Basic Course & General Education

The basic course . . . is perhaps the original and most enduring pedagogical element in the communication discipline.

The Basic Course is significant to the Communication discipline. As Valenzano, Wallace, and Morreale (2014) noted, "The basic course . . . is perhaps the original and most enduring pedagogical element in the communication discipline. It is and has always been, after all, some version of training in oratory . . . It is no surprise that with its Western roots, American higher education recognized the importance of communication to varying degrees throughout its history" (p. 356).

The National Communication Association reaffirmed its commitment to the Basic Course when it endorsed a resolution recognizing the inherent value and necessity of Communication within General Education; similarly, NCA committed to providing resources and information for leaders and teachers of the Basic Course. The materials within the categories below are intended to assist NCA members in fulfilling their duties in developing, teaching, administering, and advocating for the Basic Course.

According to the NCA Basic Course Division, the Basic Course focuses on teaching fundamental communication skills and theory to undergraduate students. On many campuses, this course meets a General Education requirement and is taught to non-major and major students. For many students, this course is their first exposure to the discipline and is typically either a Public Speaking class or a Foundations of Oral Communication class, which can include interpersonal, small group, and public speaking units. Other courses might include Interpersonal Communication, Small Group Communication, Business and Professional Communication, or Intercultural Communication, to name a few.

Most faculty gain their first teaching experience in the Basic Course while they are in graduate school. This course promotes opportunities for faculty and graduate students to teach, research, and assess communication. The Basic Course also provides an opportunity for faculty to gain administrative and leadership experience.

The links below provide an overview of the role of the Basic Course in the Communication discipline, the role of the Basic Course in General Education, and the historical significance of the Basic Course.

What is the role of the Basic Course in the Discipline?

Since the birth of the Communication discipline in 1914, the Basic Course has served as the foundation upon which the field has developed. For many undergraduate students, the Basic Course acts as their first exposure to the study of communication. For many faculty and administrators, the Basic Course offers opportunities for employment and professional development.

What is the role of the Basic Course in General Education?

According to Joseph M. Valenzano III of the University of Dayton, the Basic Course plays a significant role in undergraduate student academic success, professional development, and personal growth. At most, but not all, schools the basic Communication course is a central component of the General Education program. With that placement come three roles the course can and should play. First, the course often provides the only training students receive in oral communication, a skill identified by employers as one of the most important they seek when making hiring decisions. Second, the course offers an opportunity for students to see how their education in other departments and majors can manifest through their use of communication skills, thus making the Basic Course one of the few General Education courses that connects material from their entire education. Third, the course is both a recruiting ground for potential new majors by exposing them to the interesting and vast nature of our field, as well as the financial backbone of many departments.

What is the historical significance of the Basic Course?

The content taught in the Basic Course is rooted in the rhetorical traditions dating back to Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates, and Quintilian, among others. In 1956, Donald Hargis conducted the first study on the state of the Basic Course; this evolved into a series of studies conducted every five years since 1970 on the trends, issues, and challenges associated with teaching the course.

  • Weaver (1976)/Directing the Basic Communication Course
    This article discusses the role that the Basic Course Director plays in the administration of the Basic Course. Weaver offers practical tips and suggestions for how the Basic Course should be organized and administered, and provides several recommendations for developing the criteria to be used when hiring a Basic Course Director.
  • Valenzano, Wallace, & Morreale (2014)/Consistency and change: The (r)evolution of the Basic Communication Course
    This article explores the evolution of the Basic Course, beginning with the early traditions and trends in oral communication instruction in ancient Rome and Greece and ending with the curricular issues encountered by the Basic Course during the 20th century. Valenzano et al. focus extensively on the relationship that began in the 1960s between General Education and the Basic Course that still is in existence today. As the Basic Course moves into the 21st century, they encourage researchers and practitioners to continue examining the role that the Basic Course plays in General Education requirements in higher education.

The Basic Course is customized to fit the needs of the students and General Education requirements of each institution, so there is no single course that functions as a one-size-fits all course across all universities. However, there are some core competencies that should be considered in the Basic Course alongside institution-specific requirements, regardless of the context in which the course is taught.

