Executive Summary



 1

This report is the outcome of a reflective, developmental process involving six academic development staff and thirteen course teams in the five ATN universities. The project involved the analysis of case studies from each institution, a review of the existing literature on graduate capabilities, and reflection on the issues highlighted through the integration of the case studies with the literature.

 2

Graduate attributes are the qualities, skills and understandings a university community agrees its students should develop during their time with the institution. These attributes include, but go beyond, the disciplinary expertise or technical knowledge that has traditionally formed the core of most university courses. They are qualities that also prepare graduates as agents for social good in an unknown future. In this report those attributes that go beyond the disciplinary expertise or technical knowledge are called generic capabilities.

 3

The report is intended as a resource for universities and course teams that are developing programs to facilitate and demonstrate achievement of the agreed graduate outcomes. It contains three sections: 1) an introduction to generic capabilities; 2) a conceptual framework for program development; and 3) guidelines for staff who are developing programs based on that framework.

 4

The described conceptual framework is informed by three key ideas.
 - The notion of generic capabilities has little meaning until it is elaborated within the context of a discipline.
- The development of a generic capabilities program requires commitment from all members of the course team and this commitment involves the adoption of a student-centred approach rather than a content-driven or teacher-centred approach to the curriculum process.
- Assessment of generic capabilities, and the inclusion of that assessment in the students' overall achievement, involves a challenging set of complex issues for any university.

 5

The major characteristic of the project is the focus on the student's individual development as a person. The proposed programs would enable students to define their own learning pathways and monitor their own progress in their pursuit of high level, generic capabilities outcomes.

 6

Six principles for consideration in the development of programs are described (see the points a to f below). They address curriculum development, teaching practices, learning experiences and assessment.

 a. Desirable capabilities are most usefully formulated at both university and course level.
 b. The development, practice and assessment of capabilities are most effectively achieved within the context of discipline knowledge. 
c. Exposure to, and reflection on, a variety of teaching approaches and learning experiences fosters a focal awareness of capability development.
d. Assessment practices should align with course/subject goals and teaching/learning practice.
e. A package for assessing generic capabilities incorporates items designed for a range of purposes.
f. Students benefit from progressive feedback on the development of capabilities.

These principles, and their interpretation in the context of generic capability development, are elaborated in the body of the report.

 7

The report also contains a discussion of three points that underpin the success of generic capabilities programs, but are often inadequately addressed. The first is that there are qualitatively different ways in which students come to understand generic capabilities. The more sophisticated ways are more likely to equip students with the capacity to operate in a range of environments, and should be the level of focus in the attainment of capabilities. The second is the inclusion of knowledge capability (the ability to deal with knowledge in each new situation encountered) as a core capability. The third is the monitoring of student development of generic capabilities by students themselves and by the institution.

 8

 The concluding section is presented as a resource for staff wishing to run sessions for academic staff or managers who might be involved in the development of a generic capabilities program. It addresses the four phases of development: policy; achievement of commitment; implementation; and monitoring and evaluation. It incorporates questions designed to raise awareness of the key ideas in the framework, and references to case studies exemplifying those ideas.

 9  By adopting the principles outlined in this report, institutions and the staff in those institutions will be required to commit themselves to activities that will be consuming of both time and financial resources. All five ATN universities have already taken this path in one or more of their courses, and it is argued that the improvement in the quality of student learning, their preparation for later life, and the ability of the institution to demonstrate achievement of the graduate outcomes expectations justifies such a commitment. The gains achievable through the approaches described in this report considerably outweigh the losses.





Introduction: The Project


This project was designed to support a systematic and explicit strategy to cultivate and evaluate the development of relevant generic capabilities over a course of study. The aim was to provide support for course teams in the ATN universities in reviewing and revising course curricula to foster the development of graduate capabilities, in devising appropriate learning experiences for students and in designing appropriate assessment for the non-subject specific objectives of university programmes, i.e. what is to be learned, how it can be learned and whether it has been learned.

In order to provide this support, a staff development package has been developed that contains background reading, activities and questions in several modules. These modules have been designed around four phases of the development and introduction of a university-wide teaching and learning initiative: policy development; dissemination and achievement of staff commitment; implementation; and monitoring and evaluation. They can be used to illustrate the implementation of the principles discussed in this report in a range of contexts in any university environment. They are relevant for staff development activities aimed at accreditation.


Thirteen case studies are available at Thirteen case studies or on the project website. They are examples of current ATN practice in terms of devising curricula, designing learning experiences and constructing appropriate assessment for capability development. The case studies provide examples of activities that are illustrative of the six general principles presented in this report. In the body of the report we have referred to the relevance of particular aspects of the case studies.


