one concern over the use of discussion is that if participation is voluntary, only those who volunteer and participate most frequently may obtain its benefits. As a result, researchers (Dallimore, Hertenstein, and Platt 2004; 2006) advocate encouraging a broader range of student participation through graded participation and even the use of cold- calling (i.e., calling on students whose hands are not raised) to extend the benefits of in-class discussion to all students. This study seeks to assess students’ perceptions of class discussions and to determine whether the use of this pedagogy influences students’ oral and/or written communication-skill development.

The Importance of Communication-Based Skills

Reasons for emphasizing communication range from the impact of these skills on the political process and effective citizenship (Hobson and Zack 1993) to the importance of communication skills for the success of business executives (Barnard 1938; Harlow 1957; McEwen 1998). Further, more generally, a variety of reports identify verbal and written communication skills as the most important workplace skills for employees (Bauer 1995; Howe 2003; Wayne and Mitchell 1992).

Discussions about how best to prepare students to succeed in the workplace (and to function productively in the world) raise issues about what role communication-skill development ought to play in higher education. This is certainly not a new concern. Berlin (1987) acknowledges, “No matter what else it expects of its schools, a culture insists that students learn to read, write, and speak in the officially sanctioned manner” (1).1 However, an ongoing question is how best to help students develop these skills.

Current Approaches to Writing and Speaking Instruction

Historically, writing and speaking skills have been taught in stand-alone courses. More recently scholars have discussed the relative benefits of the “centralized writing approach” (Kinheavy 1983) with more discipline-based approaches (Herrington and Moran 1992; Jamieson 1996; Morello 2000). Considerable research has focused on how best to teach writing (e.g., College Entrance Examination Board 2003; Freeman 1999; Harnett 1997; McCormack 2002; Rosenberg 1987; Savage 1992; Shook 1982; Stotsky 1999) and speaking (e.g., Haynes 1990; Huffman 1985; Lee and VanPatten 1995; Ridout 1990). There is also research (e.g., Allen and Bourhis 1996; Burk 2001; Daly and Friedrich 1981) focusing on understanding and overcoming communication apprehension (i.e., the fear or anxiety associated with communicating with others).

Communication apprehension research that focuses specifically on classroom apprehension (i.e., the fear of communicating in a classroom context) is notable (Aitken and Neer 1993; Hoffman and Sprague 1982; Myers and Rocca 2001). One such study (Aitken and Neer) focuses on “college student question-asking.” We would argue that equally important to our understanding of comfort-and to the success of communication-skill development-would be a focus on question-answering by students (e.g., student participation in class discussions). Therefore, research should not be limited to a discussion of the benefits of required writing and speaking versus disciplinebased courses that incorporate writing and speaking assignments. Researchers ought to examine how a broader range of pedagogical choices might impact the development of writing and speaking skills.2

Since oral and written communication share a rhetorical tradition (Berlin 1987; Bizzell and Herzberg 1990; Rogers 1994), examining them together also makes sense. Both focus on skills acquisition in transforming ideas into words by developing, organizing, supporting, and presenting arguments (Hjortshoj 2001; Sprague and Stuart 2003). Additionally, Hidi and Hildyard (1983) found that counter to earlier research, the “semantic well-formedness and the structural organization of the written protocols was essentially identical to that of the oral protocols” supporting their hypothesis “that the same discourse schema is used to guide the oral and the written productions of a particular genre” (103).

Skill Development through Pedagogical Choices

Whereas skill development is enhanced through integrating writing and speaking assignments in a wide range of courses, an important question is whether specific pedagogies might also be beneficial. We are interested in ways pedagogical choices contribute to skill development in less formal and more ongoing ways. For example, one strategy to enhance speaking skills would be to require students to prepare and deliver formal presentations. However, because so much of the important communication that takes place in the workplace and in the world more generally is informal, students’ communication skills should also be enhanced through more informal communication opportunities. One method for doing so is through oral participation in classroom discussion.