When designing the Basic Course, instructors should begin by considering the learning outcomes, and then design the curriculum and assignments in order to scaffold student development and achieve those outcomes. Concomitantly, a textbook should be selected that will best support the course.

The links below provide an overview of NCA’s Core Communication Competencies, discuss aligning the course objectives with General Education requirements, highlight exemplars of how the Basic Course has been designed at several universities, describe textbook selection options, and explain some common modes of delivery for the Basic Course.

What core communication competencies should the Basic Course address?

The 2013 NCA Task Force on Core Communication Competencies identified seven competencies that students enrolled in any Basic Course should be able to achieve. These seven core communication competencies are Monitoring and Presenting Your Self, Practicing Communication Ethics, Adapting to Others, Practicing Effective Listening, Expressing Messages, Identifying and Expressing Fundamental Communication Processes, and Creating and Analyzing Message Strategies.

How can course objectives be aligned with General Education requirements?

As Professor Emeritus Isa N. Engleberg of Prince George’s Community College notes, introductory communication course objectives effectively align with General Education requirements when: (1) the institution’s General Education goals are generic (e.g., inquiry and critical thinking; communication, teamwork, and problem solving; intercultural awareness; information literacy) and (2) the introductory communication course’s objective are applicable across contexts. For example, the objective Demonstrate critical thinking in researching, developing, presenting, and responding to argument in persuasive speeches may be more effective and applicable without the phrase persuasive speeches in it. Objectives such as Demonstrate effective listening strategies and skills in various communication contexts and Use critical thinking skills to develop, analyze, and evaluate messages apply to all types of introductory courses and also dispel misperceptions by other faculty members and administrators that all we do is study and teach public speaking or offer simplistic, unrelated, context-limited courses. To align objectives with General Education requirements, it is necessary to ensure that course objectives reflect the expressed core competencies needed and/or advocated by higher education associations, employers, and the complex cultures in which students live and work.

How has the Basic Course been designed?

Historically, the Basic Course has been designed to focus on one of four content areas: public speaking; foundations of oral communication, which can include interpersonal communication, small group communication, and public speaking units; interpersonal communication; and small group communication.

  • Public Speaking
    This course introduces students to the study of speech fundamentals and critical thinking through frequent public speaking practice, including setting, purpose, audience and subject.
    Additional Syllabi
  • Foundations of Oral Communication (hybrid)
    This course examines various principles underlying effective communication in the interpersonal, public speaking, and small group contexts. This course presents principles to help students develop appropriate and effective communication strategies in one-to-one and small group communication settings. This course places emphasis on analyzing and assessing the communication skills necessary to create and sustain effective communication in personal and professional relationships.
    Additional Syllabi
  • Principles of Oral Communication (hybrid)
    This course introduces students to the relationship between communication and democratic life in contemporary and historical contexts. Specifically, it will define and discuss the importance of communication skills in achieving mutual understanding, not necessarily agreement. This course will provide students with the opportunity to demonstrate effective and ethical dialogic communication, structure messages that deliver complex information to non-experts, effectively advocate a position, and critique the messages of others. These skills are important for developing and being an active participant in a diverse and democratic community.
  • Interpersonal Communication
    This course introduces student to topics such as the development of the self-concept, perception, language, nonverbal communication, and conflict management. Students participate in various graded and ungraded communication exercises designed to increase students’ interpersonal communication competency in family, social, and work environments.
    Additional Syllabi
  • Small Group Communication
    This course introduces students to the small group communication process through service learning. Through lecture, group projects and presentations, and individual assignments, students develop an understanding of the small group communication process and learn how to communicate effectively when working in a small group.
    Additional Syllabi

How do I select a textbook for the Basic Course?

Textbook selection can be an individual decision or a committee decision; it also can be made by a Basic Course Director or Department Chair. Regardless of who selects the Basic Course textbook, it is important to consider the options available, as well as the protocol that can be used to guide textbook selection.

