We know what skills we want college students to learn. We list them in institutional mission statements, descriptions of our programs and majors, and our syllabi. We know what skills employers want graduates to obtain in college. They tell us, especially when students don’t have them. But do we know what skills students think they are learning in college?
A research team recently queried a cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional student cohort, asking them to list in their own words five skills they believed they were learning in college and three skills they didn’t think they were learning. They asked a corresponding cohort of college graduates to do the same. The five skills students most often identified as being learned were communication, teamwork, critical thinking, time management, and self-management. Those skills mesh pretty well with what most faculty would list as the skills they’re working to teach. They were also consistent with the skills graduates said they’d learned, with the exception that a higher percentage of graduates thought they’d learned job-specific skills.
The findings are good news, but not entirely. The most common skills not being learned by students included communication, teamwork, job search skills, job-specific skills, and self-management. Students agree and disagree about learning communication, teamwork, and self-management skills—a confusing result.
Also worrisome is how many times student respondents listed the learned skills. Only 56 percent, 45 percent, and 34 percent of them said they were learning communication, teamwork, and critical thinking skills, respectively. A mere 12 percent reported that they were learning leadership skills. Given the importance teachers and employers ascribe to skills in each of these areas, those percentages are disappointing.
The researchers offer some analysis of the results. Referring to not learning teamwork and communication skills, they observe, “We believe it is an open question as to whether this stems from an accurate perception about a lack of opportunities to practice them, or that participants simply did not recognize such opportunities.” About critical thinking, they wonder whether “participants use critical thinking so routinely they do not think about it explicitly.”
Perhaps students aren’t being taught the skills—that’s the ugly possibility. It seems more likely that students “miss” how these skills are being developed. Researchers cite other evidence documenting that when students are asked about the purpose behind assignments, they pretty much exclusively see assignment purpose in terms of content acquisition. That view of assignments explains the frequent student objection to feedback on writing in courses other than English: “I’m taking political science!” In other words, students expect to work on writing in writing courses, leadership in leadership courses, and communication in speech courses.
Maybe it doesn’t matter whether students are unaware that a skill is being developed as they work on course content. The researchers argue the opposite: “If students do not have an explicit awareness of the competencies that underlie these key skills, they may struggle to accurately assess their own abilities.” Their inaccurate assessments may generate doubts as to whether they have leadership, communication, or teamwork skills, and that certainly influences how they act in situations requiring those skills.
Still more research cited in the article equates a lack of awareness with naïve and less nuanced understandings of these skills. For example, when asked to define teamwork, students tended to describe it as “getting along with others.” About leadership, they noted that it was “knowing how to take charge.” Those definitions aren’t wrong, just superficial and incomplete.
The findings identifying skills students say they are and aren’t learning have implications for instruction. The results offer indirect evidence that our preoccupation with content can short-change students’ learning expectations in a course. Even though time may prevent teachers from extensive effort devoted to skill development, it doesn’t take a lot of time to mention skills in passing, and there are other means to emphasize their presence and importance. I’ve seen assignment descriptions that list and describe the skills that students can develop by completing the work.
Students do develop some skills by observation, but it’s paltry compared to what they learn when they practice. To promote skill development, teachers must be aware of the skills, and unfortunately, the curse of expertise can make that difficult. The skills have become so intuitive that awareness of them dims. It’s time for teachers and students to reconnect with the skills that learning content makes possible.
Martini, T. S., Frangella, L., & VanderVlist, M. (2021). What skills are learned at university? Views of students and working adults. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 9(2). https://doi.org/10.20343/teachlearninqu.9.2.16 [open access]
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