Class discussion has been advocated for a variety of reasons, including its inherently democratic nature (Brookfield and Preskill 1999; Lempert, Xavier, and DeSouza 1995; Redfield 2000), its emphasis on active learning (Cooper 1995; Hertenstein 1991), and its impact on the development of problem solving (Davis 1993; Gilmore and Schall 1996) and critical thinking skills (Delaney 1991; Robinson and Schaible 1993). Instructional developers suggest that compared to the traditional lecture method, discussion elicits higher-level reflective thinking and problem solving and that information learned through discussion is generally retained better than information learned through lecture (Ewens 2000). However, equally important is the role that student participation during discussion might play in communication-skill development.

Voluntary Participation Does Not Guarantee Involvement by All

Increased attention has been paid to the use of class discussion (Christensen, Garvin, and Sweet 1991; Davis 1996; Neff and Weimer 2000); however, despite support for its use, not all students are equally likely to participate, limiting the value of discussion for students (Brookfield and Preskill 1999). In discussing strategies for effective facilitation of class discussion, Davis (1993) emphasizes the importance of encouraging all students to participate, and she provides strategies for encouraging student participation in discussion (e.g., by using e-mail, assigning roles to students, or requiring each student to speak a specific number of times during a given class). Others manage participation during discussions by assigning roles in discussions (Smith and Smith 1994), using technology (Arbaugh 2000; Bump 1990), using study questions and response logs (Fishman 1997) and establishing instructor expectations (Scollon and Bau 1981). Grading class participation can motivate students to participate (Lyons 1987) and send positive signals to students about what kind of learning and thinking the instructor values (Bean and Peterson 1998). Some (Lowman 1995; Tiberius 1990), however, suggest that participation in class discussion should be done voluntarily rather than for a grade.

Despite scholars’ support for participation from a broader range of students than those who might normally volunteer, references to cold-calling as a strategy for doing so are surprisingly absent. However, several references to solicitation of nonvoluntary participation (which would fit our definition of cold-calling) are found in an edited book about teaching and the case method (Christensen and Hansen 1987).3 Dallimore et al. (2006) explicitly state that cold-calling is an effective means to increase participation and thus extend active-learning benefits to more students. Despite potential benefits, instructors’ resistance to using cold-calling suggests they may consider it harmful to students. Dallimore et al. (2006) refute the assumption that cold- calling makes students uncomfortable. Rather, they find that a classroom environment characterized by cold-calling and graded participation increases student preparation and frequency of participation, particularly among students who characterize themselves as infrequent discussion participants. They further find that these two factors lead to increased student comfort participating in class discussions.4

Certainly, students’ comfort impacts their willingness to participate in class discussion, but other factors, such as familiarity with and preparation for discussion, as well as the number of students participating, are also likely to influence participation. If, as previously suggested, participation in class discussion is linked to communicationskill development, then such factors may also influence these skills.

Research Expectations

The effect that discussion classes have on students’ oral communication may result partially from their prior experience with and attitudes toward class discussion. Students who enter a course already familiar with class discussion and liking it may find it easy to become engaged in the discussion and to participate actively. This, in turn may contribute to the development of oral communication skills. Thus we expect:

RE 1: Familiarity with class discussion prior to the course will be positively associated with students’ self-reported oral communication skills.

RE 2: Liking of class discussion prior to the course will be positively associated with students’ self-reported oral communication skills.

The acquisition of skills that transform ideas into words requires developing, organizing, supporting, and presenting arguments, and, as previously discussed, in-class discussion has been shown to support the development of these skills. When students participate frequently in the class discussion, they have more opportunities to develop oral communication skills. Thus we expect:

RE 3: Frequency of participation in class discussion will be positively associated with students’ self-reported oral communication skills.

One outcome of using cold-calling to increase the number of students participating is that students report increased preparation for the discussion class. The increased effort directed at preparation provides for the students’ own oral communication-skill development. They may develop greater insight into the issues and may better understand the arguments and counterarguments. Thus we expect:

RE 4: Preparation for class discussion will be positively associated with students’ self-reported oral communication skills.

Further, the greater the number of students participating in the discussion, the more one’s arguments are challenged. This increases the opportunity to think through problems and solutions, formulate counterarguments, and respond thoughtfully. Thus we expect:

RE 5: The number of students participating in class discussion will be positively associated with students’ self-reported oral communication skills.

