In the current climate of curriculum reform in university education in Australia, there is an appropriately strong focus on graduate attributes, such that when students graduate they will not only have demonstrated their knowledge of a discipline, but they will also have the skills to use that knowledge beyond the classroom. An educational institution is now expected to define the attributes or skills that graduates will develop in their courses, and to provide evidence that all graduates will have demonstrated their capability to perform in these skills at a minimum standard. Students' capabilities to solve problems, work in teams, think and behave ethically, read, write, listen, and speak effectively are all now in the spotlight and are an institutional concern. The development of these capabilities is no longer left to the individual teacher, nor even to a cluster of teachers who are responsible for a particular course. Both the definition of the attributes and the provision of the evidence that students have reached a certain level of skill are now core business and are thus institutionalised.
The discipline of engineering was one of the earliest disciplines to embrace graduate attributes as a curriculum driver (Palmer & Ferguson, 2008). In response to the requirements of the profession, the focus of the curriculum has shifted from inputs (in terms of curriculum content) to educational outcomes (both knowledge and skills) (Palmer & Ferguson, 2008). According to some literature, the implementation of graduate attributes into engineering curricula has bought substantial improvements to engineering education in Australia over the last decade (Maier & Rowan, 2007; Walther & Radcliffe, 2007). However, there are differing views about the effectiveness of these changes. Maier & Rowan (2007), for example, cited a report from the Business Council of Australia demonstrating that engineering graduates are still not fully equipped with job skills such as "problemsolving, communication or entrepreneurship" (BCA, 2006, pp. 14). It takes time for curriculum reform to reach the workplace; meanwhile engineering faculties face the ongoing challenge of how to effectively embed graduate attributes, how to assess such attributes and how to work out ways to review the effectiveness of such innovations. At the level of classroom pedagogy, there is much to learn about the teaching of graduate attributes.
In this study we focus on a single graduate attribute--communication skills--and, even more specifically, on oral presentation skills. We report on an investigation into how the oral presentation is embedded in teaching and learning; in our case, in a final-year engineering capstone subject, designed to bridge the gap between the academy and the workplace. Our aim is to bring together various perspectives on the oral presentation task, and to examine the actual practices of students and staff in the process of presenting and assessing this task. There is a wide range of interrelated skills required to give a successful presentation; including, for example, stance, eye contact, speed of delivery and intonation, not to mention choice of content and supporting visual material. In considering what it is that makes an engineering presentation memorable or convincing, we have chosen here to narrow our focus to several strategies (related to organisation and language) that the more successful students use to convince their audience. This type of research, we argue, has the potential to improve our understanding of the links between such a task and development of the relevant graduate attributes.
In the next section, we discuss the main themes in the literature on oral presentations, and in particular in the discipline of engineering and that of science, which is closely related. It will be clear to readers that there is a diversity of views on what is considered a convincing presentation. …