We want our students to have a rich and multifaceted learning experience. This means we need to reassess our focus on knowledge and ask ourselves, “What do our students need to succeed in the ‘real world’? »
The development of professional skills and personal growth are very important, but they are often taken for granted. They tend to be an afterthought and remain on the fringes of educational programs. A major challenge is that skills development is often not (well) integrated into the overall curriculum. This results in a fragmented approach, rather than a coherent and meaningful skills trajectory. In addition, we often forget to clearly and explicitly communicate to students that working on certain skills and competencies is an integral part of their learning experience. This results in low levels of engagement, depriving students of a valuable opportunity to work consistently on building employability skills so that they are well equipped for their professional lives after graduation. .
What can we do?
One way to inspire students to work on their professional skills is to encourage them to take ownership of their learning and create their own personal development story, connecting the puzzle pieces they get from various learning experiences. At Maastricht University’s School of Business and Economics, we do this through competency-based coaching that runs alongside other courses that make up our master’s programme.
Students choose four skill areas they wish to work on, as well as specific skills within those skills. They set their own goals and document their progress in the format of their choice. Some opt for a written account of their trip, while others prefer a multimedia approach, using blogs, ePortfolios or podcasts. Throughout the process, they work with an academic coach and a professional coach, who guide and support them in their respective areas of expertise. As well as being a true journey of personal development, this course offers students a chance to familiarize themselves with the labor market and its demands and to take an important step towards becoming reflective practitioners.
Learn design ideas
Linking the development of professional skills to the design of learning is very important. By leaving it vague and implicit, our students are missing out on opportunities. Here are some ideas on how to approach the development of skills and abilities holistically in educational programs:
- talk about it. By making it explicit at the design stage and communicating it clearly to students, the development of professional skills becomes part of the core curriculum and is also seen as part of the learning experience.
- Design it in the curriculum. You can design skill-specific learning objectives and create activities to train those skills. For example, if teamwork or presentation skills are an integral part of your course, students can benefit from targeted coaching along the way as well as feedback from the teacher and their peers not only on the content, but also on how they worked together or communicated their message.
You can link skill development to active learning. In the case of project-based learning, for example, the focus could be on project management skills as well as the actual outcome of the project.
Skills are best formed alongside content knowledge and not in a vacuum, through one-off workshops. When students work on their skills in a specific context, they have the chance to better understand their real-world relevance. Additionally, giving students control over the skills they want to develop can also keep them intrinsically motivated. You can do this by asking them to set their own goals and build a personal development plan, incorporating both curricular and extracurricular experiences.
- Build a coherent framework. The design of intentional learning comes into play here. To be effective, all of these efforts (see points above and below) must be anchored in an overarching story. It can be a planned course, a consistent series of sessions throughout the program, a progressive set of online challenges, etc. Just use your imagination! And remember to clearly communicate this framework and its progression to students.
- Accompaniment and support through coaching. Teachers are taking on a new role, as coaches, facilitating students’ personal journeys. It’s not a role that comes naturally, so we may need to hone our coaching skills as well. Involving professionals from the relevant fields in this process, as mentors, coaches or project partners, adds real value to the student experience and complements the academic perspective. Don’t forget the old ones; they are a valuable resource. Technology can facilitate this process by creating bridges between academia and the job market. Students can virtually experience a specific work environment, train their skills using virtual reality, and connect in real time with experts in their field, regardless of distance.
- Engage students in reflective practice. Encourage student reflection throughout the various courses and on their overall learning experience. Guide and support reflection in various formats: learning journals, podcasts, vodcasts, portfolios, etc. This is how students learn to tell their own story, which can be very helpful in the transition to the labor market.
- Follow the rhythm of a constantly changing environment. As new skills take center stage in the labor market at an accelerating pace, it is important to regularly adapt our approach to keep pace with employer demands and ensure that our efforts serve students well in their transition to the future workplace.
This approach requires a high level of coordination at the program and course level, but it is worth it as it allows us to intentionally prepare our students for the challenges ahead. And ultimately, that should be the goal of our work as educators.
Alexandra Mihai is Senior Lecturer in Innovation in Higher Education at Maastricht University.