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Teaching and Learning Forum 2006 [ Refereed papers ]
Aligning academic perceptions of what constitutes a 'graduate' with university graduate attributes

Patricia A H Williams and Andrew Woodward
School of Computer and Information Science
Edith Cowan University

Aligning academic perceptions of what constitutes a 'graduate' with university graduate attributes. The past few years have seen an emphasis on explicit definition of skills and ideals that were once implicit in a student graduating from university .These skills are termed graduate attributes. Whilst these attributes are defined in general at a university level, the interpretation and contextualisation is devolved to each school. This has proven difficult for some schools to approach effectively due to misunderstanding and preconceived ideas of academic staff in the application of these attributes. As part of a larger project to interpret and map all graduate attribute in undergraduate programs in the School of Computer and Information Science at Edith Cowan University, this paper describes the approach taken to address these misunderstandings and align academic thinking with the university strategic 'graduate attributes' initiative.


Introduction

Edith Cowan University (ECU), like other Australian universities, has adopted the viewpoint that graduates should not only be technically competent within their chosen field of study but that they should graduate with generic skills and values appropriate to the Australian workplace environment (Bath, Smith, Stein & Swann, 2004). At ECU, these skills and values are termed graduate attributes. This is a strategic project with university wide implications at an undergraduate course and unit level, driven by the demand for transparency in higher education. This inevitably includes the explicit identification, teaching and assessment of these attributes where previously they were implicit in the education itself. This has proven difficult for some schools to address due to the misunderstanding and preconceived ideas of academic staff in the application of these attributes. As part of a larger project to interpret and map all graduate attribute in undergraduate programs in the School of Computer and Information Science (SCIS), this paper describes the approach taken to tackle these misunderstandings and align academic thinking with ECU's strategic 'graduate attributes' initiative.

Graduate attributes

In the 1980s there was a growing worldwide awareness in education for the need to identify skills needed for the work force, in addition to other discipline specific skills. This has resulted in an increased responsibility being placed on tertiary education to produce graduate who are able to manage change and take action in a demanding and challenging world (Sumsion & Goodfellow, 2004). Such skills were previously referred to as transferable skills and included communication, time management, information and record keeping. Research at the time concluded that university students, whilst being competent in their discipline, lacked proficiency in basic communication, written and oral skills, teamwork and the knowledge of the evolving nature of computing from a community perspective. Also, and more profoundly, it was suggested that entrepreneurship, defined as creativity and initiative taking, was not apparent in many graduates (Gibbs, Rust, Jenkins, & Jaques, 1994). Subsequently, the tertiary education sector identified that these transferable skills were important to improve employability of the graduate (Murphy, 1997). Today, when university education is no longer for an elite group of young people and the student population has changed from the once homogenous, full time, young and academically select few to a more heterogeneous group with diverse backgrounds and experience (Fraser & Greenhalgh, 2001), employability is an important driver. In Australia there exists a climate of educational competition, and hence it is desirable for the tertiary institution to be able to prove it has a high level of postgraduate employment and employability (Bennett, Dunne, & Carre, 1999).

It was following this early work done in the UK (Gibbs et al., 1994), that Australian universities adopted the objectives of formalising such skills into what is now termed graduate attributes.

Definition and contextualisation

Bath, Smith, Stein and Swann (2004) discuss generic and graduate attributes, previously defined by the Higher Education Council in Australia in 1992, describing them as those values, skills and personal attributes that represent the essential accomplishment of the process of tertiary education. Later, the Dearing Report (1997) went further to include: creativity, curiosity and challenge the social thinking of a community. Also, recommendation 21 of this report suggests that analysis, critical thinking, communication and information literacy be key elements of what we should expect graduates to demonstrate. It is worth noting also that whilst the educational establishment may decide what skills, values and knowledge are worth having, the conception of what these attributes are varies widely amongst individual academics (Barrie, 2004; Leggett, Kinnear, Boyce, & Bennett, 2004). This is an aspect that must be addressed first to find common ground and create an 'even playing field' from which to work on.

Formalisation and integration of graduate attributes has become a major focus for most, if not all, Australian universities. At ECU these are defined as four core attributes tied in with the university's main themes of Service, Professionalism and Enterprise, and six generic attributes centred on personal capabilities and attitudes. The four core attributes are said to be those which align with ECU's philosophy, and therefore are what make an ECU graduate distinctive. The other six attributes are said to support the core attributes. The specific attributes are given in Table 1.