Arguably, links can be made between content and process-based learning. Class discussion is a means for active learning of course content while reinforcing the skills required to engage in the discussion process (i.e., making connections, forming arguments, articulating them in spoken or written form). Therefore, as students engage in higher-order cognitive thinking (i.e., application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation) relative to course content, they are required to practice communication-based skills to demonstrate content acquisition. Thus we expect:

RE 6: Learning of the subject matter will be positively associated with students’ self-reported oral communication skills.

As previously discussed, there is extensive published research on understanding and overcoming communication apprehension to teach students how to speak and write effectively. As students are more comfortable participating in the discussion, and as they gain confidence in their ability to participate in class discussions, they may take more opportunities to develop and practice communication skills. Thus, we expect:

RE 7: Student comfort with participation will be positively associated with students’ self-reported oral communication skills.

RE 8: Student confidence about participation will be positively associated with students’ self-reported oral communication skills.

Finally, as discussed earlier, oral and written communication share a rhetorical tradition, focus on similar skill development, and are guided by similar discourse schema. Thus the expectations related to written communication are parallel to those for oral communication.


Research Design

To begin to assess the effect of pedagogical choice on skill development, a pilot study was conducted. Two questionnaires were used to examine the effects of a particular classroom environment on students’ development of oral and written communication skills. This classroom environment, based primarily on class discussion of business cases, is characterized by the extensive use of cold- calling and a heavy emphasis on graded participation. Full-time, second-term MBA students were asked during the first meeting of a required course to respond to a pretest about their experiences with and responses to class discussion. Subsequently, at the end of the course they were asked questions specifically about this particular course. The data were all gathered from one instructor’s students as no other instructor was teaching this course that term; therefore, no other sections were available for comparison purposes. Despite the limitations of this one-group pre-post design, inferences can be made about the impact of the class environment on dependent measures of interest.


This research was conducted in an MBA program, in the required management accounting course that emphasizes the development of critical thinking skills for management situations. The course focuses on typical management tasks such as analyzing the performance of businesses or managers and developing action plans. The pedagogy is primarily case discussion, although there was some use of written case analyses, student presentations, and lecture.

The instructor was an experienced case teacher with high expectations regarding student preparation and participation in class. Prior to the administration of the pretest questionnaire, the instructor stressed the importance of preparation and participation in her opening remarks on the first day of class. Students were told to expect to be called on when their hands were not raised, and the syllabus also stated, “It is only fair for me to tell you that I frequently call on students whose hands are not raised.” In addition, the syllabus stated that class participation counted for 40 percent of a student’s final grade and that:

Class participation is an essential element of your learning. Your participation grade will be based on your contributions to the class discussions, and your participation in team projects and presentations. The quality of your contributions is more important than their frequency. Quality will be judged not only by the insight, accuracy, and clarity of the comment but also by its fit into the flow and progress of the discussion.

Additionally, the instructor lists a series of questions designed to help students reflect on and evaluate their participation on an ongoing basis.5 To assess student participation, the instructor briefly recorded each student’s participation after each class session. Further, students were required to complete a self- assessment of their participation mid-semester (the selfassessment form that was used has been included as appendix A). The instructor then responded in writing to each student’s self-assessment with her own assessment (i.e., including a letter grade). Further, students were encouraged to discuss their participation feedback with the instructor and raise with her any questions or concerns they had.

Faculty members’ past observations of this instructor had noted that cold-calling was used extensively and that it exceeded the amount typical at this institution. Thus, data for this study were gathered in a single classroom environment characterized by cold- calling and an emphasis on graded participation.


Fifty-four students were present on the first and last days of class, and all returned pre- and posttest questionnaires.6 For both questionnaires, 12 respondents (22 percent) were female and 42 were male. To ensure confidentiality, students were not asked for their names on the questionnaires; however, they were asked for a PIN to enable pre- and posttest questionnaires to be paired for analysis purposes. Only half the students were able to remember and supply their correct PIN for the posttest questionnaires. Therefore, the analysis sample contained only 27 respondents. Of these, two were female, about 7 percent.7


Students were told that the questionnaires were part of a “research project on the effectiveness of students’ participation in class discussions as a learning tool.”8 To ensure candid responses, questionnaires were distributed and collected by a researcher who was not the instructor, and students were assured that the instructor would not review the questionnaires until final grades were submitted.

