Many universities and colleges strive to demonstrate that their courses can enhance a student’s employment prospects. Nevertheless they need to be increasingly clear about how the curriculum helps develop skills and competencies needed in the world of work, due to pressure from government and regulators, as well as fee-paying students and their families.
This guide draws on a body of work on institutional approaches to curriculum design and assessment and feedback. It may be of interest to senior managers, programme teams responsible for curriculum design, and any staff interested in reviewing assessment and feedback practice. It may also interest employers and professional bodies (especially those involved in the design and assessment of vocational courses and courses involving work-based elements).
Employers tend to talk as much about attitude as about skills.
"Our current assessment practices seem to be aimed at producing an overall mark that summarises how well a student has performed over the past three or four years, a single benchmark that it seems is increasingly meaningless to employers looking for attributes which will allow them to distinguish individuals from the crowd."
University of Exeter
Cornwall College identified key soft skills that employers look for in graduates:
- Appropriate communication skills
- Listening and seeking clarification
- Ability to seek feedback.
In relation to technology use, it appears that the whole area of digital literacies and supporting learners to develop and maintain their virtual identities is of far greater value to employers than training students to use specific tools.
The concept of ‘digital influence’ is growing in importance when it comes to differentiating between potential employees. People who can make use of online tools to demonstrate their knowledge and skills and who can leverage social media to gain recognition, as innovators, thought-leaders and influencers, are highly employable.
There are specific issues relating to assessment and feedback practice and its ability to prepare students for the workplace.
In particular there is a perceived lack of alignment between common assessment practice (especially the continued emphasis learning providers place on summative assessment) and the formative ways in which professionals develop throughout their careers, including extensive use of peer review.
Developing as a professional
Whilst there is a certain amount of formal summative assessment in business, for example exams required by professional bodies, this comprises only a small amount of the overall evaluative practice within the working environment. Professional development and performance monitoring in the workplace is much more about gathering and making sense of ongoing, formative feedback from a range of stakeholders, including clients as well as peers.
What to assess
In some cases the very notion of fixed assessment criteria and grading structures may be counter-productive especially since summative assessment often encourages students to focus on the end product, ie the grade awarded, rather than on the process of problem solving:
"This raises the challenging question: are we being too specific in detailing exactly how students get marks from our assessments? Should part of the assessment be the task of working out which are the more crucial parts of the assessment itself? It seems that assessment in business is a cumulative and ongoing process with mostly undefined criteria that must be independently discovered, so in order to make our own assessments more authentic we may need to reduce the level of definition we create about mark allocation"
University of Exeter
Developing learners’ judgement
On the face of it, some of these issues may be quite challenging but they are not really so far out of alignment with current thinking around effective assessment and feedback practice: it is, for example, recognised that grading criteria and rubrics can only go so far towards explaining the evaluative judgements made by tutors in marking assessed work.
The University of Dundee recognises the value of clarity around criteria and standards but notes that tutors' evaluative judgements are also based on a considerable amount of tacit knowledge:
'... tutors develop an internal calibration for quality and comparability. Although assessment criteria and standards are an attempt at defining what is expected to students, they cannot fully communicate such tacit knowledge.'
In order to counter this they suggest that students need to be given the opportunity to take part in making academic judgements to help them develop appropriate evaluative expertise themselves.
This approach is recommended elsewhere and is covered in the University of Hertfordshire’s guidance on implementing its principles of assessment for learning. The guidance suggests that learners should
'engage in peer assessment opportunities so that students have the opportunity to be involved with the assessment criteria, eg through activities in the classroom that engage students in reviewing the assessment criteria formatively.'
Raising student awareness
The issue is partly how to articulate the principles of good learning and teaching practice in ways that show how they are meeting the needs of an increasingly market-led education sector.
It is not sufficient simply to extol the benefits of education in general when prospective students are highly focused on their employment prospects: they need to see the links clearly articulated. It is equally important to ensure that students themselves are aware of the skills they are developing through their assessment experiences and are able to evidence these effectively in the employment market.
The University of Exeter has defined the type of assessment it feels is necessary to enhance graduate employability as:
'an assessment in which students perform work-focused tasks that blend academic and professional knowledge and skills.'
It considered various terms for this and settled on ‘work-integrated assessment’ as being the most appropriate to its context.
Effective use of technology across all aspects of assessment and feedback processes can help address these issues.
Providing better management and analysis of course information
Course information systems can help ensure appropriate linkage between work-related competences and assessment tasks.
Manchester Metropolitan University has introduced an employability curriculum framework. This includes a set of graduate outcomes to be assessed in every programme. These graduate outcomes are linked to ‘standard descriptors’ that sketch out what is expected of students at a particular level. This is explained in a short video.
Tying the outcomes recognisably into each assessment strengthens the concept of employability in the curriculum. It improves transparency and consistency and offers the potential to include better information for the Higher Education Achievement Report without extra work for staff.
For more on this topic read our detailed guide on managing course information.
