Chapter 4: Role of soft skills in engineering education: students' perceptions and feedback – Enhancing Learning and Teaching Through Student Feedback in Engineering

4

Role of soft skills in engineering education: students' perceptions and feedback

Mousumi Debnath, Mukeshwar Pandey, Neelam Chaplot, Manohar Reddy Gottimukkula, Pramod Kumar Tiwari and Suresh Narain Gupta

Abstract:

It can be argued that soft skills are vital in virtually every workplace today, regardless of the domain. This chapter outlines research undertaken to analyse the role of soft skills in engineering education. The study was conducted at the Jaipur Engineering College and Research Centre, a leading technical institute in India. In this study, a personal report of communication apprehension (PRCA) instrument was used on a sample of 101 students to measure their soft skills. Overall, it was found that students realised the need to enhance their soft skills since it would give them a 'competitive edge' when seeking employment. The PRCA prompted students to reflect on the need to develop team skills and interpersonal skills. No significant difference was found between the attitudes of male and female students. The detailed findings of the study are presented in this chapter.

Key words

soft skills

engineering students

communication skills

public speaking

student feedback

Introduction

Soft skills play an important role in shaping the personality of an individual by complementing his/her hard skills. Today's employers increasingly demand engineers who not only are competent in their field of specialisation but also possess adequate soft skills (Hillmer, 2007). These include: teamwork capability, communication, professionalism, ethics, problem-solving, lifelong learning and self/time/project/conflict management.

A serious lack in soft skills among engineering graduates has been noted by employers as well as educators (e.g. Zaharim et al., 2009). Research suggested that there is a shortfall in important skills being developed among university students such as: communication, decision making, problem solving, leadership, emotional intelligence and social ethics (Nair et al., 2009). Communication skills have been cited most frequently, followed by knowledge of business or project management. For example, recent concern in this regard was expressed by the British Association of Graduate Recruiters (BAGR), which reported that:

Employers say many graduates lack 'soft skills', such as team working.

BAGR went on to explain that candidates are normally proficient academically, but lack soft skills, such as communication, as well as verbal and numerical reasoning (British Association of Graduate Recruiters, 2007). Pauw et al. (2006) supported this claim by arguing that poor communication skills tend to make a negative impression on employers during recruitment and may exclude a graduate (with good technical skills) from being selected for employment. The medium of communication in Indian higher education institutions and industries is English. Many Indian graduates, for whom English is their second language, may be perceived to express their ideas very poorly in English.

Thus, for many Indian engineering students it is important to acquire adequate soft skills, including communication skills (in English), that will make them more employable, in addition to the technical skills that they acquired in higher education. This presents a challenge for engineering education to develop lifelong learners (their students) and also to bridge the perceived gap between the changing engineering practices, employers' expectations and the engineering curricula.

There are several observations relevant to the perceived lack of soft skills development. First, most first-year male engineering students report a high level of confidence in their own ability in both technical subjects and subjects developing soft skills (Bestergfield-Sacre et al., 2001; Felder, 1995; Leslie et al., 1998). Second, these young students are reported to experience difficulty in taking advice from parents and teachers (Lloyd, 1998). It also seems likely that, as teachers, engineers may fail to respond to students' attitudes and may not be equipped to teach topics such as teamwork and presentation skills in an accessible manner (Pulko and Parikh, 2003).

Hard and soft skills

Hard skills are those technical skills that are required for a specific profession (Zaharim et al., 2009). For example, in the case of a mechanical engineer, the hard skills would be the professional's knowledge of and ability with machines; for a software engineer, it would be his/her level of proficiency with a programming language. On the other hand, soft skills are not that easy to define. Soft skills such as leadership, negotiating, listening and conflict mediating are as important as hard skills for today's global workforce (Smith, 2010).

