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Professional skills? - 'When the going gets tough, the tough have a meeting'

Robert Guthrie and Judy McGowan
School of Business Law

Barbara de la Harpe
Centre for Educational Advancement
Curtin University of Technology


CBS Taskforce on Professional Skills

In 1998, a task force was established to investigate and report on the identification of skills relevant to business graduates. The CBS Professional Skills Taskforce reported early in 1999 [1] that the division should promote and integrate the following skills into its courses:
  1. Writing skills
  2. Presentation skills
  3. Communication skills
  4. Computer literacy
  5. Information literacy
  6. Team working
  7. Decision making
These skills were termed professional skills rather than generic skills because it was felt by the Taskforce that the skills should be taught as part of existing courses in the context of the Bachelor of Commerce studies programs.

The professional skills project commenced with all first year core units attempting to allocate and integrate the professional skills into various units. At present the six core units taught in first year in the Bachelor of Commerce consist of:

  1. Accounting
  2. Business Law
  3. Economics
  4. Marketing
  5. Management
  6. Information Systems
Each subject is taught initially as a 100 unit or a basic foundation course. After the core units are completed, then students may exercise their choice to pursue particular major courses of studies.

Implementation of the program

First year lecturers in the 100 units normally have enrolments on campus at Bentley at around 800-1000 per 100 unit. In addition, there are a number of other campuses both within Western Australia and offshore, so that a typical first semester enrolment in a core unit is between 1500-2000 students. The administrative workload for the course controller of a 100 unit is significant. In order to facilitate the integration of a professional skills project, the core unit controllers of each 100 unit met frequently throughout first semester 1999. Prior the commencement of first semester the core unit controllers discussed how the project would be initiated. It was considered that the most appropriate means of commencing the project was for each core unit to identify the key professional skill, which would be required for completion of that unit and as a pre-cursor for skills necessary for the completion of later units. For example, in Business Law, it was considered essential that students should have writing skills and decision-making skills to progress into further law studies. Not surprisingly, the skills considered appropriate in Management included writing skills, team working skills and presentation skills, to name but a few. Likewise, in Information Studies, a key skill to be developed was information literacy.

Therefore, it quickly became established that it was not necessary for each core unit to integrate each of the professional skills but rather that there should be an acquisition of the skills over the course of study of all the core units. In other words, writing skills and decision-making skills could feature strongly in Business Law and not feature in other units if they were not appropriate. Likewise, it may be difficult to integrate meaningful computer literacy in a first year Business Law unit, although some attempt at these skills could be made.

The next issue for consideration was; if professional skills were to be integrated into the units, it would be necessary in most cases for the assessment within those units to be altered to accommodate the professional skills.

As time was of the essence, the first year core controllers attempted to integrate the professional skills they chose into their courses and to make decisions on the assessments of those professional skills as they saw fit for first semester. It was never anticipated that first semester would necessarily be a blue print for future course but rather that it would be experimental. In order to indicate to the students which skills they could expect to be taught a system of icons was developed and used in all study guides. Overall a standard study guide was used. (See appendix one)

Throughout semester one of 1999, the course controllers of the core units regularly discussed the implementation of the program. It was thought necessary to attempt to measure the outcomes of the project and an effort was made to develop an instrument which would allow for the measurement of these outcomes. The essence of the instrument was to survey the students at the commencement of the semester to gauge what they considered to be their level of skill in relation to each of the professional skills. The students would then be surveyed later in semester to see whether or not they considered that there had been any improvement in their level of skills. Given that the cohort of students in the 100 units was largely similar across each unit, it was felt possible to survey the students in one of the core units in relation to all professional skills notwithstanding that that particular unit did not attempt to integrate all of the professional skills.