Building employability into curriculum design
The University of Exeter has developed a model to support ‘work-integrated assessment’ across the curriculum. The model captures the various dimensions of work-integrated assessment to stimulate thinking about curriculum design whilst remaining open to individual and contextual interpretation.
The dimensions of ‘peer review’, ‘collaborative working’ and ‘audience’ in the model ensure that assessments are structured in such a way as to help students evidence these skills.
The model is available as an interactive presentation. It can be used to look at where current assessments sit, plot where they would like to be, design interventions and evaluate these interventions. A set of Tech Trumps cards help determine appropriate technologies to use.
Our video explores the University of Exeter's approach to embedding employability skills in assessment and feedback.
Other useful tools to support curriculum design include the University of Ulster viewpoints assessment and feedback tool.
Demonstrating evidence of professionally relevant learning
E-portfolios provide a means of developing reflective skills. They can also be used to help learners articulate their wider skills and connect different elements of learning. Many professional bodies are using such tools to provide evidence for accreditation or continuing accreditation, although in the education sector e-portfolios are generally used in a formative rather than a summative way.
Supporting self-reflection and peer review
An effective combination of self-reflection and peer review may make the biggest difference to student learning and employability.
Reviewing the work of others helps students to develop many of the skills they will need in a professional setting. It develops critical thinking and independence of judgement, reduces dependency on the teacher, and results in students generating feedback for themselves while they produce it for others.
The PEER Toolkit produced by the University of Strathclyde offers guidance in the form of a 'how to' guide on peer review and other support materials.
Simulating real work environments
Birmingham City University uses videos embedded in a 3D graphical representation of a town, Shareville, to enable students to develop real-world skills which can be assessed in ways that actively enhance learners’ employability and evaluative skills. Shareville was the winner of the 2011 NUS Innovative Student Engagement Award.
The College of West Anglia set up an award-winning media production company and internet TV station, Springboard TV, and remodelled the curriculum to enable Media BTEC and Diploma learners to be assessed on real-world projects.
Allowing students to demonstrate their digital skills
Cornwall College has been encouraging students to familiarise themselves with a range of commonly used technologies and apply them for academic and professional purposes. Students undertake an assignment using a free choice of technology. A professional mentor then evaluates the assignment and provides feedback on each student’s work/attributes and the relevance of the chosen technology to the respective work sector.
The University of Exeter redesigned a psychology module to better support employability and replaced a written examination with a collaboratively designed flyer as the main assessment. The assessment involved working with two external ‘audiences’: a ‘lived experienced group’ (people with mental health issues) and the university’s own wellbeing service for students. The module evaluation (above) indicates the link between the revised module structure and the development of some of the key professional skills that were the intended outcomes of the module.
The fundamental basis of assessment is developing students’ own capacity for evaluative judgement. It follows that good assessment and feedback practice is inherently linked to developing competencies needed in the workplace.
Key steps to take in building employability into assessment and feedback practice are:
- Ensure the learning outcomes for each module and course are specific about competences related to employability
- Ensure assignments grading structure and feedback reflects these learning outcomes
- Use some of the tools highlighted in this briefing to support staff development and assessment design
- Ensure students have a thorough induction into good assessment and feedback practice, their role in this and its relevance to their future employability
The final point is a fundamental one: the types of activities and behaviours that promote assessment for learning are very much the same as those that promote good employability outcomes. The development of a range of learning literacies, not least around digital literacy and the management of digital identity, are essential skills for the world of work.
This is unsurprising but it is not currently well communicated to students. Universities and colleges report considerable risk aversion on the part of students in relation to changed and/or innovative assessment practices and particular scepticism about the value of self and peer review.
We need to develop better means of communicating to students and potential students that some of these practices, which might challenge their traditional assumptions about what constitutes a further or higher education experience, are in fact crucial in achieving the very outcomes they hope that experience will deliver.
As well as those highlighted in this guide, you may find the following resources on building employability into your assessment and feedback practice helpful:
- University of Ulster viewpoints assessment and feedback tool for staff development in this area
- Our study, developing student employability, exploring the role of technology in supporting the development and communication of student employability skills, including a number of relevant case studies from HE and FE and skills
- Our guide to getting started with e-portfolios and studies of e-portfolio implementation for ideas on their use to record and demonstrate skills relevant to employability, eg how Southampton Solent University integrated its e-portfolio system with careers advice and support
- Our publication effective assessment in a digital age for further examples, especially student role play to develop legal interviewing skills at the University of Glasgow
- The Higher Education Academy’s publication a marked improvement provides a strong rationale for transforming assessment in higher education, and includes an assessment review tool and an annotated selection of key resources in the field of assessment. The review tool offers a practical method to take stock of institutional policy and practice, and look to a targeted approach to strategic change
- Further assessment and feedback resources for latest thinking from universities and colleges undertaking projects in this area
This is one in a series of guides around assessment and feedback. You may also find helpful our guides on:
- Electronic management of assessment (EMA)
- Feedback and feed forward
- Changing assessment and feedback practice with the help of technology.
For more detailed information, see our guide on transforming assessment and feedback with technology.
For any further information or to provide feedback of any of the resources contact Lisa Gray.