Students prize course content they deem relevant to their professional aspirations. If they determine it’s not relevant (and they make that decision about lots of course content), students slog their way through the course, not bothering to learn the material in ways that promote its retention. Many of us have discovered the shortsightedness of our early decisions about content relevance. I for one ended up needing to relearn basic accounting even though it was listed on my transcript with a passing grade. Unfortunately, it doesn’t cross many students' minds that the content in any course can be used to develop an array of job-related skills.
A well-designed survey (Ritzer & Sleigh, 2017) explored the perspectives of 105 students (50 percent of whom were psychology majors) on job skills. Researchers started by giving students a list of 20 job skills designated important by employers and asked students to rate them. These five skills topped students’ ratings: professionalism, a solid work ethic, oral communication, honesty, and listening.
Then students were asked how they thought employers would rate these skills. Interestingly, students thought employers would rate them more highly than they’d rated them. Researchers suggest that future studies might want to explore “whether students are perceiving the skills as less valuable because they are not yet actively engaged in a career, or if it is a persistent belief that employers should care more about workplace skills than do their employees” (p. 161).
The job-related skills students rated as important were not the same skills they identified as ones they should develop during college. Undergraduates, they reported, should be developing skills in these areas: time management, communication, critical thinking, and leadership and professionalism, with time management and communication rated significantly more important than the other three. The researchers think that maybe the disconnect reflects the need students see to develop skills during college that are particularly relevant to success in college.
What about those skills and behaviors that might get an employee fired? Again, using an employer list from other research, these students identified five of the six behaviors that topped the employers’ list: lack of a work ethic, missing deadlines, unethical behavior, being late for work, and failure to follow instructions. The employers’ list also included inappropriate use of technology, which was way down on the students’ list. Could the rampant use of electronic devices in courses be misleading students about media use in the workplace? Finally, these researchers asked students which of these potentially damaging skills they were likely to exhibit. Being late for work was listed in students’ top five.
This work is a really interesting exploration, less for its findings—it’s a small sample with overrepresentation from one discipline—than for the questions asked about student perceptions of professional skills. What skills do you think your students would list as most important for their intended professions? If their assessment is fairly accurate, you could use it to more explicitly link course content to those skills. If it’s not accurate, you could correct it. Equally interesting and relevant is the question of what skills students think they should be developing during college. Would there be much similarity between your list and theirs?
The reported survey results also highlight that still-prevalent student assumption that college is a stopover en route to the “real world” and therefore what’s required in the real world doesn’t really matter in college. I wonder whether some of our instructional policies and practices don’t feed into this student assumption. In our remote locations, attire does not much matter, but as I used to point out to students arriving for our 8 a.m. class, slippers and pants that look like PJ bottoms aren’t going to cut it in most professions, nor is arriving late or casually checking your phone as someone talks to you. Clearly, we can get carried away on this front and create policies and regulations that have little to do with learning. It is about balance, but college is the place to be developing job-related skills.
I’m recommending that we talk with students about the professional skills they deem important, their plans for developing them, and how, just maybe, the content of our course and the conditions we’ve set for learning it might provide knowledge and experiences that develop the relevant skills they think they need.
Ritzer, D. R., & Sleigh, M. J. (2019). College students’ value judgments of workplace skills. Psychology Learning and Teaching, 18(2), 154–164. https://doi.org/10.1177/1475725718794999
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