The purpose of the pretest questionnaire was to establish a baseline prior to the course of the students’ attitudes and behaviors related to class participation. The posttest questionnaire focused on participation frequency, preparation, comfort, and perceived communicationskill development in this course. Appendix B lists pretest and posttest questions analyzed in this study. Students responded to these questions using a seven-point Likert scale; they also provided graduate grade point average and gender. All data are student self-reported measures.9 Analysis

Descriptive statistical analysis of preand posttest survey questions was conducted. In addition, pairwise correlation coefficients will be calculated between the communication variables and the preand other posttest variables.


Descriptive Statistical Findings

Table 1 contains descriptive statistical results of student self- reported responses. As shown in table 1, respondents were knowledgeable about class discussion when they began this course. They were familiar with class discussion (5.56) and liked it (5.48). At the end of the course, they reported that their preparation level was high (6.19) and that they expected to participate frequently in this course (5.74). The results also indicate that compared to other courses, students reported higher levels of preparation (5.52), more frequent participation (5.0), relatively more comfort when they participated, (5.19), and that the number of students who participated in the class discussion was relatively higher (5.11). Further, students indicated that class participation enhanced their learning (5.43) and that their confidence about participation in future courses had increased (5.37). Finally, students’ assessment of how the course affected their written and oral communication skills were 4.70 and 4.67, respectively.

Correlation Analysis: Oral Communication

We next analyzed these data further using correlation analysis. Each variable of interest was correlated with oral and written communication. Table 2 contains the correlation coefficients with oral communication. As shown in table 2, the only variables that were not related to students’ assessment of how the course affected their oral communication skills were the pretest variables, familiarity with class discussion and liking of class discussion. Thus research expectations one and two are not supported by the data. All the other variables were significantly and positively related to oral communication skills, which confirm, research expectations three through eight. It is particularly notable that when students prepared for class discussion and actively participated in discussion within a classroom that engaged more students within the conversations, they tended to report that the course had a significant effect on their oral communication skills. Further, there was a significant positive relationship between comfort with in-class discussion and oral communication skills.

Correlation Analysis: Written Communication

A similar correlation analysis was conducted with respect to the effect of the course on students’ written communication skills. The results of this analysis are in table 3. The results are quite similar to those presented earlier for oral communication skills. The only difference is that the written communication was not related to students’ expected levels of participation for the course. With that exception, all other relationships were both positive and statistically significant, as reported for oral communication skills.

To summarize, we examined correlations between oral and written communication-skill development and many variables reported at the end of a graduate accounting course regarding preparation for class discussion, levels of participation in discussion, comfort with participation, confidence about future participation and the effect of participation on learning. The findings provide evidence that active preparation for and participation, in class discussion can be linked to students’ reports of improved oral and written communication-skill development. In this course both cold-calling and graded participation were used to ensure that all students participated in class discussions.

Theoretical and Practical Implications

We look at the value of in-class discussion, foregrounding it in the context of oral and written communication-skill development. By examining student participation in class discussions as an alternative, or addition, to more formal speaking and writing assignments, we are extending the literature regarding what counts as an explicit tool with benefits to students’ communication-skill development.

Further, this pilot study supports the argument advanced by Hidi and Hildyard (1983) that written communication and oral communication require the same discourse schema and skills. Here we have some evidence that an informal approach to communication through the use of class discussion has an effect on the students’ perceptions of communications skills and that a single pedagogy can positively impact skill development in both writing and speaking.

This study suggests that an individual’s comfort (i.e., fear, anxiety, apprehension, etc.) during class discussion is associated with a significant effect on both oral and written communication. Further, the number of students participating in the discussion also impacts students’ perception of both oral and written communication development.