Table 1: ECU Graduate Attributes (ECU, 2004)

AttributeGeneral interpretation
1Enterprise, Initiative and CreativityAn ECU graduate displays enterprise, initiative and creativity, and applies knowledge to generate innovation.
2Professional KnowledgeAn ECU graduate has a commitment to lifelong learning and operates effectively with and upon a body of knowledge to be competent professionally, vocationally and academically.
3ServiceAn ECU graduate is aware of the value of a service ethic and seeks opportunities for close and productive involvement with communities and appropriate organisations.
4Workplace Experience or Applied CompetenciesAn ECU graduate has first hand experience of the workplace, or can apply learning effectively in practice.
5Awareness of Political, Social and Ethical IssuesAn ECU graduate is aware of the value of ethical action in their professional and personal life, social justice and the assertion of the rights of themselves and others.
6CommunicationAn ECU graduate communicates effectively in relevant academic and professional contexts, and as a member of the local, regional and global community.
7Internationalisation / Cross Cultural AwarenessAn ECU graduate is culturally sensitive, appreciates other cultures and demonstrates international and global perspectives.
8Problem Solving / Decision MakingAn ECU graduate thinks critically, reasons logically, has well developed problem solving skills, and can make and implement sound decisions.
9TeamworkAn ECU graduate has good interpersonal skills and can work both autonomously and collaboratively as a professional.
10Use of Technology / Information LiteracyAn ECU graduate has confidence, knowledge and skills in the selection and application of technology appropriate to their field of scholarship.

Perception misunderstandings

The researchers acknowledged through informal discussion with colleagues that staff consider graduate attributes to be synonymous with generic skills and workplace training. This view subsequently created a cynical view of the university strategic initiative and therefore a misunderstanding of the importance of graduate attributes. The term 'generic' skill has been used interchangeably with 'transferable' skill. A transferable skill is one which students can learn and then transfer from one context to another, be it academically or in a work environment. As with many authors, reservations exist as to whether generic skills can be learnt and applied within contexts outside those in which they were learnt. Also, of concern is that focus on such skills for employment diminishes depth of learning and limits open inquiry (Gilbert et al., 2004). The construction and scaffolding of the generic skills is inherently linked to the transferability of the skills as well. It is well known that transferability is hard to do and that context is very important. It is in the application of the skills themselves that the reward is gained; it is how they approach the problem to solve it that is the essential element in a student's ability to transfer a problem solving skills, and ultimately what can be most valuable to employers and the community. However, Barrie (2004) and other authors (Moore, 2004) suggest that generic skills are those developed regardless of field of study. Therein lies a whole field of debate regarding the 'generic-ness' of skills.

Before any progress could be made in the School regarding the interpretation and use of graduate attributes, the issues surrounding generic skills, graduate attributes and what action the university required staff to take, needed to be confronted. These issues were addressed by initiating an inquiry into the nature of what it means to be a university graduate. The environment created to facilitate this inquiry was a professional development seminar.

Professional development seminar

To facilitate increasing the awareness of academic staff of the alignment of their views with university policy on graduate attributes, a professional development seminar was held. This was run by the researchers with the assistance of ECU Learning and Development Services (LDS). The expected outcomes of the seminar were an increase in awareness by academic staff about graduate attributes, and to facilitate data collection for mapping graduate attributes across units of study. The seminar was set up as a series of tasks to promote staff engagement with graduate attribute concepts and then extrapolate these into specific objectives at a unit level.

Task 1Identify and address staff concerns about graduate attributes.The group was asked to identify their perceptions (positive and negative) about graduate attributes and the use of them at ECU. This revealed that many staff believed it was an exercise in marketing for the university without much association with the degrees they were teaching. Also, that any work on graduate attributes would simply increase their workload. These issues were discussed with the group.
Task 2Definition of a graduate.This task included individual reflection by staff on what it means to be a graduate and what skills they thought a SCIS graduate should possess.
Task 3Identification of ECU graduate attributes relevant to discipline majors.The aim of this task was to engage staff in reflection on how to customise (contextualise) the ten graduate attributes for their particular discipline major. Each discipline major lecturer contributed to the identification of attributes relevant to their area of teaching and/or interest.
Task 4Identification and evidence of graduate attributes for every unit.Staff identified and gave examples of tasks/activities which demonstrated evidence of the contextualised attribute in their units. (Williams and Woodward, 2005)

In task 2 the question "What do you think are the distinguishing features of a university graduate?" was posed to identify individual academics' perception of graduate characteristics. This task was undertaken prior to staff being given a list and description of the ECU graduate attributes. It is acknowledged however, that some may have been familiar to varying degrees with the ECU defined graduate attributes.

