Let’s teach students what they need

CC0 [Pixabay]
CC0 [Pixabay]
This post sees Psychology student, Tobias, explaining how much he has valued project-based learning in his undergraduate experience, and how this has prepared him for the professional world…

Education must prepare students for life. To address this, the University of Edinburgh has developed a framework of ‘Graduate Attributes’, which each student should have the opportunity to develop while studying here. This universal set of qualities is appealing. If successful in cultivating these, the University is doing exactly what education can: namely, preparing students for life’s next step. Let’s have a look at some parts of what is happening from my experiences and conversations with other students. It’s a mixed picture…

Recently, a 4th year student in a very practical subject told me he had never had any hands-on experience in his degree. In fact, he was gathering signatures to ensure some practical experience. So far it had been reports and hand-ins. Is this preparing him for life after university? Will he only be tasked to work abstractly with theory when working professionally? I doubt it.

Moreover, in exam periods students are not necessarily thinking about employable attributes. Rather, they are often stressing and cramming to remember a few citations. Seth Gobin says that ‘everything that is worth memorising is worth looking up’. Technological advances have made mere fact retention largely redundant. However, memorisation is still a major part of examinations. Will someone studying psychology (my own subject) ever be asked to silently sit down alone for an hour to produce a report that will impact their future career development, without access to online resources? Again, personally I doubt it. Then why do we so often train these skills?

Even if extensive knowledge of one’s field is essential in academia, we also have to look at the reality of student destinations. According to What Do Graduate Do?, about 74% of students start working after their first degree. Thus, I think that the University must make sure it is helping prepare students to become successful in the labour market and not merely essay writing specialists. Then how do we ensure that students actually leave university employable?

Initiatives within the university allowing students to undertake experience/project-based learning are already doing this. I have been involved with two – SLICCs (Student-Led, Individually-Created Courses), and the Geoscience/Psychology Outreach Course. Both have helped me develop important skills and attributes. I had to critically reflect on my learning, develop communication skills, deal with clients, structure longer projects, and much more. These are skills required to function in the professional world and match attributes outlined by the University. The bonus? These projects also develop research and critical skills obtained when writing essays. Moreover, students engage with the ‘real word’ and solve ‘real problems’ compared to artificial ones posed by a lecturer. For my friend in the practical discipline described above, this means a chance to receive credits for creating real products that can be shown when applying for a job.

In essence, when looking at attributes students should develop while at university, for me, considering student destination is essential. For the majority of students the destination is a job where soft skills and project management are probably valued higher than memorisation and quick essay writing skills (although such skills are essential in academia, too). Therefore, I believe that the University must support initiatives – e.g. SLICCs and Outreach courses – which give students chances to develop a broad range of skills and attributes. Such experiences were among the most valuable in my degree. Furthermore, staff should think about diversifying assessment from memorisation to something more transferable like reflection or creation. When applying for a job, I won’t talk about an essay, or multiple choice tests where I got 90+%; I will talk about the time I developed and taught workshops on emotional resilience to at-risk youth.

Supporting project-based learning initiatives and placing more responsibility on students will create more employable graduates. Moreover, it will give students a chance to engage with real projects and help minimise barriers between the university and the community. Let’s continue giving students more chances to develop the skills and mindsets they really need to succeed in life after university.

Tobias Thejll-Madsen

Tobias Thejll-Madsen is a 4th year psychology student graduating July 2018. His interest in education was sparked when he started working with personal development in teenagers in his home country, Denmark. While at University of Edinburgh, Tobias has been involved with Student-Led, Individually-Created Courses voicing a student’s perspective, as well as being training manager at the student-led consultancy FreshSight Ltd.

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