Prior research (Dallimore, Hertenstein, and Platt 2006) has shown that preparation and frequent participation increase students’ comfort with participating. Cold-calling and grading participation are two means to encourage preparation and to increase participation frequency. These techniques also provide ways to increase the number of students participating in the discussion (thereby increasing the range of student voices that are heard and perspectives that are shared). Increasing the number of students participating may also increase students’ comfort as participation may be seen as something to be done by every student, not just a few. However, the relationship between the number of student participants and comfort is one that remains to be explored in future research.

Additionally, future research might seek to measure the impact of in-class discussion on actual student learning, including written and oral communication-skill development. While this pilot study begins to address the connection between individual pedagogies and communication-skill development, our conclusions are based on students’ self-assessment of their communication-skill development; an objective measure of any actual improvement in students’ communication-based skills would further enhance the conclusions reached here.

This research, however, adds to the ongoing discussion about the relative value of writing and speaking cross curricular programs versus specific writing and speaking courses for overall communication-skill development. It further suggests that current programmatic and curricular efforts might be missing an important opportunity to develop communication-based skills through individual pedagogies such as in-class discussion (in this case, using cold- calling and graded participation). One advantage of such an approach is that these classroom strategies, regardless of course content or level, can be identified and implemented.



1. It should be noted that some researchers (Berlin 1987) argue that there is a renewed focus on writing (and speaking) that may be due to “reasserting the centrality of rhetoric to the humanities tradition,” (Kinheavy 1983, 14) something not seen, according to Kinheavy, since the middle of the eighteenth or the beginning of the nineteenth century.

2. This is supported by research by Dwyer (1998) that examines the impact of learning styles on communication apprehension and communication-skill development.

3. Hansen (1987) discusses the practice of an instructor beginning a case discussion by “calling on a student ‘cold,'” in which she defines “cold” as “without previous warning” (134). Rosmarin (1987) discusses her experiences as a participant in a seminar in which different students were asked to lead off each class session’s discussion by presenting an analysis of an assigned case. She notes “because we did not know in advance who would be called on, we all came prepared” (235). A less direct form of what we would call cold-calling is described by Frederick (1987), who discusses the technique of asking all students to prepare one or two questions about their reading prior to coming to class, which they may then be asked to share at the beginning of a class session.

4. In addition, student preparation and frequency of participation are also associated with students’ experiences prior to a course, such as their familiarity with class participation, their liking of class participation, how frequently they generally participate, and their prior expectations of participation in this course.

5. The questions included in the syllabus for use by students to help evaluate their class participation on an ongoing basis include the following:

* Are the points made relevant to the discussion in terms of increasing everyone’s understanding and moving the discussion forward, or are they merely a regurgitation of case facts?

* Do the comments take into consideration the ideas offered by others earlier in the class, or are the points isolated and disjointed? The best class contributions reflect not only excellent preparation but also good listening, interpretative and integrative skills.

* Do the comments show evidence of a thorough reading and analysis of the case?

* Are you willing to interact with other class members by asking questions, answering questions, challenging conclusions, or engaging in dialogue? 6. The questionnaires are available from the authors on request.

7. Because of the potential for response bias, mean values for pre- and posttest items between the full sample and the analysis sample were compared using t-tests. The analysis of mean responses for pre- and posttest variables did not yield any significant differences between the full sample of 54 respondents and the analysis sample of 27 students for whom pre- and posttest responses were matched. Thus, the potential for response bias appears to be low.

8. To avoid biasing the responses, neither questionnaire used the phrase “cold-call” nor did they refer in a general way to calling on students whose hands were not raised. Similarly, the questionnaires did not ask about graded versus ungraded participation. Further, the researchers who administered the questionnaires specifically did not mention cold-calling or graded participation. Two pretest questions related to evaluating participation: “In general, my achievement in class participation has been (Low or High)” and “Have you ever taken a course where class participation was a graded component? (Yes or No)”

9. Because of the need for anonymity and confidentiality of response, no course work data such as actual class participation behavior or course grades were available for analysis.


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Elise J. Dallimore is an associate professor of communication studies with a joint appointment in the College of Business at Northeastern University. Julie H. Hertenstein is the Harold A. Mock Professor of Accounting and Sam and Nancy Altschuler Fellow in the College of Business at Northeastern University. Marjorie B. Platt is a professor and group coordinator of the Accounting Group in the College of Business at Northeastern University.

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