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Educational communication is an umbrella term that encompasses all speaking, listening, and relational constructs and concepts that relate to learning. In the past, researchers have been interested in characteristics of teachers that enhance or hinder learning; student characteristics that increase or inhibit learning; teaching strategies that augment learning; how best to give criticism of student writing and speeches; how best to evaluate student work; how public speaking is best taught; and what should be taught in speech communication and media curricula (Staton-Spicer & Wulff 1984). More recent work has expanded to the effects of media on children, child development processes, and the use of pedagogical methods and newer technologies to facilitate classroom or distance education (Waldeck et al. 2001). This article includes discussion of some of the major and fairly consistent lines of research and findings that have emerged over the years.
The speech communication discipline began as a group of teachers interested in how best to instruct students in the basics of public speaking (Wallace 1954). Interest in how to teach new and different facets of the field emerged on a regular basis in the academic journals as interest grew in public speaking, rhetoric, persuasion, and debate, and later in group, interpersonal, nonverbal, intercultural, health, organizational, and family communication. As early as the first issues of the Quarterly Journal of Public Speaking (now the Quarterly Journal of Speech), first published in 1915, scholars were interested in how best to teach or coach debate, parliamentary procedure, oral interpretation/drama/theatre, and high school and college speech classes, as well as how best to organize departments and regional associations. Scholarly concern about K-12, undergraduate, and graduate curricula, as well as the effectiveness of the basic college communication course and speech across the curriculum, also abounded. With the addition of the journal Speech Teacher in 1952 (the title was changed to Communication Education in 1976), a forum for educational issues gained prominence in the National Communication Association (then called the Speech Association of America) and the profession at large.
Likewise, early interest in journalism education (O’Dell 1935) later extended to radio, television, electronic media, advertising, public relations, and new technologies. Organizations such as the Broadcast Education Association (BEA) and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) typify scholarly interests in how best to teach broadcasting, journalism, and other media-oriented classes. This latter area expanded over the past few decades into using television as an instructional device, with or without an instructor present, and the effects of media content on children. More recent interest has been in the use of new technology in the classroom or in place of a classroom.
Paralleling these interests were studies focused on how teachers can communicate better in the classroom and contribute scholarship in the education area. But the traditional lines of research in communication education seemed to be confined to more classroom-oriented teaching/learning effects, ones that help enhance individual communication competence, enable advanced learning, allow civic, economic, and social participation in society, and empower people to become more self-reflexive and responsible for their actions and choices when interacting with others of the same or different cultural heritages.
Current Research Interests
Over the years, various literature reviews and review articles in the educational communication area have identified some of the major dimensions of the field. Rubin and Feezel (1986) reported priority and sufficiency ratings for various research topics in the field, which were grouped into three main dimensions: speech education (now communication education), instructional communication, and communication development. Although several other models have been proposed (see Staton-Spicer & Wulff 1984; Waldeck et al. 2001), the dimensions are compatible with the three described below.
Communication education focuses on what is taught in communication classes (and programs), how the topics are chosen, methods of transferring knowledge to students, and how best to evaluate student learning either in the classroom or through out-of-class assignments. From the early days of criticism research (Is feedback best given right after the speech? Is it more effective when given orally or in writing? How can teachers best grade and critique journalistic writing?) to current assessment concerns about K-12 or college program effectiveness and student public speaking competence, attention has focused on communication classroom content, evaluation, and teaching methods (Rubin & Daly 1999).
Teaching communication classes is one important focus of communication education. Probably because the discipline realizes how important communication in the classroom is, most undergraduate and graduate programs offer classes in how best to teach various communication classes (often in addition to those offered in education programs that cover basic teaching principles) in K-12, college undergraduate, graduate, speaking across the curriculum, and basic course settings. Topics such as the role of student talk, classroom strategies, lecturing, discussions, small group projects, and assessment are often covered. Such training helps new teachers enter the profession with a greater understanding of what and how to teach.
Vangelisti et al. (1999) have compiled a manual for teachers that summarizes research and best practices for teachers, as well as providing hints for newcomers to the communication profession and teaching in general. Guidelines for preparing specific communication classes, as well as suggestions for organizing content and selecting instructional strategies, are also provided. In addition, chapters deal with unique teaching assignments such as a multiple-section basic course, directing debate, two-year institutions, distance education, and extended learning. This volume is often used when training new college-level communication teachers. A similar volume is available for communication administrators (Christ 1999), and a variety of textbooks and handbooks exist for high school teachers, as well.
