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Developing and assessing interpersonal skills

The crucial role of context to the teaching, learning and assessment of interpersonal skills is one of the key messages from researchers speaking at ACER’s Research Conference 2019.

The 21st century skills movement attempts to identify and promote the key skills that will support people to successfully apply their learning to the world beyond their schooling. The importance of interpersonal skills, and the challenges in developing and assessing them, will be explored at ACER’s Research Conference 2019 in Melbourne in August.

Speaking ahead of the conference, ACER Principal Research Fellow, Neville Chiavaroli said that skills in the interpersonal domain go by many names, such as collaboration, cooperation, teamwork, empathy, and verbal and non-verbal communication. He highlights the strong influence of context, including cultural context, on developing and assessing these skills.

‘Good interpersonal skills involve insight, understanding, and the kind of social awareness that helps one determine what might be an ‘appropriate’ response in a given situation. There can be no set rules for determining this, much to the frustration of teachers and students alike,’ Chiavaroli said.

According to Victoria University Research Fellows Esther Doecke and Quentin Maire, a lack of evidence on how students build interpersonal skills makes it difficult to determine how best to teach them. They suggest the development of 21st century skills in schools is most likely to be nurtured by deliberate approaches to teaching and learning, where students are given rich and varied opportunities and contexts within which to improve them.

Doecke and Maire note that students’ collaborative skills are considered as increasingly important to solve complex problems, and that this link offers a way to incorporate the skill into teaching and learning.

‘Results from the PISA collaborative problem solving assessment suggest that social activities, safe and supportive school environments and physical education can play an important role in helping students collaborate,’ Doecke and Maire said.

In terms of how interpersonal skills can be assessed, Chiavaroli, Doecke and Maire point to three methods currently used within education contexts: self-report, direct assessment in a simulated task, and teacher observation and judgement.

‘Different methods of assessment tap into different aspects of a construct and provide a fuller perspective of student achievement,’ Doecke and Maire said.

Chiavaroli advises educators to resist the temptation to simply reach for the most common or convenient assessment format available. Drawing on his extensive background in medical education and assessment, he says three key considerations to be made are: (1) how the skill is conceptualised; (2) the contextual basis of the assessment; and (3) the importance of authenticity.

‘In the field of medical education, the concept of empathy has become central to representing the particular interpersonal understandings and skills expected of students and practising doctors,’ Chiavaroli said.

‘Medical education’s attempts to enact authentic, aligned and valid assessments of empathy can provide a useful example for school classrooms faced with the challenge of assessing the interpersonal skills of students.’ ■

Further information:

Neville Chiavaroli, Esther Doecke and Quentin Maire will be speaking at Research Conference 2019, addressing the theme, ‘Preparing students for life in the 21st Century: Identifying, developing and assessing what matters’, from 4-5 August at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. Download the conference proceedings.

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