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Skills Equal Success: Focusing on the Value of Learning Outcomes

As we move into the new normal of higher education, institutions need to be able to help students not just master skills but articulate those skills to potential employers.

Skills do not suddenly appear in your repertoire of talents; skills are built over time through learning and practice. Almost as soon as we are born, our parents begin working with us to hone our speaking skills, recognize colors and shapes or crawl then walk. From kindergarten to middle school and high school, teachers use pedagogy to teach key concepts and then practice that knowledge to build it into a skill.  Those who go on to college face the same process from expert faculty who help students continue to develop their higher-order thinking and applicability on all kinds of topics.  General education or liberal arts core programs are intended to give students a broad perspective of the world and other knowledge bases. A student’s major and minor help focus their learning and skills development in specific areas about which they are passionate.

Academia uses several terms for this process of guiding a student’s development. One of the most popular is to develop learning outcomes/objectives for each class, grade level or program of study.  Within those learning outcomes are words that help the teacher and learner understand the intended outcome. Many use Bloom’s Taxonomy to help guide students through the various levels of cognitive development. As you look at the Taxonomy levels, you also recognize that these same levels used to build knowledge are also building skills. The repetition and continuous practice of the Taxonomy in the multitude of classes and programs that a person completes from K-12 through college and beyond is structured and helps students build skills. 

Today, the challenge is that when these students complete their studies, we have bound up all these skills into an academic transcript that is usually focused on their understanding of a particular content area and not the skills they developed in the process. Classes on the transcript may be labeled in various ways, but they rarely acknowledge the skills students develop across the transcript. A student may graduate with a degree in marketing and apply with an employer looking for someone with knowledge of marketing concepts. Still, employers need to understand the applicant’s skills in addition to their knowledge.  

What if in every class a student takes, there are learning outcomes acknowledged and recognition the skills being built. Consider an upper-division course on leadership in which the learning outcomes were set for the student to demonstrate and apply their knowledge of leadership principles. Still, they recognize the skills being developed through group work (collaboration and conflict resolution), written and oral presentations (communication), assignment planning and completion (executive function and planning), etc.  Articulating to the student from the beginning and throughout their academic career not only the content expertise but also the essential skills they are developing in the process will be critical, allowing the student to quickly show to an employer ALL skills they can bring to the organization.  

Employers know that they want individuals who have content expertise. Still, regardless of industry, skills related to communication, collaboration, conflict resolution and critical thinking are just a few must-haves to be valuable employees. When they show up for work on the first day, individuals are not expected to launch into work specific to their college major, but they are rather in situations that require teamwork, organizational skills, good writing skills, data analysis, etc. A brilliant chemistry student is of no worth to a pharmaceutical company if they can’t master the skills that organizations require each day.   

Badges, certifications or simply articulation of skills developed would give newly minted graduates of the ability to tell a potential employer how they can match their needs and bring value to the organization. Giving students the language to talk about their skills in resumes, cover letters and interviews, and confidence in their own skills helps contradict what employers see as deficits in incoming college graduates. If I know I have experienced and practiced critical thinking throughout my college career, then I know I have the skills to participate in the solution when faced with a challenge.

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