Recent advances in technology have seen past interest in the use of television in instruction move to interests in distance learning and computer-assisted instructional technology in the classroom. For instance, teachers are increasingly being drawn to whiteboards, LCD projectors, and presentation software (e.g., PowerPoint) to communicate in the classroom, as well as to course organization programs (e.g., Blackboard, WebCT) to manage the many aspects of teaching, learning, and assessment. Although lectures enhanced by visual technology have consistently produced greater learning, results are mixed for the superiority of traditional vs web-based vs web-assisted instruction.
Whereas communication education focused on how to teach speech and related communication classes (e.g., broadcasting, interpersonal, group, journalism, public relations), instructional communication, a broader term, concentrated on how teachers can better communicate with students in the classroom, no matter what the subject (McCroskey & McCroskey 2006). McCroskey et al. (2004) have identified two general approaches to instructional communication, rhetorical and relational.
The rhetorical approach portrays teachers as influence agents of students, people who engage in a form of one-way persuasion in the classroom. Teachers select what will be read, plan the assignments to be completed, and give information in the classroom. This traditional model of instruction views the teacher as demonstrating a particular communication style, one that should demonstrate elements of good Aristotelian rhetoric: delivery, memory, invention, style, and disposition.
The relational approach comes mainly from interpersonal communication and examines how teachers interact, share understanding, and develop relationships. Elements of teacher and student personality characteristics, concern for students, socialization into the profession, classroom questioning and interaction patterns, and interaction motives are examined. Also examined are barriers to effective instruction, such as teacher misbehaviors and aggression, student incivility and resistance, and other nonfunctional interaction behaviors.
Teachers who are clear and make their content relevant structure their messages to achieve greater understanding. Research on teacher clarity shows that care in explaining concepts and use of lecture cues leads to reduced receiver apprehension, improved student affect for teachers and course material, greater motivation to learn, and greater perceptions of learning, whereas dysfluencies, tangents, and vagueness decrease student satisfaction and learning.
In the classroom, teachers use questions to lead discussions and assess whether or not learning is taking place. Several different types of questions lead to different types of assessments. For instance, recall questions assess memory, whereas summary questions assess ability to synthesize. Researchers have provided teachers advice on how best to include questions in the classroom, how questions can increase student achievement, how student answers correspond in level to the types of questions teachers ask, how much wait time is appropriate between asking the question and receiving an answer, and the effective use of rhetorical questions.
Along the same lines, teacher influence has been examined in literature focused on classroom power, mentoring, teacher credibility, and classroom management techniques. Teachers exert power in the classroom in several ways. Teachers can punish students (i.e., use coercive strategies) for misbehaving, reward them for behaving in acceptable ways, enact legitimate power in classroom management, use referent power to enhance student identification with them, and increase expert power through increased credibility and authority. Teachers use various classroom management techniques to take charge of the learning environment, and reward-based techniques tend to work far better than punishment-based ones.
This rhetorical interest in teaching style and classroom management converges with communication education for those involved in teacher training (in communication), mentoring, and classroom management. Teachers provide protégés with academic, career, and social support mentoring.
Researchers have studied other communication behaviors used by teachers in the classroom and their effect on student affective, behavioral, and cognitive learning. Teachers who are assertive and responsive are seen as more effective, credible, and competent. Assertive teachers are confident in the classroom; they ably facilitate class discussions, manage the classroom environment, and clearly are in charge. Responsive teachers show concern for students’ well-being and learning and provide support and comfort when needed.
Teacher verbal (e.g., use of “we,” more self-disclosure, informal names, etc.) and nonverbal (e.g., use of smiling, head nods, eye contact, touch, etc.) immediacy tends to result in greater student motivation and liking for the teacher and subject taught. Teachers use other affinity-seeking strategies in the classroom, as well. For instance, researchers have found that those who display physical attractiveness, trustworthiness, dynamism, and sensitivity, elicit disclosure, and listen tend to be seen as more credible, and students are more motivated to learn. Teacher self-disclosure also can increase immediacy and affinity, and affect teacher clarity, especially when humor is incorporated. However, the disclosures must be related to the subject matter and not be seen as inappropriate for the classroom. Teacher humor must also be seen as appropriate in order to be effective at motivating students to learn; offensive humor, disparaging humor targeting students, disparaging humor targeting others, and self-disparaging humor are seen as disruptive and demeaning.