Associated matters

At the same time as the professional skills project was being introduced, the continuation of another project complemented the professional skills project. Prior to the implementation of professional skills an effort had been made to illustrate to students the complimentary nature of the units in their course of study. Many students, it was thought, did not appreciate that the various core units had were inter-related. In 1996 and again in 1998, all core unit controllers participated in the production of core unit introductory videos. The first video depicted the establishment of a fictitious business (the Video Shop), wherein the proprietor of that business sought advice from various "experts" (lecturers) across the range activities of the business including law, accounting, economics, etc. and used the advice to establish that business. The video depicted a range of scenarios (not all serious) in an attempt to show students that in commencing and running a business, a range of expertise and knowledge was required. The second video (Perceptions Airlines) depicted the same proprietor having sold the video shop, using the funds from that sale to commence an airline business. Again, the proprietor required advice from a range of sources, which advice was used to commence and run the business. All core unit controllers contributed to the scripting of the videos and participated in their production.

The Video Store and Perception Airlines videos had a number of spin-offs. First, they achieved the objective of alerting students to the need for a range of knowledge in business activity. Second, the videos had beneficial effect for staff who are frequently recognised both on and off campus by students who had seen the videos and appreciated the efforts by staff to contribute to a not-so-serious educational tool. Third, and probably at least as important as the previous two outcome, was the fact that a strong bond developed between core unit controllers (and some general staff who also assisted in the videos) to allow for the easy passage for the establishment of the professional skills core unit controllers discussions.

Problems develop

It is not an easy thing for large courses to be developed, administered and be effective. In most cases, the courses are developed over a number of years and involve a number of staff who contribute with suggestions for tutorial questions, lecture presentation, exam, topics and forms of assessment. It is rarely the case that a sole unit controller can claim full credit for the development of a core unit. Each unit has a history and the current core unit controller often has the full weight of a curious educational lineage to bear when they take over. Likewise it is the case that once established, changing the nature of a course is difficult without considerable consultation with past unit controllers, tutors and sometimes the whole school.

Consider the situation when the professional skills project was launched. By its nature, the professional skills project required a good deal of reflection by course controllers and schools. First, it was necessary for the course controller, and subsequently schools, to identify which skills they considered were important for their discipline. Second, it was necessary for assessments to be reconsidered, redeveloped and in some cases, abandoned where those assessment were inappropriate. Third, a considerable amount of foresight was required to anticipate the effect of deciding to incorporate a skill into a unit or likewise to rely upon another core unit and school to develop that skill. For example, if it was the case that writing and decision-making was considered important to Business Law in first year, it is also the case that in second and third year, students would be required to complete longer projects, which would require skills in report writing and referencing. If the report writing and referencing skills were not taught by Business Law but were taught by, for example, Management, could one school rely upon another to teach a particular skill in a way, which would be transferable for their discipline.

The question of assessment was significant. In many cases, core unit controllers realised that the forms of assessment, which they were using, did not actually assess any form of skill but were directed towards content only. If, for example, the writing skill were one which was selected by the core unit controller, how much of the assessment would be given for writing and what part would be given for content.

As time went on, the next question was: who should pick the skills, became more and more discussed This was particularly the case in relation to writing skills where core unit controllers noted that these kinds of skills could include the basic elements of English expression, grammar, etc. Many lecturers and tutors felt that if these writing skills were part of the curriculum there might be some difficulty for them in teaching these skills. Many lecturers and tutors noted the difference between correcting grammar and English expression and teaching a skill which would allow for the improvement of those matters. Others considered that English expression and grammar should not be taught, as they were pre-requisites for all University courses. Further, if a skill was to be taught, then what was the obligation of the unit controller to provide teaching of those skills or the materials available to students for them to acquire the knowledge to develop that skill? Sharp and perhaps artificial distinctions were drawn between teaching and giving access to information that would assist students to master a skill.

And so it was that with those difficulties many debates ensued. In some cases, some core unit controllers insisted that they would make little or no changes to their unit and refused to adapt their assessment. Some unit controllers made no attempt to distinguish between teaching and learning, suggesting that so long as students were given access to information to develop skills, this was adequate. On top of all these issues, was the pressing problem relating to the growing number of international students enrolled in the Bachelor of Commerce studies. With over 50% of students from offshore, a considerable number of issues were raised in relation to the teaching of professional skills such as writing skills and communication skills. In fact in the year 2000 the division appointed a specialist communication skills consultant to cater for the special problems increasing presented by high numbers of international students.