These products are intended to be relevant to academic staff, students and employers. The modules provide a staff development resource that will assist academic staff to review and revise course curricula in order to foster generic capabilities in a more systematic manner. A spin-off project, following the one reported here, is the design of an electronic qualitative database that will provide individual feedback to students to support and monitor their mastery of appropriate generic capabilities. It will enable students and graduates to maintain an individual capability development portfolio that will provide employers with an expanded source of data to inform employment decisions.


The project team wishes to thank the DETYA Higher Education Division for the financial support the project received and all of the staff of the ATN universities who generously gave their time and energy to the project and who were willing to have their work made available on the project website.

 


Graduate attributes and generic capabilities

 

Graduate attributes are the qualities, skills and understandings a university community agrees its students would desirably develop during their time at the institution and, consequently, shape the contribution they are able to make to their profession and as a citizen. In the past, such attributes have sometimes been assumed to be the subject of an implicit understanding in the community about the qualities and characteristics of university graduates. Recruitment of Oxbridge Graduates to the British Civil Service famously proceeded from such an assumption.

A similar position about the implicit inclusion of broader attributes in knowledge development as long-standing practice was argued by some of the Australian sandstone universities during debates about competency-based assessment in the 1980s and early 1990s. Subsequently, there was a shift in thinking towards the notion of both knowledge and generic skills as important but separate aspects of the curriculum. This project represents a further movement forward but suggests a return to the earlier sandstone position, albeit with a crucial distinction. Generic attributes are seen to be inextricably linked with the learning of disciplinary content, but in an explicit rather than implicit manner. Both proceed together through a planned process rather than with the serendipity on which the original sandstone argument relied. This argument is developed below.

There is a growing movement internationally that recognises that if particular attributes are to be acquired by university graduates then this will depend in large part on the provision of experiences and opportunities conducive to their development during a course of study. All member universities of the Australian Technology Network have accepted this and determined on action to ensure that their students can demonstrate a range of attributes upon graduation.

This document is intended to provide some assistance to those who wish to learn more about graduate attributes. It seeks to elaborate the concept, consider the arguments for adopting attributes as a component of university education, what the significance of an institutional commitment to such attributes might be, how they can be developed, their relationship to the disciplinary content that typically constitutes university courses, and how their achievement might be reported.


Elaboration of the concept

It is worth noting that there is different terminology used to describe graduate attributes, even within the collaborating Australian Technology Universities. Usually, the terms ëgraduate qualitiesí and ëgeneric attributesí or any combination of these nouns and adjectives can be taken as synonymous. For reasons outlined below, we will employ another usage however.

It is important to note that the contemporary understanding of graduate attributes does not see them as characteristics that derive necessarily or exclusively from exposure to the distinctive knowledge, language and tests for truth that constitute a specific discipline. Their development rests on specific provision to foster them, albeit within the context of disciplinary learning.

One of our colleagues, Ted Nunan (1999), argues there are four main categories of attributes, relating to (1) the body of knowledge that comprises the disciplinary foundation of a given course of study, (2) the critical understanding that derives from thinking, communicating, applying and evaluating that body of knowledge, (3) the dimensions of citizenship and service that follow from a view of graduates playing a leadership role in their society, and (4) a capacity for employment and personal flexibility. How these are expressed will vary with the degree of to which the capabilities are embedded within disciplinary studies or treated as adjuncts to other course content.

Of course, any set of statements describing desired graduate capabilities adopted at university-wide level have to be generic. They are aspirational in nature and take life and practical meaning when interpreted and elaborated within specific disciplines or fields of study. Further, where capabilities are made explicit within a university, they tend to have a strong normative dimension and reflect the values of the organizational culture that prevails in the institution concerned. They are usually articulated through a collegial decision-making process, for example, as in a policy document of an Academic Board.

Here, we are concerned only a subset of the different attributes that institutions have adopted, specifically those concerned with transition to the workplace and how well those leaving our institutions can demonstrate the extent to which they have developed them. This latter dimension, of performance or capability, we have chosen to emphasise by adopting the term generic capabilities, which reflects our particular focus.


Arguments for adopting generic capabilities

There are three principal arguments for adopting a statement of generic capabilities and pursuing their development through the courses in which students are enrolled.

The first derives from a long-standing view that one part of the role of a university is to provide citizens who can operate as agents of social good in the community. This involves a concept of the end-product of higher education being more than simply disciplinary expertise. In other words, an expert chemist who was also a racial bigot would fail the test of being well-educated from this perspective.