The importance of soft skills

There is no doubt that hard skills are essential to perform an engineering job competently and efficiently. A blend of both is needed for professional success as an engineer (Hannon, 2003). Ethaiya and Mangala (2010) argue that soft skills are learned behaviours which enable all students with a strong conceptual and practical framework to build and develop their overall personality and enhance their career prospects (see Figure 4.1). They determine an engineer's attitude towards his/her work, organisation, clients and colleagues. Soft skills are not just limited to the professional workplace, but the need for them also extends to other spheres of life, for example society and family. These skills are not just about communicating, but include the ability to manage stress, to organise and to provide solutions. Most of the time the importance of soft skills is ignored, and is not given adequate attention by engineers while developing their technical or hard skills. Engineering education in India often does not concentrate on these essential soft skills. The curriculum tends to ignore the fact that an engineer will be working in a team, reporting to someone else, writing reports, dealing with work pressures, giving presentations, etc. In all such situations, along with technical skills, an individual's experience and maturity tend to play an important role (Hannon, 2003; Ethaiya and Mangala, 2010). Although there is consistent evidence in the literature of the need for both soft and hard skills in engineering education, there is little in terms of understanding the student experience in terms of the learning skills they believe they need for their future employment in India. This chapter presents a case study of how the Jaipur Engineering College and Reseach Centre (JECRC) attempted to explore student perspectives in this area.

Figure 4.1 Various roles played by soft skills

Communication skills

In India, an engineering graduate's success in on-campus recruitment is mainly based on their demonstration of effective communication skills. This takes many forms, such as: speaking, writing and listening, though its purpose is always to convey a message to the recruiters who are interviewing the students. Most students are not 'industry ready' because they lack communication skills (Infosys, 2008). Communication skills are an essential component of an engineer's education, and establishing competence in this field should be considered to be a fundamental component of engineering education (Patil and Riemer, 2004).

The parties in the recruiting process may have different wants, needs and attitudes. These can present barriers and thus block success for the student (Bovee and Thill, 2010). Martin et al. (2005) also reported that graduates felt that, overall, they were well prepared for work in industry. They perceived their strengths to be their technical background, problem-solving skills, formal communication skills and lifelong learning abilities. Areas of weakness were also identified. These included: working in multi-disciplinary teams, leadership, practical preparation and management skills. Students should be trained in the skills which recruiters look for during on-campus recruitment. Based on the assumption that if students are helped to overcome their communication apprehension (communication apprehension is defined as an individual's level of fear or anxiety associated with either real or anticipated communication with another person or persons), they will then be able to develop their communication skills better and thus efforts by trainers to develop the students' employability will be more effective.

A range of methods can be used to improve the communication skills of engineering undergraduates. These methods can be grouped into five main types (Martin et al., 2005):

 writing

 speech

 symbolic gestures

 visual images

 multimedia

Teamwork capability

The soft skills cannot replace the deep technical knowledge of an engineering specialist. However, they are essential if the engineer is to carry out his/her work effectively (Lennartsson and Davidson, 1997). One of such skills is team working. How can we provide feedback that is helpful to team members? How can we develop students' confidence in their teamworking skills?

Research conducted over the past 30 years may offer some answers to these questions. It suggests that the development of any skill is best facilitated by allowing students to practise it and not just by talking about it or demonstrating what to do (Woods, 1993, 1995; Bandura, 1982). There is a need for effective leadership. It is argued that to be an effective team leader, an individual needs to:

 Ensure that everyone on the team is working towards agreed, shared objectives.

 Be able to criticise constructively.

 Continuously monitor the activities of the team members by obtaining effective feedback.

 Constantly encourage and organise the generation of new ideas within the team.

 Always insist on the highest standards of execution from team members.

 Develop the individual and collective skills of the team, and seek to strengthen them by training and recruitment.

The following section examines student perceptions on their soft skills and the need for developing these in a study conducted by the JECRC.

Student feedback

Generally, feedback from students can be used as a measure of teaching effectiveness and also for other aspects of student experience. Using regular student feedback can encourage, enthuse and enhance teaching practice as well as students' educational experiences. When collecting feedback, it is important to consider areas of professional competence (knowledge, skills, communication and attitudes) and also to seek feedback from multiple stakeholders on multiple occasions. This study demonstrates that feedback and evaluation from students is highly valued as a way to enhance the educational outcomes for both teachers and learners.

This study has utilised a range of survey techniques to collect student feedback. These included:

 posted questionnaires

 one-to-one interviews

 focus groups

 student panels

Ensuring good feedback requires that the survey technique is properly used and well suited to the task. It should also allow input from the students where they should be given the chance to comment on the fairness of the feedback and to provide explanations. At the same time it should also involve attentive listening and focus on a positive attitude.

The study found questionnaires to be the most usual and effective type of feedback.

Background to the case study

JECRC, located in the state of Rajasthan, is one of the leading technical institutions in North India. It offers a four-year undergraduate degree programme (Bachelor of Engineering) in the following disciplines:

 Electronics and communication engineering

 Electrical engineering

 Computer science and engineering

 Biotechnology engineering

 Information technology (IT)

 Mechanical engineering

JECRC nurtures the essence of growth in education and its holistic approach focuses on the overall development of its students.