  • Options for textbooks
    Several options exist for textbook selection. One option is to select a textbook that has been written by an expert or team of experts in the content area, published by a nationally known publishing house, and used at colleges and universities across the United States. A second option is to select the same textbook as described in the first option, but to modify it. That is, instead of using the textbook as it has been published, some textbook content is retained while other textbook content is deleted, replaced with material from another source, or revised for a particular student population. A third option is for an author or group of authors to write a textbook that contains content targeted specifically toward a student population. Labeled as a custom textbook, this practice of textbook selection is becoming increasingly popular as it allows instructors to select the specific content that they want their students to learn. Consider that while many instructors require their students to purchase or rent a hard copy of the course textbook, it is not uncommon for some instructors to ask their students to purchase an e-copy of the textbook.
  • Sample protocol for selecting a textbook
    Selecting a textbook can be an arduous process for those individuals who have yet to do so. To facilitate textbook selection, consider the protocol for textbook selection written by Joseph M. Valenzano III of the University of Dayton and adapted by Melissa Broeckelman-Post of George Mason University.

What are some common modes of delivery for the Basic Course?

There are four common modes of delivery for the Basic Course. The first mode is face-to-face, which is the traditional mode used to teach the Basic Course. In this mode, classroom instruction is delivered by instructors who meet with their students in a classroom for a pre-determined amount of time. The second mode is lecture-lab, where students first attend a mass lecture delivered by their instructor, after which they are assigned to a small group (typically anywhere between 20-25 students) led by an instructor (often times a graduate teaching assistant, or GTA) who engages in more individualized instruction. The third mode is a hybrid that incorporates face-to-face instruction with some element of online instruction. The fourth mode is a fully online course, where all classroom instruction occurs asynchronously between instructors and students.

Effective administration is critical to the success and sustainability of the Basic Course. Often, faculty are assigned to direct or coordinate the Basic Course with little to no training on how to successfully administer the course. This lack of preparation can be problematic when challenges or threats arise. Even for experienced Course Directors, leading and managing the Basic Course presents some unique obstacles. Effective Basic Course leadership can make or break the course and determine its future on any given campus.

Administering the Basic Course can appear to be a daunting task. However, with a clear understanding of the role and expectations of the Course Director, administration of the course can be a rewarding and fulfilling experience. Many Basic Course Directors have achieved tenure and promotion in their role through effective leadership and administration of their program.

The links below provide information on the responsibilities and expectations of the Basic Course Director, departmental resources for support of the Basic Course, and information designed to help Basic Course Directors achieve tenure and promotion.

What are the responsibilities and expectations of Basic Course Directors?

Cheri J. Simonds of Illinois State University explains the specific duties of a Basic Course Director as these duties are organized around five categories: Advocacy, Curriculum Development, Training, Assessment, and Management & Leadership.

Suzy Prentiss of the University of Tennessee conducted a survey to obtain a more detailed understanding of the role of Basic Course Directors and the Basic Course itself across all levels of institutions of higher education. Specifically, the project examined five key questions:

  • What are the roles and responsibilities of a Basic Course Director?
  • What classes are housed under the responsibilities of the Basic Course Director?
  • What training/supervision/and resources are provided for Instructors of the basic course(s) and are those provided by the Basic Course Director?
  • What is the job title/rank of the Basic Course Director?
  • What training/resources/support would be helpful for Basic Course Directors to fulfill their roles?

What resources should departments provide to support the Basic Course?

Jon A. Hess of the University of Dayton believes that resource needs vary widely based on the nature of the course, particularly between those programs taught using a common syllabus and staffed with GTAs and adjunct instructors versus those programs taught independently by full-time faculty. At a minimum, a Course Director/Coordinator is needed, and that person—preferably a ranked faculty member—should get a course reduction. Beyond that, financial support for instructor training (e.g., pre-semester workshops, teaching conference attendance) and potentially GTA or adjunct instructor support for rigorous assessment are helpful when possible. Additional financial support for director development (e.g., attendance at the Basic Course Director’s Conference), course materials (e.g., recording equipment), or other needs can help strengthen a course considerably.

How can Basic Course Directors successfully achieve promotion and tenure?

Cheri J. Simonds of Illinois State University discusses her tenure and promotion experiences and offers advice and counsel for Basic Course Directors seeking tenure and promotion.