The second is predicated on a view of the likely future that current and potential university students face after graduation. Bowden and Marton (1998) argue that the curriculum for any university programme needs to be developed around the idea that students are being prepared for a future that is largely unknown. This is because graduates are increasingly likely to be employed, sooner or later, in activities somewhat distanced from their specific field of study. This is partially linked to the fact that the development of knowledge and changes in professional practice both occur at a rapid rate. Bowden and Marton conclude that students need to learn current knowledge in a way and with a purpose that develops their capabilities to deal with situations in the future that they have not encountered before. An elaboration of this argument is found later in this document.

The third involves an argument derived from the workplace and is related to the previous discussion. Employers consistently hold that disciplinary expertise is only one from a much larger set of components that determine whether an individual will operate successfully on entering a profession. Employers know they are more likely to have difficulties with an employee because of poor employment-related skills rather than an inadequate technical expertise. The skills they value typically involve capabilities universities have also determined are desirable in their graduates, eg communication ability, problem-solving, capacity to work with others, and managing oneself (Otter, 1997). Of course, if employers are to make meaningful choices between contending graduates for some professional appointment, then some judgement about the degree to which applicant has developed the desired capabilities, and a recording of that judgement, must have occurred and be available to them.


What is the significance of an explicit provision for generic capabilities?

To the extent that curriculum design, teaching and learning strategies, and assessment activities are directed to fostering and recording student achievement of identified generic capabilities, universities send signals to key stakeholders about their commitment to producing certain kinds of graduates at the completion of study programmes.

These stakeholders include the students themselves, potential employers, government and others with a legitimate concern about the role and characteristics of successful performance in universities. A brief discussion of these stakeholders follows.

Students in modern universities are by no means homogeneous as a group. They may come direct from secondary school, be professionals undertaking upgrading qualifications, or adults with limited experience of success in earlier education who are exercising a ësecond chanceí at the personal and economic benefits higher education affords. Or they may be quite different from any of these groups. What they have in common is a view that the end-point of their time at university will better enable them to succeed in professional employment, assist them to make career changes, strengthen their potential for a more personally fulfilling life, or some combination of these. What is clear is that technical expertise is a necessary but not sufficient condition to meet these educational ends. Students reasonably expect more from their commitment to the university and its programmes. The development of generic capabilities as a goal of university education is a logical concomitant of legitimate student aspiration. Thus, in a quite formal and structural way, the decision of a university to foster such capabilities gives students a clear indication of how the institution values them. By focussing on experiences that satisfy more than studentsí technical accomplishment within a discipline the university signals the importance placed on their post-university success. This regard for their future and the demonstrable intention to create a complex of educational experiences that are, in a fundamental way, learner-centred, is a strong and tangible expression of the universityís recognition of studentsí individual worth.

The message to employers is simple but no less powerful. In a time of oversupply of graduates in some professional areas, there is a question of how employers are to choose between applicants in their recruitment programmes. Previously, they had little to make decisions upon, other than general notions of the overall reputation of a university or a specific degree programme. Without information on the characteristics of graduates, including but going beyond technical expertise, employers are forced to fall back on what they know of individual universities. Typically they focus on inputs, eg student intake scores and levels of demand for programmes, rather than the value the institution adds through its programmes and the actual capacities of those who pass successfully from it. By fostering, assessing, and recording judgement of generic capabilities the university demonstrates its commitment to producing potential employees that actually possess the characteristics the university says it values and employers have argued they need.

Government interests are essentially of two kinds in relation to this discussion. First, government commitment to the notion of students exercising informed choice about which university might best meet their needs is served by an institutional commitment to developing capabilities which enhance the individual graduateís post-university prospects. Relatedly, this meets the commitment of the present government to competition between institutions. The determination to foster capabilities other than disciplinary expertise arguably positions institutions differently in their appeal to students. Second, successive governments since the mid-1980s have required universities to play a greater role in supporting the national economy. A more competent workforce, the result of individual professionals acquiring a broad range of work-related capabilities during their study programmes, delivers on that obligation. This also meets in part the government expectation that universities will become more cost-effective by focussing on the outputs of university education, rather than emphasising input measures.


Students

Students in modern universities are by no means homogeneous as a group. They may come direct from secondary school, be professionals undertaking an upgrading of their qualifications, or adults with limited experience of success in earlier education who are exercising a 'second chance' at the personal and economic benefits higher education affords. Or they may be quite different from any of these groups. What they have in common is a view that the end-point of their time at university will better enable them to succeed in professional employment, assist them to make career changes, strengthen their potential for a more personally fulfilling life, or some combination of these.