These and other teacher behaviors can lead to feelings of significance, value, and confirmation in students, by which students feel empowered to learn just through teacher– student interaction. Additional forms of teacher–student interaction include teacher-provided emotional, informational, instrumental, appraisal, and instructional support inside and outside the classroom; moreover, teachers confirm students through their responses to students’ questions, interest shown in students, and teaching style. Students need to feel as though teachers are concerned about their learning and well-being, and this is done through effective teacher–student interaction.
Furthermore, researchers have examined classroom student–teacher interaction when they have looked at motives for communicating with teachers (both inside and outside the classroom), clarifying techniques used when students do not understand what is communicated, and classroom questioning patterns and interaction. Students often seek direct communication with teachers to gain additional information or have material explained more fully (functional reasons), but they also interact to provide excuses for inadequate work, to make a favorable impression on the teacher, to get to know the teacher on an interpersonal level, or to show their level of involvement in the class. Teachers provide feedback on the level of student achievement through oral or written criticism of speeches, papers, debates, group projects, and the like, in the classroom and privately to individual students. Thus, interaction is seen as a direct influence on student learning and skill development.
All in all, the student–teacher relationship can be seen as a professional working interaction in which teachers hone their interpersonal communication skills in hopes of developing relationships that enhance student learning. In the classroom, teachers lecture, lead discussions, assess student progress, and give feedback and instructional support. Outside the classroom, they motivate, mentor, advise, tutor, and provide emotional and instructional support.
Although speech/language pathologists are more concerned with the development of speech and language in children, communication researchers have also been interested in language and skill development and environmental factors that might impact students’ growth. Three main areas of development research are communication apprehension, skill development and communication competence, and the impact of the media on skill development.
Communication apprehension (CA) is one area that combines the rhetorical interests from the instructional communication area with development. CA is the fear, anxiety, worry, nervousness, or lack of confidence that people have when speaking with others, either one-on-one, in a small group, or in a public setting. Much of the research in this area has asked people to report on the level of anxiety they experience in various communication environments.
Some studies have considered the trait–state nature of CA. A trait orientation presumes a stable personality trait, one that endures across all sorts of situations, whereas a state orientation presumes a less permanent, but trainable condition. Because measures of the two orientations are highly correlated, discussion continues as to its etiology. Treatments for state apprehension include systematic desensitization, skills training, and cognitive modification; all have been found effective.
A variety of specialized forms of CA exist in the communication literature. Early interest in the public nature of oral discourse was linked to the concept of stage fright from theatre. Performance in front of an audience – especially a large audience where one is very conspicuous – can increase the anxiety of the situation for many speakers. This evolved into interest specifically in public speaking anxiety in both small and large settings, which again is more situational. Reticence, on the other hand, is seen as a condition of skills deficit, which can be decreased through careful analysis of goals and planning of actions. Concentrated effort to improve communication skills is seen as the best way to reduce communication incompetence.
As mentioned earlier, one of the main goals of communication education has been to increase communication skills. Although this interest stems from the time of Aristotle and Plato, concern in the past century has focused on, first, public speaking, and then communication in both interpersonal and mediated environments. Most definitions of communication competence acknowledge the necessity of communication to be both effective in accomplishing its goal and appropriate for the situation, audience, place, and time. In addition, motivation, knowledge, and skill are three basic elements (Spitzberg & Cupach 1984). Educators have attempted to identify important skills – message construction, persuading, informing, relating – that can be enhanced through instruction and that can be reliably assessed. Through this feedback, students can later reflect upon and critique their own communication outside the classroom.
Research studies incorporating student traits such as motivational orientations toward communication – reticence, shyness, stage fright, willingness to communicate, public speaking anxiety, compulsive communication, receiver apprehension – and communication competence demonstrate the importance of self-concept and self-efficacy in skill development. Students who think that they are capable of improvement tend to be more open to instruction and growth.
Teachers who focus on improving students’ speaking and listening skills, perceptivetaking abilities, and social interaction skills need to understand developmental levels, learning styles, and how to deal with nontraditional and at-risk students. They also need to study the impact of environmental factors – television viewing, video games, and social networks – at various age and developmental levels.
Impact of Educational Media
Two major lines of research have examined the impact of educational media on learning. First, interest in all forms of educational media has led to examination of the programs shown and how learning occurs from this content. In particular, children’s programming has been scrutinized to determine how much learning takes place when children watch programs designed to teach them basic skills. Children’s Television Workshop (and its production of Sesame Street) epitomizes the concern existing in both academia and the television industry about how children learn and factors that enhance this at home or in class. In addition, media literacy programs have been created in school systems to teach children (K-12) and college students how best to critique media messages and understand the commercial nature of the media.