The research bureau of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) identified that industry considers oral communication to be the most important soft skill for future careers, followed by written communication and team work. To evaluate the importance and potential of soft skills, ASSOCHAM conducted a survey and published their findings in a PRCA (Berger et al., 1984; Shumaker and Rodebaugh, 2009) (see Appendices 4.1 and 4.2 for details of this questionnaire). This questionnaire forms part of the study reported in this chapter.

Supporting the need for the study conducted at JECRC described in this chapter was the outcome of mock interviews of the on-campus recruitment conducted by the present authors. The interviews revealed some interesting trends. For example, a student's academic performance could not be directly correlated with their technical skills (hard skills) and practical skills for a number of the students. This was also true for the correlation between teamwork, oral and written communication skills and performance in on-campus recruitment. The literature suggests that hard skills contribute to only 15 per cent of one's performance, while the remaining 85 per cent is made up of soft skills (Crosbie, 2005; Ethaiya and Mangala, 2010). Most employers want to hire, retain and promote employees who are dependable, resourceful, ethical, self-directed and communicate effectively.

Method utilised to investigate the level of soft skills in JECRC students

On the basis of enthusiasm and willingness, 101 undergraduate engineering students from the fourth year of the programme were randomly selected to complete two questionnaires. The first questionnaire required the students to comment on the perceived role of soft skills in their career growth and also in their life in general. The second was based on a PRCA which was used to measure communication apprehension. The performance of each student in soft skills, namely: group discussion, public speaking, interpersonal and communication skills were self-evaluated. The students were given a brief explanation of the aims of the study, but were not told that the results would also be analysed for gender bias. The students were asked to grade each item using a five-point Likert scale (5 = strongly agree, 4 = agree, 3 = neutral, 2 = disagree, 1 = strongly disagree).

Soft skills in career growth: student and facilitator perspectives on enhancing soft skills

In this survey, students were asked to rank the following soft skills in ascending order according to their preference:

 oral communication

 written communication

 teamwork

 research/report writing skills

 analytical ability

 decision making

 fluency in second language

 information management

 time management

 leadership

 networking

 presentation skills

 multi-tasking

 planning

 IT skills

The latter part of the PRCA questionnaire (see Appendix 4.1) comprised questions which related to the students' opinions on the impact of soft skills on their personal and career development. A majority of the students believed that soft skills impacted on their personal and career development.

Findings

The feedback from students suggests that most of them believed that they were weak in report/research skills, information management, fluency in second language, networking, IT skills and the ability to multi-task. Most of them believed that they were good at team work, analytical ability, decision making, oral and written communication, leadership and planning (see Figure 4.2). While 25 per cent of the students perceived and ranked their oral and written communication as weak, 18 per cent evaluated their analytical ability and decision making as weak.

Figure 4.2 Student ranking of their soft skills

Students' suggestions for enhancing their soft skills

A range of comments were received from students suggesting how their soft skills should be enhanced. Student responses are discussed below, according to individual questions in the survey.

1. Can you suggest in what ways would you improve your communication skills?

A significant number of students wanted to improve their fluency in English and their hesitation in speaking. Some students suggested that participating in group discussions and conducting mock interviews would be helpful. Other suggestions included: reading newspapers and novels, listening to the news in English and presenting views in front of an audience. Some also believed that enhancing knowledge and awareness might boost their self-confidence and reduce their reluctance to speak.

2. Can you suggest some ways in which to increase your confidence?

One student, for example, suggested that participating and interacting in various events, organising events and taking part in mock group discussions and interviews can help to increasing confidence. Some others suggested becoming involved in leadership work. Students also emphasised the value of writing research papers and presenting them at conferences. Another suggestion was to create an encouraging and healthy competitive environment that could boost confidence levels. The most common suggestion was to create opportunities for frequent discussions of common topics in groups.

Communication apprehension

The assessment of engineering students' communication apprehension was based on the PRCA questionnaire. The questionnaire looked at the following four areas:

 group discussion

 meetings

 interpersonal communication

 public speaking

The students were required to indicate the degree to which each statement applied to them (see Appendix 4.2 for the detailed questions).

The overall PRCA scores were in the range 24–120. Less than 50 meant low communication apprehension and above 70 was interpreted as high communication apprehension.