Ongoing debates

The intention was that the professional skills should be integrated into second year units in the year 2000 and subsequently third year units in the year 2001. As the progression of the professional skills moved vertically, lecturers and tutors who have not had an experience of the professional skills program began to voice their concerns in relation to the changes which were required in order to facilitate professional skills integration. Three issues have developed from the professional skills program.

First, as was noted by the first year course controllers, the difficulty of horizontal integration of the professional skills project. Which core units should teach which skills? Which core unit is most suited for the development of particular skills and will that core unit adequately allow for cost fertilisation of the skills into other units? If decision making is taught in Business Law, is it necessary for it also to be taught in Management or Marketing? Is decision making in Business Law the same as decision making in Management? If the program is to extent beyond first year, what vertical progression of skills should take place? If some writing skills are developed in Legal Framework 100, what writing skills can then be developed in Law 200 and Law 300 units? If referencing is taught in Management 100, can a lecturer in a Law 200 unit rely upon that instruction as sufficient for the student to complete an adequately referenced report for a Law 200 unit? These were the issues of vertical integration.

Thirdly, as can be inferred from the previous two factors, the question of professional skills by discipline is one that needs to be considered. The simple matter of referencing is often a dilemma for students. It is frequently the case that Law students are asked to reference by Footnote but Management students are required to reference by the Harvard system. This in itself should not present too many difficulties so long students are aware that there are different systems and that they can gain access to the descriptions of those systems either from their lecturers or a few other sources. But it does illustrate the difficulties that are apparent where different professional skills mean different things in different disciplines. That said, it has become clear that some of the methods used in some disciplines have been usefully transposed into others. For example, in Legal Framework 100, a four-step decision making process is outlined for students who are required to utilise this (some would say ad nauseam) extensively throughout the course. An almost identical decision making process was later utilised by a lecturer in postgraduate Accounting units.

Benefits of the program

There is no doubt that there can be considerable benefits from a professional skills program. By focussing on skills in addition to content lecturers benefit because they can adjust their assessment to assess a range of course aspects, not simply content. In many instances, it makes the development of courses more interesting for both lecturers and students. If the course is focussed only on content, the frequent criticism is that memory is the only tool which is developed.

The development of professional skills is clearly a matter which is useful for employment prospects. Appendix one shows that students are encouraged to collect their course work and materials to compile a portfolio of their work for use in interviews and employment searches. It is anticipated that students will be able to show employers examples of work that demonstrates particular skills.

Future directions and government policy

The Federal Minister for Education has already instituted a program of Graduate Skills Assessment which will tailor funding to the assessment and measurement of skills. Curtin University will probably participate in this program in 2001. Given this probability it essential that any professional skills project should be carefully monitored. Such a program requires a good deal of coordination between those persons participating as course unit controllers in the program. The bottom line is that like much of what is done to progress matters at University there is a good chance that committee will be formed and meetings will need to take place.

The bedrock of the professional skills program must be the first year units, but the development of the program will go no further unless there is a willingness for, in the first case, the school and the division to adjust its existing programs to integrate skills into existing courses. This requires flexibility on behalf of course controllers, tutors and lecturers with encouragement and assistance from their immediate heads of school.