The Basic Course usually has the highest enrollment and largest number of sections in a Communication Department, so there are often many instructors with varying levels of experience teaching the course. In many M.A. and Ph.D. granting departments, the course is taught primarily by graduate students who are trained and supervised by a Basic Course Director. In departments that focus primarily on undergraduate teaching, the course is often taught by full-time faculty. Across all types of institutions, departments often rely on part-time or adjunct instructors to teach the course, sometimes with little or no preparation time before the semester begins.

The training and ongoing instructional development needs of instructors vary depending on the experience of the instructors who are teaching the course, so training programs should be tailored to best meet the needs of those instructors. Because the training for this course often includes graduate students and new instructors who are the future faculty of the discipline, it is imperative that departments invest time and resources into the training and development of their instructors to ensure the sustainability of their Basic Course program.

The links below share training schedules and an overview of the topics and activities for training programs from several M.A. and Ph.D. granting universities. These schedules serve as examples of what Basic Course Directors might want to consider including in training and development programs.

What do Basic Course training programs include?

Because M.A. and Ph.D. students sometimes have different amounts of teaching experience when they begin their graduate programs, their training needs vary.

M.A. Programs

Ph.D. Programs

As the higher education landscape changes, Basic Course Directors often need to work to change and adapt the Basic Course so that it remains relevant to students, administrators, campus partners, and constituents. Thus, strengthening, supporting, and sustaining the Basic Course is integral to ensuring the future of Basic Course classes and programs, communication departments, and Basic Course Director and instructor positions.

Sustaining the Basic Course can involve participating in formal professional development opportunities such as the Basic Course Director’s Conference and the Basic Course Institute, connecting with Distinguished Faculty Award winners and leaders in the NCA Basic Course Division, replicating best practices from Program of Excellence and Program of Distinction Award programs, and providing appropriate training for graduate students who are interested in becoming future Basic Course Directors.

The links below provide resources for Basic Course Directors and instructors seeking information on sustaining the Basic Course, including professional development opportunities, best practices from expert Basic Course Directors and award-winning Basic Course Programs, and recommendations for preparing potential future Basic Course Directors.

What are some professional development opportunities for Basic Course Directors?

Basic Course Directors and instructors have professional development opportunities that are appropriate for training and developing new and experienced Basic Course Directors and instructors. These opportunities provide a space for Basic Course Directors and instructors to connect with others who have experienced similar challenges on their campuses.

  • Basic Course Directors Conference
    This conference started in 1962 as a meeting of the Big Eight schools (Colorado, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Missouri, and Nebraska) plus the University of Iowa and Colorado State University. Today, the Basic Course Directors Conference is an annual conference typically held in the spring that highlights what Basic Course Directors and Basic Courses do well and how Basic Courses and Basic Courses are constantly evolving and improving.
  • NCA Basic Course Director Summer Institute
    This institute addresses the need for developing quality administration of the basic course in communication departments around the country. It is designed to appeal to current and future Basic Course Directors and help fill the “training gap” by developing skills for those faculty responsible for this important course in areas such as course design, assessment, supervision and training, campus and community advocacy, and other issues often encountered when directing the basic course. The first Institute was held at the University of Dayton in 2014.
  • ECA Bi-Annual Basic Course Conference
    This conference is held in odd numbered years during the first day of the ECA Annual Convention.

Who are some expert Basic Course Directors?

The Distinguished Faculty Award recognizes a current or former Basic Course Director or instructor who has demonstrated a commitment to the Basic Course in any format; made significant contributions to the development of a strong Basic Course program through research, training or assessment; or provided evidence of teaching excellence in the basic course over a prolonged period of time.

  • Distinguished Faculty Award Winners
    • William J. Seiler, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
    • Cheri J. Simonds, Illinois State University
    • Donald Yoder, University of Dayton
    • Sam Wallace, University of Dayton
    • Kristina Galyan, University of Cincinnati
    • Melissa L. Beall, University of Northern Iowa
    • Andrew D. Wolvin, University of Maryland

The NCA Basic Course Division promotes the teaching, study, research, assessment, and administration of communication in Basic Course settings. Focusing on teaching fundamental communication skills and theory to undergraduate students, the Division is concerned with a broad spectrum of issues relevant to the maintenance and development of quality basic courses to benefit students, scholars, and the discipline. The Division emphasizes both qualitative and quantitative approaches to scholarly work in basic course teaching and administration.