The second line of research has examined the use of media in education. From the early days of instructional radio and television, when programs were produced to replace, supplement, or complement in-class instruction, educators have been interested in how prepared media can enhance learning. Today, PowerPoint, whiteboards, LCD projectors, and other software and hardware technologies are commonplace in instruction, and concern focuses on whether the technology enhances or diverts learning efforts. Computer technology, course organization programs such as Blackboard, and digital video have allowed educational institutions to offer classes to students at home.
Recent Developments in Methodology
Despite the large array of research designs effective for educational subjects (Campbell & Stanley 1963), most research in communication education has relied on correlational designs. Examinations of relationships between teacher qualities (or perceived qualities) and student learning outcomes or feelings are prevalent in the discipline’s journals (Kearney & Beatty 1994). Student learning is often measured as level of agreement with statements such as “I feel like I’ve learned a lot from this instructor” or other perceptions of gains in cognitive learning, but most often as affective learning (how much the students like the teacher, subject, or class).
For example, some recent areas of interest are teacher qualities that are related to student learning. Assertiveness and responsiveness, i.e., socio-communicative style, concern, affinity-seeking behaviors, immediacy, and the use of humor in the classroom are strongly related to self-reports of learning, whereas teacher misbehaviors and teacher anger are not. Students who feel that their teachers confirm them and care about them enough to encourage out-of-class communication report that they are more satisfied, motivated, and knowledgeable.
Another area of current interest in instructional communication focuses on student qualities. For instance, reasons why students communicate with their professors inside and outside the classroom (e.g., by email) have been linked to student liking of the teacher and perceived learning. Sometimes additional factors might influence conclusions that can be drawn about such a direct effect of one variable on another. Accordingly, motivation to achieve/learn, learning style, sensitivity to feedback and punishment, and learner empowerment are seen as important moderating variables in classroom instruction. Research designs that include such variables give a better picture of the complicated influence of teachers on students.
All in all, learning has been one of the most significant dependent variables. Allen et al. (2004) reported that most indicators of learning (in which distance is compared to classroom) have used exams scores and course grades. However, some studies have dealt with satisfaction, finding lower satisfaction in distance format than in the traditional classroom format (Allen et al. 2002). However, in communication literature, we see many measures of affective and cognitive learning that are based on student perceptions and feelings rather than objective measures.
Another dependent variable has been skill enhancement. Speaking ability and communication competence have received a great deal of attention, especially the measurement of these. Also, decreases in apprehension have focused on how intervention can make a difference in reducing anxiety and communication apprehension of students, thereby leading to greater skill and competence. Several measurement techniques, developed from the variety of perspectives that surround this literature, provide an indication of student anxiety levels.
Meta-analysis has allowed researchers to combine datasets into more meaningful summaries of study results (Gayle et al. 2006). By clustering results from several studies, power to draw valid conclusions is increased. This is especially important in educational communication, where researchers necessarily employ pre-experimental designs in classroom settings to investigate predictors of learning outcomes.
Over the years, many suggestions have been made for future research directions for communication education researchers. Some of these have been thoroughly examined, and others are more contemporary concerns. For example, educators have been concerned with teacher education for many years, but with the increase of technology use in the classroom, we cannot expect such concern to wane. As Shelton et al. (1999) noted, computer technology at all levels of education has changed the nature of the communication classroom. Journalism students no longer pound out news stories on manual typewriters, and speech students are expected to enhance their presentations with electronic media products. Furthermore, when teachers move from the role of information presenter to that of guide, coach, motivator, or facilitator, the nature of communication will change, especially when highly evolved interactive multimedia technology is involved.
Effectiveness of distance education most likely will emerge as a related topic, again as the variety of interactive channels increases for interaction with students.
Other trends have been to examine the interactive teaching/learning environment and the use of teams in the classroom (Shelton et al. 1999). Much of the research in the past 20 years has actually examined the teacher–student communication environment, identifying communication behaviors that can enhance learning. This interaction has become more mediated through use of email, bulletin boards, chatrooms, blogs, and other out-of-class opportunities for interaction.
Another upcoming interest will be about culturally centered environments comprised of a multicultural student body. Knowledge of second-language learning, intercultural relationships, and cultural indicators will be important for teachers of all subjects, including communication.
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