What has become apparent is that in many cases, lecturers, tutors and course controllers feel that the provision of professional skills is beyond their expertise. This is particularly the case in relation to writing skills where it has been the case that the Business School has engaged a specialist communication and writing skills consultant. Other than the creation of special positions for skills instruction, it has become clear that course controllers need to be able to gain access to and to provide students with a greater range of materials in relation to the range of skills than would be the case if the course were simply content focussed. For example, in relation to report writing, for the proper development of professional skills, the course controller needs to actually assess report writing and allocate a portion of the mark for report writing skill. Next, the course controller needs to provide students with information in relation to compilation of report and where appropriate, provide copies of sample reports for the students. The same applies to the range skills which may be selected in each unit. It is not simply enough for the skills to be assessed without properly supporting and instructing the students in to those skills. Therefore the proper development a professional skills project requires the course controller to identify the materials needed for each professional skill, this may mean accessing written and Internet or video materials or as is currently being developed at Curtin University collaborative skills seminars, which provide information to students on specific skills for specific units. These seminars are conducted by course controllers in conjunction with the skills consultant.

In some cases, the development of the professional skills program has led to the expansion of course and created a certain amount of timetable squeeze. This occurs where professional skills instruction is provided in tutorials so that sometimes choices have to be made between reducing content to increase skills. The contest between these two often create friction. Overall professional skills project needs to be horizontally and vertically monitored with discussions not simply between course controllers but between schools and various disciplines.

Endnote

  1. Wyber, J. and de la Harpe, B. (1999). CBS Professional Skills Task Force Report.

Appendix 1

Unit outline, Semester 1, 1999

Contents

Important notice8
Method of assessment8
Contents9
Welcome9
CV development: Starting Your Portfolio10
Syllabus11
Unit material11
Method of Instruction12
Method of Assessment14
Assessment15
Assessment Tasks17
The Semester Program18
The Semester Program (continued)
Supplementary and Deferred examinations   21
Disability22
University Policy Information22

Welcome

Welcome to Legal Framework 100. The Legal Framework 100 academic staff from the School of Business Law and your tutor in particular hope that this unit is an interesting and valuable learning experience for you. Please read this Unit Outline carefully, it contains important information.

Content

On successful completion of this unit you will have: These matters will provide a solid foundation for the study of detailed legal rules in later units.

Professional Skills

This unit will provide you with the opportunity to develop the following skills:

Professional skills

Look for the professional skill icon in your assessment tasks to determine which professional skills are being assessed and the mark allocation.

CV development: Starting Your Portfolio

In this unit you will be given the opportunity to develop the above mentioned professional skills.

It is likely that future employers will request evidence of professional skill development. A portfolio of your professional skills development is an excellent way to provide this evidence.

You should keep assessed work for your portfolio. We also recommend that you retain all of the study materials, including this Unit Outline, for future reference. You will also be required to submit this portfolio as part of your assessment in one of your final year Units.

Syllabus

Unit material

Unit outline

The Unit Outline (this document) gives you important information about the general aims of the Unit, texts and references, and details about assessment.

Texts

You should purchase:

References

You should always use the latest edition of any text. Most of these references are available in the Library.

Method of Instruction

Lectures

The purpose of the lecture is to describe some of the principles of law in the unit, and the application of those principles. A lecture does not cover all there is to learn about the area. You will need to read and study further those areas of law lectured upon. It is not possible for the lecturer to cover all the unit material contained in the Study Guide. However, all material in the Study Guide, whether lectured upon or not, forms the subject matter of discussion in the tutorials and is examinable in the tests and the final examination.

Because of student numbers and time constraints, a free exchange of questions and comments between students and lecturer during lectures is generally not possible. However, you may approach your lecturer to discuss or clarify points arising from the lecture immediately after the lecture (if there is time), or at the lecturer's designated consultation time. You can get copies of the lecture PowerPoint slides from the Legal Framework 100 WebCT site.

Tutorials

The purpose of a law tutorial is to You should attend one 50-minute tutorial per week, commencing in the first week of the semester. Your tutor will keep a record of your tutorial attendance. Failure to attend tutorials may be a factor taken into account when deciding whether you should get a supplementary exam (discussed below).

The first two tutorials have been designed to help you understand the way to learn law, and to get to know the members of your tutorial group.

The rest of the tutorials will focus on analysis and group discussions of the questions found in the Study Guide, at the end of Topics 3 - 11 inclusive. You should read the tutorial questions before you come to the tutorial, and be prepared to discuss them.