Figure 4.3 shows the overall communication apprehension of the 101 students who completed the PRCA questionnaire. Their mean value of communication apprehension was 64.0. The highest score was 91 and the lowest 35. The standard deviation was 12.3.

Figure 4.3 Overall communication apprehension of respondents to the PRCA questionnaire

Figure 4.4 reports the PRCA scores of the sample group. Only four out of 101 students (3.9 per cent) reported low communication apprehension; 65 students (64.9 per cent) reported a medium level of communication apprehension and 32 students (31.9 per cent) reported a high level of communication apprehension. The results suggest that more than half of the sample group had high levels of communication apprehension.

Figure 4.4 PRCA scores of the sample group

The mean value of communication apprehension in public speaking was also calculated in the following four areas: group discussion, meetings, interpersonal and public speaking (see Figure 4.5). The results in this instance suggested that students had high levels of apprehension about public speaking thus indicating that students needed more training in public speaking (oral presentation) skills.

Figure 4.5 Mean value of communication apprehension

Apprehension in group discussion

The analysis related to the group discussion showed that 21 students reported low levels of apprehension about communicating, 46 reported a medium level of apprehension and 34 were very apprehensive in this area (see Figure 4.6).

Figure 4.6 Analysis of student communication apprehension in group discussion

Apprehension in meetings

The analysis of the group discussion dimension showed that only 25 students had a low level of communication apprehension, 41 had a medium level, and 35 had a high level of apprehension about meetings (see Figure 4.7).

Figure 4.7 Analysis of student communication apprehension in meetings

Apprehension in interpersonal communication

In terms of interpersonal skills, the results showed that 19 students had low communication apprehension, 50 had a medium level of apprehension, and 32 students were very apprehensive about interpersonal communication (see Figure 4.8).

Figure 4.8 Analysis of student communication apprehension in interpersonal communication

For the domain of public speaking, six students indicated a low level of apprehension, 48 students indicated a medium level and 47 students a high level of apprehension (see Figure 4.9).

Figure 4.9 Analysis of student communication apprehension in public speaking

PRCA on gender basis

Of the 101 students who participated in the questionnaire, 73 were male and 28 female. Statistical analysis was carried to investigate the difference between male and female student responses. Two independent t-tests were carried out to compare the differences in a range of parameters, such as, group discussions, meetings, interpersonal situations and public speaking. The tests showed no significant difference between male and female samples over all the parameters. As the sample size varied in both groups, 28 male students were randomly selected, and then compared with 28 female students. This also showed no significance.

Strategies used to enhance soft skills

As a result of this student feedback, a 20-day soft skills programme was implemented to overcome the communication apprehension found among most of the fourth-year engineering students at JECRC. The programme incorporated the following modules:

1. Business communication skills:

– English language enhancement

– the art of communication

2. Intrapersonal and interpersonal relationship skills:

– intrapersonal relationships

– interpersonal relationships: how to be an effective team player

3. Campus to company:

– corporate dressing

– corporate grooming

– business etiquette

– communication media etiquette

4. Group discussions, interviews and presentations:

– group discussions

– interviews

– presentations

5. Development of entrepreneurial skills:

– goal setting

– entrepreneurial skills: awareness and development.

Each module consisted of 16-hour blocks, including an interactive classroom session. Students were also given tasks and assignments for routine evaluation.

In the group discussion classes, students were divided into groups, and several mock group discussion sessions were conducted. The students were asked to give a three-minute talk as a diagnostic test on a general topic and were marked on the following criteria:

 confidence level

 effective communication

 appropriate body language

 comfort in handling questions

 self-assessment

At the end of their presentation, the students were also asked about their feelings before and while giving their oral presentations. More than 60 per cent of the students scored less than 50 per cent and they attributed their poor performance to a lack of exposure and practice. 40 per cent of the students said that it was their first experience of speaking in front of an audience.

In the PRCA analysis, the mean value of communication apprehension in public speaking was the highest in the categories group discussion, meetings and interpersonal communication. It was found that, in most cases, the students' PRCA in public speaking and their performance in the diagnostic speaking test matched with each other.

Special emphasis was given to English language enhancement. Facilitators were carefully chosen to act as counsellors, communication skill consultants and soft-skill trainers. Students were given training in both oral and written communication. Focus was on the places where students were weak, and hence personal or individual training needed to be improved. To overcome the communication apprehension, three stages were proposed:

1. group sharing

2. one-to-one sessions

3. learner-centred training

Interactive sessions by randomly selecting the groups were also proposed.

