Students can talk



Everyone talks about students developing writing skills when they go to college. We also talk about students developing oral communication skills, although we perhaps talk about those skills just a little bit less. But in our annual senior survey, we actually ask all Wesleyan students every year to report on how Wesleyan contributed to their development of a wide variety of skills, and oral communication is one of them. Below, we look at how Wesleyan students responded to this question about oral communication over the last ten years.


The first thing to know is that looking at data like this is a little tricky. The response rates for our senior survey vary a lot by year, so the percentages you are seeing below come from very different denominators. For example, in 2011, the response rate was much higher than it was in 2021; 540 students responded to this question back in 2011 for a response rate of 60%, compared to only 271 (48%) in 2021. In general, our response rates have been declining for all of our campus surveys, as students are inundated with many emails and requests for their times. Always think about how lower response rates affect results. When fewer students respond, who are the students who do respond and how might their responses be biased?

Second, the data suggest that (perhaps!) students are slightly more likely to say that Wesleyan contributed to their oral communication skills. From 2016 through 2019, over 40% of students reported that Wesleyan contributed “very much” to their ability to communicate well orally. Prior to 2016, that percentage tended to sit in the 30s and even as low as 29% in 2011 and 2013. Just compare the heights of the blue bars below.

However, we may want “collapse” responses here, and when we do, it doesn’t look like much has changed. If you compare the aggregate height of the yellow and blue bars — which is easy to do with your eye in a stacked bar chart like this — you will see. The percentage of students who said either “very much” or “quite a bit” is all over the place, as low as 67% in 2013 and as high as 85% in 2017 with no clear trend in either direction over time. Then taking into account the lower response rate in recent years, it’s a little difficult to come away with a strong impression that we have gotten better or worse in regards to helping students develop this skill.

Sometimes context can help us make sense of survey data like this. Below we have tried something different by sorting students’ responses to this question by their major. This is a bit tricky because Wesleyan has a lot of double majors, so in this graph double majors are counted twice, once for each major they represent. We then took the majors for which we had 50 or more students responding, anonymized the data so the public doesn’t know which departments are which, and ordered them by division (Division 1 = Arts & Humanities; Division 2 = Social Sciences; Division 3 = STEM; Int = Interdisciplinary colleges and programs). This graph begins to suggest a story we couldn’t see in the previous graph: majors may make a difference in terms of the opportunities students get to develop their oral communication skills, but divisions don’t.

Let’s get even a little more context. The chart below shows how seniors over the last 10 years responded to two other skills (quantitative and writing) alongside their responses for communicating well orally. Here, we see students’ reported Wesleyan’s contribution to oral communication as being more than its contribution for quantitative skills but less than its contribution for writing.


First: how does what students report by major align (or not) with what these majors describe as their learning goals? After all, we shouldn’t be surprised if students in majors that don’t claim to focus on oral communication report that they did not develop this skill.

Second, what do students hear when someone asks them about their oral communication skills? Are they thinking specifically about giving a formal presentation with a slide deck? Or is their view of “oral communication” more expansive? And does this understanding vary by major? How what should it tell us about how to “teach” oral communication?

Third, what do we do with all this? Are these numbers good? Bad? Would we change anything about the kind of programming or curriculum we provide Wesleyan students, based on these results?