Employability and experiential learning

students royal mile crop
Photographer credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

In recent decades rapid technological and scientific innovation has fundamentally shifted the nature and structure of employment in developed countries, with a rise in the number of highly skilled professional, technical and managerial jobs. These changes have irreversibly altered the demand for skills, which are crucial to translating creativity, curiousity and innovation into employment and economic growth. As a University, this presents a unique challenge – particularly when considering the aim of ‘giving our students the best possible set of skills for their future, and the opportunity to draw from deep expertise outside their core discipline[1]’. How do we meet these demands and better harness the links between employability and the social, cultural, personal purposes of education?

GeoSciences Outreach and Student-Led Individually-Created Courses (SLICCs) are two courses that have the potential to solve this conundrum, by allowing our students to apply their University learning in real-world contexts, while developing new skills and competencies at the same time.  GeoSciences outreach involves the students working with an external ‘client’ (community partner or school) to develop educational resources usually linked to their area of study. SLICCs provides students with a reflective framework to reward extra-curricular projects and experiences over the summer with academic credit. Both courses help students to develop and enhance graduate attributes (higher order skills and mindsets), and anecdotal evidence suggests that this has been a key factor for students in determining their employment destinations post-graduation.

So what makes these courses work? Although these are two very different courses, a shared underpinning principle is experiential learning (i.e. learning by doing), which is increasingly recognised as a valuable tool to develop students’ graduate attributes and employability[2][3]. Although experiential learning can often appear to be a rather ill-defined and vague construct, there are several key elements that need to be in place to ensure its effectiveness. These include:

Agency – students need to have the power to follow their curiosity and drive, and identify what is being learned and how it is being learned[4][5]

Support – a safe learning environment needs to  be established, where participants can experiment and fail without excessive social and/or physical consequences[6]

Authenticity – tasks need to serve a real-world need, and be a ‘process of living’ rather than a ‘preparation for future living’[7]

Continuity – the context needs to be connected to previous experiences, knowledge and skills, and lead to further growth and learning[8]

Reflection – students need to critically reflect on what went well and what did not (their role in this), and how this informs what happens next[9]

These elements are deeply embedded and crucial to the success of both SLICCs and the Outreach course (and are the subject of an on-going PTAS project to systematically evaluate the importance of the individual elements).

These courses are one of the potential tools to equip our students with the skills and mind-sets to flourish post-graduation. However, the challenge now is to effectively scale up and embed these approaches, allowing every student the access to this type of learning.

See related posts here:

GeoScience Outreach: teaching science communication ‘beyond the programme’ and outside of the ‘Ivory Tower’

Student-Led, Individually-Created Courses (SLICCs): Learning and teaching beyond disciplinary silos


[1] http://www.docs.sasg.ed.ac.uk/gasp/strategicplanning/Strategic-Vision_web2.pdf

[2] Chan, C.K.Y. (2012) Identifying and understanding the graduate attributes learning outcomes in a case study of community service experiential learning project. International Journal of Continuing Engineering Education and Lifelong Learning, 22: 148-159.

[3] Crossman, J.E. & Clarke, M. (2010) International experience and graduate employability: stakeholder perceptions on the connection. Higher Education, 59: 599-613

[4] Mercer, S. (2011) Understanding learner agency as a complex dynamic system. System, 39, 427-436.

[5] Deci, E. & Ryan, R. (1987) The support of autonomy and the control of behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(6), 1024-1037.

[6] Chapman, S., McPhee, P., & Proudman, B. (1995) What is Experiential Education?. In Warren,K. (Ed.), The Theory of Experiential Education (pp. 235 – 248). Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.

[7] Beames, S. & Brown, M. (2016) Adventurous learning. New York: Routledge.

[8] Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and education. New York: Collier Books.

[9] Boud, D., Cohen, R. & Walker, D. (1993) Using experience for learning. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Andy Cross

Dr Andy Cross is the Impact Coordinator for the School of GeoSciences, and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He is a member of the GeoSciences Outreach teaching team, and is a tutor on the SLICCs course. Andy is currently leading the PTAS project ‘Experiential Learning in communities: developing and testing a framework for evaluation’, and is interested in the broader uptake and promotion of experiential learning.

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