Why can't students recognise transferable skills

If academics want students to see value in course-based activities, we need to make clearer to them exactly what broader skills they will learn by completing them, says Tanya Martini

In 2012, Georgetown University professor Randy Bass published an article in Educause Review that really frustrated me. In the article, “Disrupting ourselves: the problem of learning in higher education”, he claimed that students found little value in the assignments that they complete for college and university courses. “In my experience of holding focus groups and informal conversations with students, if you ask them where they think their deepest learning has taken place, they will sometimes point to one or two courses that had meaningful impact for them,” Bass wrote. “But they almost always point enthusiastically to the co-curricular experiences in which they invested their time and energy.”

My frustration didn’t stem from the thought that Bass’ idea was ridiculous and patently wrong. Instead, I was bothered by the small part of me that wondered if he might be right.

For starters, there was the anecdotal evidence that occasionally cropped up in my course evaluations. Students would tell me that my assignments were pointless, even when I had spent a lot of time trying to ensure that they weren’t. Case in point: I asked graduating students in my Transition to Work course to select a career path that interested them and for which a BA in psychology provided a solid foundation. I gave the class a research assignment and a template for writing up their findings. Among other things, they needed to look up the salary and projected demand for the job, as well as any further educational requirements. Once they had written it up, they uploaded their work to the university’s wiki server and I connected the link to our department’s website for other psychology majors to view.

I thought it was a good assignment. In addition to giving students a sense of the questions they should ask about a potential career (and where they could find reliable data to answer those questions), I thought it might help to foster some good career-related skills. Communication skills? Check. Technical skills? Check. Research and information literacy skills? Check and check. As an added bonus, the assignment was non-disposable and would be useful to the broader community of psychology majors in my department. On the course evaluations, though, two people told me that it was dumb. Fortunately, one was kind enough to explain why: the student had “no interest in editing webpages for a living”. Score one for Randy Bass.

I decided to test Bass’ claim further by looking at some data. The Transition to Work class also completes an e-portfolio assignment each year, and the first step in the process is to have students outline eight significant learning experiences they had while completing their degree. I don’t restrict where those experiences come from, so students do sometimes mention extracurricular activities as well as volunteering and paid work. Of the 534 experiences provided by the class as a whole, only 25 per cent were connected to assignments completed for coursework. A similar pattern was found at my university when we sampled broadly across graduating students from all disciplines. Another point for Bass.

By now, I was curious, so I had majors in my department evaluate two assignments that might reasonably be given in a psychology programme. One was a conventional 10-page essay; the other was a group-based assignment that involved editing a Wikipedia page related to a psychological concept, theory or process. The students wrote down, in their own words, what they thought the instructor’s goals were in giving the assignment to their class. They then provided both a “relevance rating” (how relevant they perceived the assignment to be in terms of their future career) and a written rationale for that rating.

The results of this small study were interesting: overwhelmingly, students felt that the instructor’s goal in asking students to do the assignments was to further their understanding of the assignments’ subject matter. Very few of them mentioned that the instructor might be trying to help them foster transferable skills, and this was particularly true for the essay. The relevance ratings came in right around the middle of the scale (4 out of 7), but the justifications for those ratings were helpful in providing some context. For the most part, relevance ratings were based on the content of the assignment (whether the subject matter would prove useful to them in their career), and on the features of the assignment (whether they imagined they’d have to do something similar to an essay or a wiki in their career).

I was troubled about the fact that students didn’t seem to spontaneously see the potential for course-based assignments to further their transferable skills. After all, assignments are often set up with skill development as an important objective, and those skills that are applicable to a wide range of careers, such as communication, collaboration and critical thinking, are typically prominent in instructors’ minds.

Moreover, it seemed to me that this was key to addressing Bass’ assertion that students didn’t fully appreciate the value of course assignments. If students understood that they could build important skills through these assignments, then it seemed to me they’d be more likely to understand their utility. Initially, I thought the answer was to simply be more explicit about skills in the assignment itself. I was wrong: further study suggested that making skills clear to students in the assignment instructions didn’t really move the needle on their perceptions of an assignment’s relevance to their future career.

It was a student comment that helped me to see why that might be true. In a candid conversation about a paper that she wrote for my introductory psychology class, a fourth-year history major explained to me why she had found writing an empirical manuscript to be pointless. (To be fair, she was much more diplomatic in her choice of words.) She started by focusing on the content of the paper, which didn’t seem terribly relevant to a history major who intended to go to grad school. When I pointed out that the assignment also provided practice with written communication, she was unmoved. To paraphrase her comments, the paper I had assigned might be relevant to the way psychologists communicate, but it in no way represented how historians “do” written communication.