Alignment conflict and accord

Responses from staff to the question regarding distinguishing features of graduates were analysed and matched to those attributes as defined by ECU (Table 2). Not all responses were able to be matched to a defined attribute and thus were not included in this table. From a cohort of thirty-eight staff, twenty-six chose to participate in the task 2 exercise. Each respondent distinguished multiple features of a university graduate. Features that could not be matched directly to the ECU graduate attributes are given in Table 3.

Table 2: Responses given by SCIS staff to the question "What do you think are the
distinguishing features of a university graduate?" matched to the ECU graduate attributes

AttributeNumber of
matching responses
1Enterprise, Initiative and Creativity9
2Professional Knowledge12
3Service4
4Workplace Experience or Applied Competencies0
5Awareness of Political, Social and Ethical Issues3
6Communication10
7Internationalisation / Cross Cultural Awareness2
8Problem Solving / Decision Making17
9Teamwork8
10Use of Technology / Information Literacy9

Whilst staff may have been aware of the ECU graduate attributes prior to the seminar, the data indicated that this was not a factor in their responses. If this had been a factor then the wording of the responses would have been more likely to match that of the actual attributes, which was not the case.

Staff identified problem solving and decision making as the primary skill, important in a university graduate. The emphasis on this area may have been due to the staff having to use these sorts of skills themselves in their teaching areas. A large number of staff in the School possesses a background in systems analysis and programming, which are areas that rely on well developed problem solving skills. It seems logical that these people would list this as a requirement for a university graduate. It is worth noting that they were asked about university graduates in general and not computer science students specifically.

The next highest response was in the area of professional knowledge. In linking this to the ECU definition of professional knowledge, it is a broad attribute, encompassing lifelong learning, and drawing upon knowledge to be competent professionally, vocationally, and academically. A range of responses from staff were placed in this category. It was noted that staff closely identified with the ability for students to use what they had learned in order to be useful in the workplace, and to continue to update their professional knowledge. Again, in a rapidly changing, dynamic environment such as IT, keeping up to date with improvements and changes to the tools and technology being used is essential for a student if they are to be successful in this field.

Communication was also identified as important. This is an interesting result, as those working in IT are generally stereotyped as being poor communicators. However, good communication skills are essential for someone working in the computer and information science field as it is primarily now a serviced based industry. This is of particular relevance for programmers, who are often called on to work as part of a team. This is also consistent with the fourth highest identified attribute of teamwork, which was mentioned only slightly less than communication. This may again be impacted by the fact that many of the staff have come from industry backgrounds where teamwork was an important facet of the workplace. Interestingly, attributes associated with political, social, cultural, service and workplace experience were not mentioned to any great extent as important characteristics in university graduates. This lack of identification may be skewed by the cohort being that of computer and information scientists and teaching in undergraduate degree programs where these characteristics are not as obvious as desirable qualities.

Table 3: Responses given by SCIS staff to the question "What do you think are the distinguishing
features of a university graduate?" which did not match ECU graduate attributes

Each of the features given below appeared multiple times in the data.
Adaptive flexible learners who can cope with change
A broad range of general knowledge
Performance management
A good general level of English and Math
Have common sense

Interestingly one respondent perceived the university from which the student graduates as an important factor in the attributes they should possess and said

There are different types of university GO8, eg. UWA, ECU. Not homogenous.
UWA - classical, numerate, literate, ability for independent thought
ECU - employment oriented, numerate, literate, teamwork, employment relevant studies.
This viewpoint highlights the preconceived ideas apparent as multiple competing interests of academic staff. This demonstrates how the university strategic initiatives are challenged and subsequently may create misunderstanding and conflict.

Conclusion

In undertaking the project on graduate attributes, it was vitally important to get both cooperation of academic staff and to promote ownership of the issues. In addition, the varied predetermined notions of staff required confronting. This was achieved with the first part of the seminar, where the issues were brought into the open forum and addressed. The results have been that staff have commented on an increase in their awareness of the applicability of graduate attributes to their own teaching philosophies and to the objectives for the undergraduate degrees. These comments have been positive about the experience, and most academics in SCIS can now see a clear link between what they do and what the university is aiming to achieve. This confirms that awareness of the use and applicability of graduate attributes has been increased in SCIS staff at ECU.

