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PSE’s "Skills Awareness Gap"

*Disclaimer: This is a guest blog Victoria Lewarne and Marc Gurrisi wrote for HEQCO. The original post can be found here.*

Despite the fact that we are a student and a recent graduate of a postsecondary program, we admittedly have difficulty articulating our skills and competencies. And we’re not the exception. While we can confidently state that we have comprehensive reading and writing skills, this only skims the surface. Competencies such as critical thinking, problem solving, public speaking, and research and policy analysis are skills we rely on in our student advocacy work, both internally at Queen’s University and externally through the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA).

There have been multiple critiques levelled at Ontario’s postsecondary sector suggesting that publicly funded colleges and universities are generally ineffective in providing students with the skills they need to succeed in the labour market and society. Critics typically refer to this as a “skills gap.” Institutions have been quick to respond by marketing and expanding their work-integrated learning programs, bolstering their alumni networks and highlighting their graduate employment rates. While these responses are important in debunking the skills-gap myth at an abstract level, the impacts are not being felt where they need to be — with postsecondary students. Herein lies the larger issue: Ontario’s postsecondary sector has a “skills awareness gap.”

Students’ awareness of learning outcomes can shape an institution’s quality of education and the employability of its graduates. Simply put, what value is there to learning anything if you cannot state what it is that you’ve learned? In this scenario, you’ve essentially learned nothing. This is something that few postsecondary administrators and faculty have come to accept and implement, which has kept the growth of learning-outcomes assessment practices relatively stagnant across the sector.

Part of the issue also stems from the diversity of approaches different institutions, academic programs and support services have taken in helping students to understand, assess, reflect on and articulate their learning outcomes. A recently published paper by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, “Skills, Competencies and Credentials,” describes some of these approaches, which have included course syllabuses, co-curricular records (CCRs) and ePortfolios. Each distinct approach is effective in some way and flawed in others, often depending on the rigour utilized in the methodologies for assessment.

Course syllabuses are the most common vehicle for articulating learning outcomes to students. This is an effective way to present them to students because it is both course-specific and comprehensively addresses the entire class. However, the efficacy of this tool is hindered by the lack of reflection students make on these stated learning outcomes. By not reflecting on what they were intended to learn, and how much that aligns with what they actually learned, it is difficult for students to collectively contemplate their learning journey in a given course.

Co-curricular records (CCRs) are another approach that recognizes that student learning is not restricted to the boundaries of the lecture hall or seminar room. In fact, students often comment that their most meaningful learning experiences take place outside of class. As such, CCRs are an attempt to catalogue each of these experiences in a centralized statement with a corresponding list of learning outcomes. Some allow students to input the information themselves, including the learning outcomes, and then validate internally for consistency. Others have a pre-set list that students can choose from. However, the level of assessment behind the validation of these experiences varies substantially from one CCR to another.

Online tools, such as ePortfolios, have also been used to help students catalogue and reflect on the skills and competencies they’ve developed in postsecondary. While the development of these tools make a lot of sense in theory, this practice is hindered by the lack of accountability and validation.

Simply put, it’s time we cast aside the skills-gap myth and instead address the skills awareness gap. Until course syllabuses, CCRs, and ePortfolios include academic and extra-curricular learning outcomes and become part of a sector-wide policy that ensures a basic standard of taxonomies, positions, experiences and assessment practices, employers and students will not see value in them.