In Law there is no one correct answer; rather, alternative conclusions are available. You should not, therefore, fear being "wrong", or be scared of speaking out in case you are wrong. You should express your point of view. It is more important to participate in tutorial discussion, than to arrive at the "correct" answer to a tutorial question. Participation will help you develop oral communication skills

The Tutorial Program contained in the Semester Program indicates that each tutorial is based on the previous week's lecture topic. Your tutor may depart from this program. You will be given notice of any changes to the program. Given the time constraints it may not be possible to deal with all tutorial questions.

Do not change tutorials without the consent of the course controller and your tutor. This will only be given if you have good reason for being unable to attend the tutorial that you have been allocated. The following are not appropriate reasons;

If you attend a tutorial test in another tutorial, you may lose tutorial test marks because it is not possible to record your mark. If you cannot attend for a tutorial test (for a good reason), you must make an appointment with the course controller to discuss alternative arrangements.

Method of Assessment

Your final assessment for Legal Framework 100 consists of the following components:
Multiple choice test25%
Tutorial tests (written essays) (15% and 20%)  35%
Final examination40%
Total100%

Multiple choice test

You are to complete during the period referred to in the Semester Program a 1 hour Multiple-choice test, which will cover the first 4 topics of the course (Concepts and Sources of Law, The Courts, and Parliament). Your can do the list at a time convenient to you but you must make a booking.

You must do this multiple-choice test. Failure to so do will result in forfeiture of the allocated 25% assessment.

The test is held in the Computer Managed Learning Centre. The Computer Managed Learning Centre is in the Robertson Library Building 105 in room 510. (Enter the Library turnstiles to take the lift to the fifth floor.)

You can make a booking with the Computer Managed Learning Centre as soon as the semester begins.

No books, notes, statutes or other materials are to be taken into the Computer Managed Learning Centre.

Self-marking multiple-choice questions, which cover all the remaining topics in the unit, are available on the Law Web CT site http://webct.curtin.edu.au. These questions are not compulsory; they do not make up part of the assessment. You can use them for revision. The tutorial questions from topics 1-4 will guide you as to what to expect in the multiple-choice test.

Tutorials tests

You will do two (2) 40 minute written tests during your tutorial in the weeks scheduled in the Semester Program. Both tests require you to write an answer to a problem question. Your answer is to be handed to your tutor at the end of the tutorial session. The first test is worth 15% and the second test is worth 20%. You must complete these two tutorial tests. Failure to complete either test will result in forfeiture of that part of the assessment. No books, notes, statutes or other materials are to be used in the tutorial tests

The first test

You will be given a problem requiring a written answer. The problem deals with Statutory Interpretation (see topic 4) and you will be required to use the Four Steps problem solving process (see Topic One of the Study Guide).

The second test

You will be given a problem requiring a written answer. The problem deals with Negligent Misstatement. You will be required to write an answer using the Four Steps problem solving process (see Topic One of the Study Guide).

Tutorial tests will be assessed in accordance with the Feedback and Self-Assessment sheet attached to this Unit Outline.

Final examination

The final exam will contain 3 problem-type questions. No books, notes, statutes or other materials are to be taken into the examination room.

Assessment

Important information about assessment

Due dates will be strictly adhered to. Extensions will be granted only in cases of urgent need, and only where formally documented requests are made to the Unit Controller.

The Unit Controller may only alter due dates, assessment requirements, compulsory attendance and submission requirements as stated in this Unit Outline with the consent of the majority of students enrolled in the Unit.

The Final Exam will be held during the formal examination period.

It is your responsibility to check the date and the time of the Final Exam. The date and the time of the final exam will not be announced during lecture sessions.

University policy disallows information regarding the exam timetable to be given over the telephone.

No final results are available prior to the Board of Examiners meeting held after the exam. Results for this Unit are published on the WWW. You will be officially notified in writing by the University of your Final Result.

