A Google search for “college graduate employment readiness” produces over 2.5 million hits. Unfortunately, the top results have titles such as, “Study Finds Big Gap between Student and Employer Perceptions” (Inside Higher Ed); “Why Are So Many College Students Failing to Gain Job Skills before Graduation?” (Washington Post); and “2015 College Graduates May Not Be as Ready for the Workplace as They Think” (Time). The titles reflect an expectations–performance gap in skills.
Why are graduates falling short? Bean and Carrithers (2008) point to one explanation. Graduates are being “asked to demonstrate skills they had never been explicitly taught or asked to practice” (p. 21). There are several explanations. Some professors are unconvinced, believing that students should have developed certain skills before college. Others suggest that these skills are vocational and do not belong in higher education and that firms, not the academy, should bear the responsibility. Some assume that skills develop inevitably as students advance through the curriculum. Others may want to teach them explicitly but do not know where to start because such skills fall outside their subject matter expertise. Last, the desired skills can seem more challenging to define, teach, and assess than disciplinary content.
To close the gap, teachers and program leaders must plan skills instruction and assessment as carefully and thoroughly as disciplinary content. The process starts with identifying pertinent skills and categorizing them as basic, learning and study, metacognitive, professional, or intellectual. Basic skills include fundamental academic proficiencies such as college-level reading, writing, communication, and quantitative skills. Learning and study skills consist of behaviors such as time management, organization, review strategies, attentive listening, and note taking. Metacognition encompasses the skills of self-regulation: task assessment, strength and weakness evaluation, planning, information management strategies, comprehension monitoring, debugging strategies, reflection, and evaluation. Professional skills are sometimes called soft skills, workforce readiness, non-cognitive, or twenty-first-century skills. They include capacities such as interpersonal communication, collaboration, technological literacy, discipline-specific attitudes, abilities and behaviors. Intellectual skills are the ones most teachers, students, parents, administrators and policymakers expect college graduates to have: thinking critically, solving problems, analyzing evidence, and creating arguments. The number and grouping will depend on program particulars and institutional characteristics.
After stakeholders identify target skills, assessment follows the typical sequence: defining goals, identifying outcomes, developing or selecting direct and indirect performance measures, gathering and evaluating data, and delineating subsequent action steps based on the findings (i.e., closing the loop). It is worth noting that teaching and assessing skills are different from teaching content. For example, it is fairly straightforward to teach and assess students’ understanding of the methods of revenue recognition in intermediate accounting. Teaching and assessing how well students can think critically about the methods’ implications is more complicated. Assessing how well students can apply this critical thinking in a new context (transference) presents additional complexity. Thus, teaching and assessing critical thinking and other skills require different kinds of assignments and assessments. Optimally, skills should be incorporated throughout the program. Students need to develop skills as they learn the discipline; research suggests that standalone courses are less effective. Academic leaders can support the integration process in three ways.
Facilitate. After skills have been identified, each needs to be defined in a disciplinary context. What does proficiency in this skill mean in a specific discipline? What are the desired outcomes? What does proficiency look like? What will students do to learn this skill? When and how often should each skill be taught, and in what course or courses? What will students do to demonstrate capability? Deans and department chairs need to facilitate planning of skills to ensure comprehensive and systematic building of capabilities throughout the curriculum, much in the same way that they coordinate content.
Support. Some faculty may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with teaching skills. Training may be necessary. Instructors need time and freedom to experiment with alternative pedagogies. Teachers may need to create or adapt learning activities, assignments, and assessments. Students need opportunities for practice, and teachers need to provide feedback for that practice. Both may necessitate changes in instructional tactics or allocation of class time. Instructional changes take time and involve risks. Academic leaders and administrators must promote a culture that encourages and rewards research-based instructional experiments.
Partner. Successful assessment programs require continuity and faculty buy-in. Department heads reinforce the importance and role of skills in comprehensive education by collaborating with faculty and actively engaging in the process to measure what matters. Objective data on scanned forms may be easy to collect, but those kinds of assessments may not adequately capture skill mastery. Carrithers and Bean describe a holistic process based on faculty discourse. Their approach adapts across disciplines and depends on faculty buy-in and leadership.
Meeting the demands of today’s world requires a shift in assessment strategies to measure the skills now prized in a complex global environment… We must move from primarily measuring discrete knowledge to measuring students’ ability to think critically, examine problems, gather information, and make informed reasoned decisions. (Partnership for 21st-Century Skills Assessment)
College graduates and the value of higher education are increasingly judged on more than disciplinary expertise. The skills expectations–performance gap suggests weakness in current instructional and assessment practices. To close the gap, academic leaders must promote skills as deliberately as they promote discipline-based learning.
Carrithers, D., and J. C. Bean. “Using a Client Memo to Assess Critical Thinking of Finance Majors.” Business Communication Quarterly 71, no. 1 (2008): 10-26. doi:10.1177/1080569907312859.
“Partnership for 21st Century Skills Assessment.” 2007. E-paper. Accessed: June 29, 2016. http://www.p21.org/storage/documents/21st_Century_Skills_Assessment_e-paper.pdf
Lolita A. Paff, PhD, is associate professor of business and economics at Penn State Berks.