What is clear is that technical expertise is a necessary but not sufficient condition to meet these educational ends. Students reasonably expect more from their commitment to the university and its programs. The development of generic capabilities as a goal of university education is a logical concomitant of legitimate student aspiration. Thus, in a quite formal and structural way, the decision of a university to foster such capabilities gives students a clear indication of how the institution values them. By focussing on experiences that satisfy more than students' technical accomplishment within a discipline, the university signals the importance placed on their post-university success. This regard for their future and the demonstrable intention to create a complex of educational experiences that are, in a fundamental way, learner-centred, is a strong and tangible expression of the university's recognition of students' individual worth.


Potential employers

The message to employers is simple but no less powerful. In a time of oversupply of graduates in some professional areas, there is a question of how employers are to choose between applicants in their recruitment programs. Previously, they had little to make decisions upon, other than general notions of the overall reputation of a university or a specific degree program. Without information on the characteristics of graduates, including but going beyond technical expertise, employers are forced to fall back on what they know of individual universities. Typically they focus on inputs such as student intake scores and levels of demand for programs, rather than the value the institution adds through its programs and the actual capacities of those who pass successfully from it. By fostering, assessing and recording judgement of generic capabilities, the university demonstrates its commitment to producing potential employees who actually possess the characteristics the university says it values and employers have argued they need.


Government

Government interests are essentially of two kinds in relation to this discussion. Firstly, government commitment to the notion of students exercising informed choice about which university might best meet their needs is served by an institutional commitment to developing capabilities which enhance the individual graduate's post-university prospects. This commitment is a logical extension of the present government's interest in fostering competition between institutions. The determination to encourage capabilities other than disciplinary expertise arguably positions institutions differently in their appeal to students. Secondly, successive governments since the mid-1980s have required universities to play a greater role in supporting the national economy. A more competent workforce, the result of individual professionals acquiring a broad range of work-related capabilities during their study programs, delivers on that obligation. This also meets in part the government expectation that universities will become more cost-effective by focussing on the outputs of university education, rather than emphasising input measures.


How generic capabilities are developed


The achievement of a desired capability involves a process by which the particular quality or characteristic is acquired over time, with a consequent capacity to manifest the capability with increasing consistency, complexity and sophistication. The extent to which such development occurs may vary for different individuals and through the duration of a course of study. Students may enter university already capable in some of the identified areas. Provision to foster the development of capabilities within a university course involves a complex of curriculum decisions, teaching and learning strategies that emphasise variation in experience and reflection on the potential such experience affords for dealing with new situations, as well as assessment strategies that include more than technical competence.


There are several critical elements to this. Firstly, the development of generic capabilities has little meaning until they are elaborated within the context of a discipline. Communication skills are widely acknowledged as a desirable capability, but the nature of communication and what constitutes skilful performance varies markedly between Accountancy and Gender Studies, for example. Secondly, in any sort of instrumental view of educational planning, specific provision for the development of understanding or skills requires commitment within the curriculum development process. The University of South Australia, for example, requires curriculum documentation to indicate what component of student time per subject will be allocated to the development of specific capabilities.


Thirdly, it is clearly the case that a commitment to developing capabilities has considerable significance for decisions about teaching and learning experiences. The ways students engage with opportunities to develop them will be determined very much by their previous experience and, as such, will be highly personal. Fourthly, assessment of generic capabilities involves a challenging set of complex issues for any university, not least of which is whether the development of a desired range of capabilities will contribute to a student's entitlement to graduate and what part the student's decisions about performance objectives will play in such assessment.


Reporting achievement


When considering the reporting of achievement in terms of generic capabilities, there are two related issues which must be taken into account. Firstly, we have to be able to judge that the development of a capability or set of capabilities is occurring during a program; and secondly, we have to have some means of communicating that development to others at different points during the student's time at the university and upon graduation.


One way of gauging progress is to check that various developmental milestones are described, planned for and reached. The University of Luton provides an example of this (Steven & Fallows 1998).


Another way is to reflect on, analyse and discuss past experiences associated with a particular capability with peers and teaching staff. This way the relationship between process and content can be unravelled and understood. The use of a generic capabilities portfolio is one way of assisting in this. Software used by a universities' consortium in Liverpool (LUSID) provides a mechanism for students to keep qualitative records of their progress, their reflections and their achievements. There is sufficient detail in these records to foster reflective dialogue with staff and other students. Importantly, the recording process also enables summative, cumulative judgements to be made by demonstrating to potential employers just what and how progress has been made in terms of specific capabilities.


Other reporting options vary from university acknowledgment of a student's success in a program within which achievement of a range of identified capabilities is a prerequisite to successful completion, to independent observation and monitoring of student performance of the agreed capabilities by appropriately trained assessors working to validated criteria. This is elaborated in the next section.


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