Students were only trained only in group discussions and public speaking. They were asked to actively participate in group discussions and speak on informal topics in front of the class. The outcome was very positive and encouraging. The students also felt that mock interview sessions were very effective in increasing their confidence and overcoming their fear of speaking in front of an interview board.

Conclusions

The importance of soft skills when seeking employment has significantly increased in recent times. It is essential to acquire these skills along with technical skills. This chapter discussed a survey on student perceptions of the importance of soft skills for their future employment. It outlined how soft skills can complement hard skills. The main objective of the study described here was to identify the deficiencies in soft skill development among engineering students and propose ways of addressing these deficiencies. This chapter has further highlighted the value of student PRCAs and their suggestions of how these should be addressed. Analysis of data showed no significant difference between male and female students in a range of parameters of group discussion, meetings, interpersonal, public speaking and PRCA.

However, the approach utilised by JECRC had some limitations. The authors found that soft skill enhancement modules were not popular with the engineering students. Some students were, for example, reluctant to attend and others claimed that some modules were irrelevant to them or that they had already covered the topics. The data confirmed that most of these students were male and they exhibited more confidence in their own technical and soft skills. Student feedback helped the authors to explore and build awareness among students of the impact of soft skills in their career as well as personal development.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank the management of JECRC for their support and the final-year students who, directly or indirectly, helped to provide information and feedback regarding their soft skills.

Appendix 4.1 importance of soft skills from students' perspective

1. Please rank the soft skill in ascending order of your preference:

Soft skill Rank/preference
Oral communication
Written communication
Team work
Research/report skill
Analytical ability
Decision-making
Fluency in second language
Information management
Time management
Leadership
Networking
Presentation skill
Coping with multiple tasks
Planning
IT skill

Which of the above skills are perceived to be important but are scored low by you during higher education?

2. Soft skills should be enhanced/learned during higher education.

    Yes   No 

3. Individual personality plays an important role in acquiring soft skills.

    Yes   No 

4. Soft skills are decisive during recruitment.

    Yes   No 

5. Certification is not an end in itself. Soft skills do matter.

    Yes   No 

6. Soft skills help to advance in your career.

    Yes   No 

7. Soft skills empower you and create opportunities.

    Yes   No 

8. Soft skills not only improve your career, they also offer personal growth.

    Yes   No 

9. Should you work on communication and leadership?

    Yes   No 

10. Soft skills help you grow beyond money motivation.

    Yes   No 

Suggestions

11. Can you suggest some improvements in yourself to increase your communication skills?

    ...............................................................................................................................................

    ...............................................................................................................................................

    ...............................................................................................................................................

12. Can you suggest some ways to bring some improvement in yourself to increase your personality and confidence level?

    ...............................................................................................................................................

    ...............................................................................................................................................

    ...............................................................................................................................................

Appendix 4.2 personal report of communication apprehension

Please indicate the degree to which each statement applies to you by marking whether you: strongly disagree = 1; disagree = 2; are neutral = 3; agree = 4; strongly agree = 5

No. Statement Score
1. I dislike participating in group discussions
2. Generally, I am comfortable while participating in group discussions
3. I am tense and nervous while participating in group discussions
4. I like to get involved in group discussions
5. Engaging in a group discussion with new people makes me tense and nervous
6. I am calm and relaxed while participating in group discussions
7. Generally, I am nervous when I have to participate in a meeting
8. Usually, I am comfortable when I have to participate in a meeting
9. I am calm and relaxed when I called upon to express an opinion at a meeting
10. I am afraid to express myself at meetings
11. Communicating at meetings usually makes me uncomfortable
12. I am relaxed when answering questions at a meeting
13. While participating in a conversation with a new acquaintance, I feel very nervous
14. I have no fear of speaking up in conversations
15. Ordinarily I am very tense and nervous in conversations
16. Ordinarily I am calm and relaxed in conversations
17. When conversing with a new acquaintance, I feel very relaxed
18. I'm afraid to speak up in conversations
19. I have no fear of giving a speech
20. Certain parts of my body feel very tense and rigid while giving a speech
21. I feel relaxed while giving a speech
22. My thoughts become confused and jumbled when I am giving a speech
23. I face the prospect of giving a speech with confidence
24. While giving a speech, I get so nervous I forget facts I really know

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