Assessment Tasks - Legal Framework 100

Assessment Tasks - Legal Framework 100

The Semester Program - Legal Framework 100

The Semester Program - Legal Framework 100
The Semester Program - Legal Framework 100

Supplementary and Deferred examinations

If you are awarded a supplementary examination by the Board of Examiners, (which will appear on your results notification as, for example, Legal Framework 100 X - 46%) or a deferred examination (which will appear on your results notification as, for example, Law100 D) you will be required to sit that examination on a date fixed by the University. For the School of Business Law this is scheduled for Tuesday 20th July 1999.

Supplementary examinations

The supplementary exam will be worth 100% of the unit mark. Marks accumulated from your multiple choice and tests will not be taken account of in the supplementary exam. You will only granted a supplementary examination if your final mark is 45% or over and you have an average in your other subjects of 50% or over. Supplementary examinations are granted at the discretion of the Board of Examiners.

Deferred examinations

The deferred examination will be worth 40% of the course mark. Your progressive assessment (multiple choice and tutorial tests) marks will be included in the deferred examination. Deferred examinations are only granted where you are unable by reason of sickness, accident or some other reasonable cause/excuse to attend the examination. You must notify the School of Business Law as soon as you become aware that you cannot attend the examination and fill in a form giving written details of your reasons for non-attendance, along with written evidence to support your reason, eg a medical certificate. The decision to grant a deferred examination is discretionary and made by the Board of Examiners.

Note that it is not generally regarded to be a reasonable cause/excuse to fail to attend for the following reasons:

If you do not sit for a scheduled supplementary/deferred examination you have no claim to a further examination. You will receive a FAIL GRADE in this Unit.

For more detailed information on Policies and Procedures relating to Examinations, students should refer to the WWW via the CBSHomPage.

Disability

If you have a disability which may make it difficult to sit the 40-minute tutorial tests or the 2-hour final examination you should discuss your requirements with the Equity Officer on campus. [Note that a medical certificate may be required.] Ph: 92667850

University Policy Information

Academic Malpractice

The University has strict policies on Academic Malpractice, a breach of which will result in a zero mark for that piece of work, and further disciplinary action. Information on Academic Malpractice can be viewed by following the First Year link on the CBSHomePage.

Copyright

A condition of acceptance as a student is the obligation to abide by the University's policies on the copying of copyright material. This obligation covers photocopying of any material using the University's photocopying machines, and the recording off air, and making subsequent copies, of radio or television broadcasts.

Information on the University Policy in relation to copyright and resulting disciplinary action can be viewed by following the First Year link on the CBSHomePage.

Self -assessment and Feedback

On the next page you will see a sample of the criteria that will be used to assess the tutorial tests.

You do not need to bring this sheet with you. Your tutor will supply you with a sheet on the day of the tutorial test.

You should consider the points raised in the sheet. You will notice that it follows the main principles of the 4 step process.

After you have completed the test, you must complete your Self-assessment and Feedback sheet with a pencil and hand it in with your answer booklet.

When your tutor has marked the tutorial test paper, the sheet will be returned to you with the tutor's assessment of the paper. You will be able to compare your self-assessment and the assessment given by the tutor. If there is a large difference in your assessment and the tutor's then you should discuss this with your tutor.

It is important to note that the points noted on the Self-assessment and Feedback sheet do not necessarily correlate with the mark that has been given by your tutor. It does not follow that because you have been given a number of "5" scores that you will be given a high mark. If you have been given lower scores on some of the other points you may not achieve a high score.

Tutorial test self-assessment and tutor feedback

Tutorial test self-assessment and tutor feedback

Please cite as: Guthrie, R., McGowan, J. and de la Harpe, B. (2001). Professional skills? - 'When the going gets tough, the tough have a meeting'. In A. Herrmann and M. M. Kulski (Eds), Expanding Horizons in Teaching and Learning. Proceedings of the 10th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 7-9 February 2001. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2001/guthrie2.html


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