As part of a larger project, this seminar achieved its goal to promote thinking on graduate attributes and increase understanding of the usefulness of the university initiative. It highlighted the alignment of academic staff personal philosophies with the university direction, which allowed the subsequent tasks of the seminar (to contextualise, interpret and specifically identify attributes already existing in our undergraduate programs) to occur effectively. It has provided an important contribution to learning within SCIS on graduate attribute establishment, interpretation and alignment with a current ECU strategic initiative. The project is being extended to provide a framework for other schools to address the contextualisation of graduate attributes at ECU, and included in this is a review of how other universities are approaching this task.

Further, despite the existence of such groups as the course consultative committee, one possible further research project would be to interview interested discipline and industry stakeholders on the importance of graduate attributes in computer and information science. The aim would be to specifically determine whether the ECU graduate attributes match those skills required by those employing SCIS graduates in the IT area, and may subsequently impact the interpretation of, or change in, the ECU defined attributes. Such information would also be invaluable in terms of teaching and imbuing these skills in students. Also, they would give students a more tangible goal, and possibly further incentive to strive harder in their studies if they are aware that potential employers want them to have these skills as an expectation of employment.

References

Barrie, S. (2004). A research-based approach to generic graduate attributes policy. Higher Education Research and Development, 23(3), 261-275.

Bath, D., Smith, C., Stein, S. & Swann, R. (2004). Beyond mapping and embedding graduate attributes: bringing together quality assurance and action learning to create a validated and living curriculum. Higher Education Research and Development, 23(3), 313-328.

Bennett, N., Dunne, E. & Carre, C. (1999). Patterns of core and generic skill provision in higher education. Higher Education, 37, 71-93.

Dearing, R. (1997). The National Committee of inquiry into higher education. [viewed 27 Jul 2005] http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/ncihe/nr_139.htm#rec20

ECU. (2004). Graduate Attributes@ECU - Staff. [viewed 4 Feb 2005] http://www.ecu.edu.au/LDS/rd/units/GAStaff.html

Fraser, S. W. & Greenhalgh, T. (2001). Coping with complexity: Educating for capability. British Medical Journal, 323, 799-803.

Gibbs, G., Rust, C., Jenkins, A. & Jaques, D. (1994). Developing students' transferable skills. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff Development.

Gilbert, R., Balatti, J., Turner, P. & Whitehouse, H. (2004). The generic skills debate in research higher degrees. Higher Education Research and Development, 23(3), 375-388.

Leggett, M., Kinnear, A., Boyce, M. & Bennett, I. (2004). Student and staff perceptions of the importance of generic skills in science. Higher Education Research and Development, 23(3), 295-312.

Moore, T. (2004). The critical thinking debate: how general are general thinking skills? Higher Education Research and Development, 23(1), 3-18.

Murphy, E. (1997). From university to work: Developing transferable skills. In Learning through teaching: Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum. Murdoch University, February 1997. 239-243. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/murphy.html

Sumsion, J. & Goodfellow, J. (2004). Identifying generic skills through curriculum mapping: A critical evaluation. Higher Education Research and Development, 23(3), 329-346.

Williams, P. A. H. & Woodward, A. (2005). Elicitation and customisation of generic skills in a security major. (In Publication). Proceedings 1st Colloquium for Information Systems Security Education - Asia Pacific. Adelaide, 21-22 November 2005.

Authors: Trish Williams began lecturing at Edith Cowan University in 2001 after 17 years in the medical and pharmacy computing industry. Trish lectures in networking, medical informatics and decision making, and has a keen interest in the development of lifelong learning and generic skills. She is also completing a PhD in Medical Informatics and Security.
Patricia A H Williams, School of Computer and Information Science, Edith Cowan University, 2 Bradford Street, Mount Lawley, Western Australia 6050. Email: trish.williams@ecu.edu.au

Andrew Woodward has been lecturing in the School of Computer and Information Science at Edith Cowan University since 2001. He completed his PhD and graduated in 2005. Andrew lectures in wireless networking and security and researches in wireless networks security and computer forensics.

Please cite as: Williams, P. A. H. and Woodward, A. (2006). Aligning academic perceptions of what constitutes a 'graduate' with university graduate attributes. In Experience of Learning. Proceedings of the 15th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 1-2 February 2006. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2006/refereed/williams.html

Copyright 2006 . The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.


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