Pedagogy: Teaching Our Students the Skills They Need

Chemistry Lecture at the University of Iowa in the 1930s (image courtesy University of Iowa Libraries)

Chemistry Lecture at the University of Iowa in the 1930s (image courtesy University of Iowa Libraries)

Amid all the angst of the declining value of a liberal arts education, the American Association of Colleges and Universities last week released its latest survey of employers. The findings, which echo similar results from a study by the Chronicle of Higher Education last month, found that 93 percent of employers agreed that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve major problems is more important than their undergraduate major.” The study also noted that employers placed high value on the application of analytic and problem solving skills. Eighty percent believed that regardless of major, every college student should acquire a broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences. The complete survey results make for interesting reading.

In an era where the classical model of a liberal arts education is under attack, legislatures are interested only in funding STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines, and students (and their parents) are increasingly focused on directly connecting college major to post-college careers, such findings are important. But they also signal the need for faculty to rethink both the content and delivery of our courses and how we communicate the value of our fields.

To develop the skillsets desired by employers, we need to focus on providing more opportunities for students to practice those skills. The traditional read-lecture-test model of education does little to develop the critical thinking, teamwork, negotiation, oral and written communication, and problem solving skills that our students need. Active and problem-based learning strategies are more effective. Ample classroom discussion also helps.

We also need to do a better job helping our students articulate their own skillsets. It’s not enough for our students to say they are good writers or have good teamwork skills. They need to be able to communicate specific examples of how they used those skills and—ideally—provide relevant samples of their work.

It’s in the development of these “soft” skills that our students will be successful.

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