  • Recent NCA Basic Course Division Chairs
    • Joshua N. Westwick, South Dakota State University
    • Tiffany R. Wang, University of Montevallo
    • Joseph M. Valenzano, III, University of Dayton
    • Angela M. Hosek, Ohio University
    • Melissa A. Broeckelman-Post, George Mason University
    • Suzy Prentiss, University of Tennessee

What do outstanding Basic Course Programs look like?

The NCA Basic Course Division awards an annual Program of Excellence and Program of Distinction Award. The purpose of the awards is to (1) recognize the distinctive excellence of basic course programs and (2) identify programs that can serve as best practice models for other programs across the country.

  • Program of Distinction Award
    • 2018 Recipient: Louisiana Tech University
    • 2017 Recipient: Purdue University
    • 2016 Recipient: University of Connecticut 
    • 2015 Recipient: University of Alabama, Colorado State University, and University of Kansas
    • 2014 Recipient: University of Maryland
    • 2013 Recipient: Gustavus Adolphus University
    • 2012 Recipient: University of Kentucky and Purdue University
    • 2010 Recipient: Texas State University

How can we prepare future Basic Course Directors?

Assessment of the Basic Course is a practice in which all programs should engage. Assessment refers to the practice of using both direct measures (e.g., outlines, exams, portfolios, speeches) and indirect measures (e.g., graduate rates, job placement, and GRE scores) to evaluate the degree to which course and program learning outcomes are achieved.

State legislatures, accrediting bodies, program review teams, university administrators, and Department Chairs are all interested in knowing whether the Basic Course is doing its job in helping undergraduate students attain course and program learning outcomes. Assessment is valuable for Basic Course Directors because it identifies strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement. Although assessment can be a daunting task, it provides evidence that is useful when advocating for the resources that are needed to sustain a high-quality course.

The links below offer a brief explanation of course assessment, identify a host of instruments that instructors can use to assess student learning in the Basic Course, and provide access to research articles conducted on Basic Course assessment.

What is assessment?

According to Katherine Denker of Ball State University, assessment is a large part of today’s academia and should include both formative and summative work. When instructors solicit student feedback, using that information to shape later instruction, they are utilizing formative assessment or assessment for learning. Formative assessment can be conducted via muddiest point activities or through classroom use of student response systems. Summative assessment, or assessment of learning, answers questions at the end of the course such as what percentage of students demonstrate competency with a concept. Faculty can conduct summative assessment by evaluating final speeches using the NCA Competent Speaker Speech Evaluation Form rubric, or by evaluating overall student success with different concepts on their final exams.

What instruments can be used to assess the Basic Course?

What recent research articles have been written on Basic Course assessment?

* This manuscript is available through The Basic Communication Course Annual and can be accessed at

Providing a rationale for the inclusion of the Basic Course in the General Education curriculum presents a significant challenge on many campuses. This challenge often leaves Basic Course Directors wondering how best to advocate for the Basic Course to maintain its presence in the General Education curriculum.

The NCA has developed several documents focused on Basic Course advocacy. Additionally, Communication scholars have highlighted how Basic Course Directors have successfully saved their Basic Courses by arguing the value that communication provides to students and employers, developing campus partnerships through committee service, and planning public relations efforts.

The links below provide resources for Basic Course Directors and instructors seeking information on advocating for the Basic Course, articles about best practices in the importance of Communication study, and best practices for advocating for the Basic Course.

What resources can be used to advocate for the Basic Course?

* This manuscript is available through The Basic Communication Course Annual and can be accessed at

How can programs advocate for the Basic Course on their campus?

Scott Titsworth of Ohio University notes that universities are increasingly emphasizing entrepreneurship and innovation, which requires a constellation of soft skills emphasizing creativity, teamwork, group problem solving, and the ability to present persuasive arguments. The Basic Course serves as a foundational preparation for students who want to quickly become involved in these types of activities. Whether students are participating in a pitch competition, working as a team responding to an innovation challenge, or trying to launch an entrepreneurial project, skills in communication and presentations will be essential.

