Development of graduate attributes in online distance learning students

iStock [BrianAJackson]
iStock [BrianAJackson]
Several previous posts on Teaching Matters have focused on graduate attributes – the skills, abilities, attitudes and approaches that students develop “through meaningful experiences and the processes of learning and reflection” (from Definition: what are Graduate Attributes?). But what do students understand about graduate attributes?

Colleagues at the University of Edinburgh have conducted a study, funded by the Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme (PTAS), to investigate graduates’ understanding of the concept of Graduate Attributes (GA).

Recent graduates of two online programmes, one in Clinical Education, the other in the Clinical Management of Pain; were invited to participate. Both programmes are run entirely online with students based all over the world. Students on both programmes are practicing healthcare professionals, and are generally mid-career, either looking to enhance their existing skills or develop new skills for future career development. Seventeen of the 25 graduates contacted agreed to be interviewed. Interviews were undertaken online, recorded and transcribed.

Personal development

Unsurprisingly, and reassuringly for staff, the graduates reported the development of specific skills after completing their degrees, these commonly included; using technology, accessing and critiquing literature, academic writing and developing academic arguments, dealing with complexity and uncertainty, time management, negotiation, influencing and leadership skills.

Graduates commonly described thinking in a new way as a result of their study, with their horizons widening after studying with fellow professionals from around the world; considering new ways of thinking, ‘delving deeper’ and developing ‘intellectual curiosity’. This can be summarised as the development of an academic voice, with a perceived increased ability to reflect and critically appraise the work of others.

Professional development

Emergent themes focused on development of the self, specifically the students’ self-efficacy, with graduates reporting feeling ‘changed as a person’. A mismatch was described between graduates’ initial expectations when commencing the degree and what they actually experienced and gained as a result of completing the degree. Graduates commonly reported that they were unaware of the significance of completing the degree, even at graduation, but all mentioned a subsequent positive effect on their careers after completing their studies, which ‘opened doors and afforded new opportunities’.

The award of an academic degree was seen to confer legitimacy in the work place and students reported an increase in their confidence and credibility.  This was expressed strongly with the qualification seen as an important external measure that others could understand.  As one graduate noted, the degree had ‘given me an edge’ in an increasingly competitive job market. All those interviewed reported that completing the programme had benefitted their career in a positive way. The academic award was felt to help reduce imposter syndrome commonly reported in educational literature. The credibility of the post-nominals was valued, and particularly mentioned by those not from a medical speciality, and even in those with many years clinical experience.

Wider influence

Graduates also noted the benefits to their wider professional groups with many describing that they had become perceived as the local expert, commonly reporting that they were invited to work at a level above that of their professional peers. This suggests graduates are taking an active role in sharing experience and their learning with their own peers locally.

Unexpected benefits

More surprising were graduates’ reports of the unexpected benefits of undertaking these programmes, specifically the interaction with programme staff, the modelling of good teaching and authentic practice through engagement with the course materials was considered key to this. Graduates also reported the study had given them a new lease of life professionally, with ‘a bit more swagger’.

Moving forward

What this adds to the literature is the students’ perceptions of completing an ODL PGT degree, specifically their reflections on their own active engagement as a participant rather than a passive agent to whom graduate attributes are delivered. This supports a person-centred approach to graduate attributes, stressing the individual student/graduate’s agency in the process, and the self-directed nature of students developing personally relevant GA and going on to become successful lifelong learners. The top-down, systems-based approach defined in the university’s strategic plan is still required but should be considered as a starting point, with educators better able to develop aligned curricula when they have better understanding of what their students actually learn.

The commonality of experience of these graduates is interesting considering the debate about the importance of context in the development of graduate attributes. These findings appear to refute the suggestion that graduate attributes may not be transferable; with this group reporting their learning had direct benefits fortheir professional practice.

How will our teaching be affected by these results?

This has important implications for the support of online students. We intend to utilise these findings in our personal tutoring sessions. Using the GA framework to discuss with students which attributes they feel they already have, and which they would like to focus on developing.

There are also implications for curricular design, specifically promoting engaging and authentic learning activities that continue to allow students to make the links between their academic and professional lives.

Next steps:

Read more about graduate attributes on the University of Edinburgh website.

Read Ruairidh Maxwell’s Teaching Matters blog post ‘Searching Uncertainty – determining the value of your university experience’ about his transition out of University.

Read Natalie Gilfedder’s Teaching Matters post ‘You are employable – all you have to do is show it!’ on enhancing employability using the Graduate Attributes framework.

Gill Aitken

Gill Aitken is the Programme Director of the MSc in Clinical Education and the Director of Quality for the Edinburgh Medical School.

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