Enhancing employability through Engaged Learning
Stories abound that “Universities are failing to make students employable.” Yet digging further into the evidence, perhaps inevitably, suggested that the picture was rather more nuanced. Students learn a huge range of skills that are valuable in the workplace. In the more academic disciplines, critical thinking, putting forward a persuasive argument and analysing data are joined by team working, presentation skills and problem-solving in more applied disciplines. The problem is not the skills, it is how they are articulated. Employers inhabit very different ‘communities of practice’ from universities; their culture, vernacular and values are incredibly different. If we want students to seem more employable, it is not the skills that are lacking so much as a translation into the practice of the employer. And, of course, each employer and each sector follows different practices so generic translation into “employer talk” is too simplistic an answer.
So how do we bridge this seemingly intractable gap?
The answer is to immerse students into the practice that best fits their future career plans during their final year of studies. From this simple premise was born In the Wild, a 24 week (TB4) engaged learning unit for final year Innovation students.
Future career plans?
An early challenge is the surprising number of final year students with no clear idea of what they want to do next. So preoccupied are they with grades that they have little time to think a year out. In a straw poll of our students at the beginning of their final year, fewer than 10% had taken any steps towards securing employment on graduation and more than 2/3 had no clear idea of what they wanted to do. This is unfortunate given that many grad. Schemes only accept applications before Christmas in the final year. If we were going to acculturate students in something relevant, we needed to know what sort of sector or industry they are interested in. To overcome this challenge, the first few weeks of the unit help students explore where their interests lie using a Japanese tool called Ikigai. Students reflect on what they love and are good at while a series of recorded interviews, podcasts and up to date readings help them understand where the opportunities of the future lie in the areas of most interest to them.
This forms the basis of the end of term assessment where we ask students to present a portfolio of their work done over the whole of their time at university to an audience of their choosing, explaining how their experience can benefit the objectives and challenges of the particular sector they are targeting. We are grateful to our external panellists from SMEs, Public sector, large consultancies and the third sector, who provide great feedback and answer students’ sector specific questions with an authenticity that academic staff would struggle to match.
Reflecting on the portfolio presentations with the external panellists highlighted some interesting points.
- Students came alive and were at their most engaging when talking about their projects
- The panellists were surprised by the depth of insight and sheer breadth of projects the students were describing
- Showing what they had done and learned from projects was always more persuasive than telling the panel about their key skills.
- Students asked some really insightful questions about the panellists’ work.
Meaning-making for deep sectoral insights
As the students delved deeper into secondary research about their future career path, we wanted to enhance their primary research and critical evaluation skills at the same time. We do this by asking students to prepare a case study on an organisation of their choosing, investigating how their organisation practices elements of innovation or transformation. Comparing the literature against observed practice, not only enhances critical and analytical skills, but also provides deep insights into the nature and challenges of real-world innovation. Our brief asks the students to try to find an interesting angle and persuade us to their point of view through narrative, evidence and methodological coherence – adopting the principles of Problem Based Learning (Savery and Duffy, 1995). In their professional lives ahead, much of their success will come from persuading people to adopt their recommendations or proposals, so this seemed to be a good vehicle for gaining those skills.
Lots of learning came from reaching out to organisations and persuading them to host the case studies. One student confided that with hindsight he really should have used his existing network better, but despite (or perhaps because of coronavirus), all of the students secured primary research case studies with organisations ranging from Antarctica to Sub-Saharan Africa, from start-ups to household names struggling to reinvent themselves. For the staff, this was an exciting period as students wrestled to find meaning in their data and reconcile it with what they had been taught. We had some really uplifting conversations with students helping them make sense of and find a lens to view their finding and present them in the most compelling way. In 2020, we published 11 case studies in a book self-published on Amazon. Students were particularly proud of being published authors and shared their insights widely on LinkedIn. Last year’s students also found the book useful to compare narrative styles and judge for themselves which approaches they found most persuasive.
With thanks to Mark Neild, Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship, for this case study, and to Cecilia Thirlway and Liz Harrison.
 Headline from the Express 6 February 2018