Marian L. Houser and Michael Burns of Texas State University propose that Communication programs can advocate for the Basic Course by promoting its centrality, relevance, visibility, and service to other courses, programs, departments, schools, and colleges at its university. At Texas State University, for example, they have worked to create partnerships with several academic and student affairs units to demonstrate how the skills taught in the Basic Course are valuable to students’ academic, professional, personal, and public lives. Listed below are four examples of how they have advocated for the Basic Course through partnerships with other departments:

  • Residence Life: Each semester, their Basic Course instructors and GTAs visit the residence halls and hold a “Speak Easy” event where students can receive help on their outlines and delivery. They have also partnered with Residence Life and their Living Learning Communities by being one of the co-enrolled course options for students in the Living Learning Communities.
  • Honors College: An Honors section of the Basic Course was created to dive deeper into communication concepts with a strong research focus. This course enrolls fewer students and meets the criteria for honors curriculum so students can receive both general education and honors credit.
  • Retention Management & Records: Because their Basic Course enrolls over 90 percent of first-year students, they have partnered with their retention office to conduct research based on the retention messages now integrated into the course. This partnership also allows them to track students over four years and measure how the communication skills students learned in the Basic Course are used throughout college.
  • University College: They have partnered with the University College 1100 class to co-enroll the same students in both courses to form Freshmen Interest Groups. University College has recognized the importance communication skills serve in the college socialization process, and having complementary communication messages in both classes helps students develop specific communication skills that can assist them during their college transition.

Lynn Disbrow of Huntingdon College argues that the need for communication expertise resonates with various stakeholder groups on a practical level. Students, parents, and potential employers understand the need for basic communication skills across professional fields. Professional organizations in Accounting and Medicine call for students to complete communication courses before attempting board certification. Some universities have created degree programs combining communication and engineering, and communication of science and technology, to ensure their graduates are prepared to enter the workforce with the requisite knowledge for success. Communication skills allow professionals to demonstrate their technical expertise effectively, as without effective communication, that expertise becomes useless.

Across the Communication discipline, several resources are readily available for instructors, Basic Course Directors, Communication scholars, and campus assessment personnel. Collectively, these resources can be used to:

  • Provide the pedagogy necessary for effective Basic Course instruction
  • Assess student learning
  • Obtain new ideas for teaching Basic Course content
  • Identify the best practices implemented in existing Basic Course curriculum
  • Network with other instructors who teach the Basic Course
  • Survey the attitudes and behaviors of instructors and students who teach the Basic Course

The links below identify several resources for Basic Course personnel, including journals that publish research conducted on the Basic Course; books written specifically on how to teach, direct, or train Basic Course instructors; and the avenues though which instructors can establish working relationships with other Basic Course Directors and instructors.

What journals publish research on the Basic Course?

  • Communication Education
    This journal publishes high-quality international scholarship that is committed to the advancement of communication and learning broadly defined as instructional communication and communication education.
  • Communication Teacher
    This journal publishes original instructional activities that can be conducted in either the K-12 or college classroom as well as manuscripts focused on communication education assessment of student learning, classroom practices (K-12 or college), or program development.
  • Basic Communication Course Annual
    This journal publishes the best scholarship available on topics related to the Basic Course, and is distributed nationally to scholars and educators interested in the Basic Communication Course.
  • The Journal of the Association for Communication Administration
    This journal is committed to publishing invited and refereed manuscripts related to scholarship and research in the administration of Communication units at all levels of the academic institution.

What books provide guidance for Basic Course Directors?

How can I connect with other Basic Course Directors?

  • The Basic Course Listserv
    This list provides a research tool and sounding board for Basic Course Directors, instructors, designers, publishers, and graduate students. To be added, send a request to the listserv administrator, John Hooker, at
  • Basic Course Directors Facebook Page
    This page is dedicated to the growth and development of the Basic Course in higher education.
  • Directory of Basic Course Directors
    This directory includes a list of Basic Course Directors from U.S. Communication programs.

What are some recipients of the NCA Basic Course Division Distinguished Article Award?

The Distinguished Article Award recognizes one outstanding published scholarly article that contributes significantly to the administrative, delivery or curricular aspects of the basic course. To be eligible for the award, an article must have been published in a peer-reviewed scholarly outlet at least three years prior to consideration. The primary focus of the article must be on theory, practices, and/or research related to the Basic Course.