OUSA’s Victoria Lewarne and Marc Gurrisi — PSE’s ‘Skills Awareness Gap’

Despite the fact that we are a student and a recent graduate of a postsecondary program, we admittedly have difficulty articulating our skills and competencies. And we’re not the exception. While we can confidently state that we have comprehensive reading and writing skills, this only skims the surface. Competencies such as critical thinking, problem solving, public speaking, and research and policy analysis are skills we rely on in our student advocacy work, both internally at Queen’s University and externally through the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA).

There have been multiple critiques levelled at Ontario’s postsecondary sector suggesting that publicly funded colleges and universities are generally ineffective in providing students with the skills they need to succeed in the labour market and society. Critics typically refer to this as a “skills gap.” Institutions have been quick to respond by marketing and expanding their work-integrated learning programs, bolstering their alumni networks and highlighting their graduate employment rates. While these responses are important in debunking the skills-gap myth at an abstract level, the impacts are not being felt where they need to be — with postsecondary students. Herein lies the larger issue: Ontario’s postsecondary sector has a “skills awareness gap.”

Students’ awareness of learning outcomes can shape an institution’s quality of education and the employability of its graduates. Simply put, what value is there to learning anything if you cannot state what it is that you’ve learned? In this scenario, you’ve essentially learned nothing. This is something that few postsecondary administrators and faculty have come to accept and implement, which has kept the growth of learning-outcomes assessment practices relatively stagnant across the sector.

Part of the issue also stems from the diversity of approaches different institutions, academic programs and support services have taken in helping students to understand, assess, reflect on and articulate their learning outcomes. A recently published paper by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, “Skills, Competencies and Credentials,” describes some of these approaches, which have included course syllabuses, co-curricular records (CCRs) and ePortfolios. Each distinct approach is effective in some way and flawed in others, often depending on the rigour utilized in the methodologies for assessment.

Course syllabuses are the most common vehicle for articulating learning outcomes to students. This is an effective way to present them to students because it is both course-specific and comprehensively addresses the entire class. However, the efficacy of this tool is hindered by the lack of reflection students make on these stated learning outcomes. By not reflecting on what they were intended to learn, and how much that aligns with what they actually learned, it is difficult for students to collectively contemplate their learning journey in a given course.

Co-curricular records (CCRs) are another approach that recognizes that student learning is not restricted to the boundaries of the lecture hall or seminar room. In fact, students often comment that their most meaningful learning experiences take place outside of class. As such, CCRs are an attempt to catalogue each of these experiences in a centralized statement with a corresponding list of learning outcomes. Some allow students to input the information themselves, including the learning outcomes, and then validate internally for consistency. Others have a pre-set list that students can choose from. However, the level of assessment behind the validation of these experiences varies substantially from one CCR to another.

Online tools, such as ePortfolios, have also been used to help students catalogue and reflect on the skills and competencies they’ve developed in postsecondary. While the development of these tools make a lot of sense in theory, this practice is hindered by the lack of accountability and validation.

Simply put, it’s time we cast aside the skills-gap myth and instead address the skills awareness gap. Until course syllabuses, CCRs, and ePortfolios include academic and extra-curricular learning outcomes and become part of a sector-wide policy that ensures a basic standard of taxonomies, positions, experiences and assessment practices, employers and students will not see value in them.

Victoria Lewarne is a political studies student at Queen’s University and the Commissioner of Academic Affairs at the Alma Mater Society. She is also a member of the board of directors of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA).

Marc Gurrisi is a Research and Policy Analyst at the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA). He is also a former research intern at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

11 responses to “OUSA’s Victoria Lewarne and Marc Gurrisi — PSE’s ‘Skills Awareness Gap’”

  1. We published a paper based on data from Brock that demonstrated this problem, and we spoke about the need to address it (see Martini, Judges, & Belicki, 2015). I’m currently in the process of replicating the study with a much larger American sample (data to be gathered via MTurk). Let me know if you’d like to hear about the results (tmartini@brocku.ca)

  2. Tanya, I will look at your paper. I’m interested in this subject from my role at Ryerson. Kudos to the students who wrote this short piece. Also interested in your bigger research project.

  3. Rob Shea says:

    Thank you to both of the blog authors for continuing the conversation regarding competencies articulation. We have been involved in a 5 year applied research project focus on career integrated learning in post secondary courses. The program has recently been noted by the Educational Advisory Board in Washington as a most promising practice in North America for the articulation of competencies gained through in class and out of class experiences in the academy. The concept is centred around having faculty and students, in partnership, articulate the competencies gained through course work and those same competencies articulated on the syllabus. There has been significant interest from across Canada and around the world with some referring to it as “the missing link” in career development in post secondary education. Not sure if that is true but never the less it has been and continues to be an exciting initiative for our students and faculty. The weblink to the project is noted above. Thanks again to the blog authors for continuing this extremely important conversation

  4. Having spent the past couple of years devoting my administrative service to thinking about how Western’s Science undergrads and grad students could augment their program studies in order to develop professional competencies, I arrived at the same conclusion as Lewarne and Gurrisi (and others). This is a problem of critical reflection, not of program deficiencies. Students and faculty need to see each other as partners in a journey of transformation as students emerge as competent professionals. My personal belief is that instructors benefit when students are encouraged to articulate the transferable competencies they are gaining in our classrooms and labs: discussions are richer and more engaging, and knowledge retention may improve. Many thanks to Tanya Martini for providing links to her research – I look forward to diving deeper into this subject.

  5. Eva Aboagye says:

    This is an important issue to address, thank you to both of you for bringing this up. I have been thinking about this for a while especially for PhD graduates who want to look for non-academic jobs and have to translate their skills into competencies that employers can relate to. Having been there myself, I know there is a huge gap here and have created a career planning service ( http://www.abconsultinggroup.ca ) in that specific area.

  6. This is one of the most insightful commentaries on where the real challenge is for new graduate employability, and you have helped coined it “Skills Awareness Gap”. I co-founded and helped develop a platform that is focused on addressing this very issue, developed working with on-campus recruiters and key employers, we published a focus group study on the subject with Microsoft. Our platform is being used at the program level by such programs as ICCIT at the University of Toronto and the Graduate school at Norwich University in Vermont, integrated into curriculum and introduced in first year. We have been advocating the biggest issue for new graduates is not a lack of skills, but a lack of being able to articulate and demonstrate skills. In reoccurring discussions we have with students, they struggle with communicating what they have learned in the classroom, in work-terms and in extra curricular activities into a coherent presentation of talent to a recruiter that is easily consumed. We have a case study with Norwich University, showcasing how at the program level and working with course designers, schools can help students better connect their in-class learning experiences directly with career outcomes by making it easier and clearer on how course work can be repurposed and used for job applications. This awareness gap is a huge frontier where immense benefit can be delivered. This is a space that has been largely left to career services to address, but we have learned that the best solutions and results need to be implemented at the program level.

  7. Brian Train says:

    The University of Victoria co-op education program uses a learning outcome assessment tool based on 10 core competencies to track and describe a student’s development.
    It is the only co-op program in the world to do this.
    At the beginning of a work term, the co-op student sets learning objectives that are related to one or more of the competencies, and during the work term the student and workplace supervisor discuss and assess the student’s development in those competencies.
    UVic has been using this for several years now and has been able to measure its impact on student engagement and ability to articulate competencies.
    Much more at
    https://www.uvic.ca/coopandcareer/career/build-skills/
    https://www.uvic.ca/coopandcareer/assets/docs/employer-docs/Competency_poster.pdf

    It also has application to intercultural competencies, see “Intercultural Competency Development Curriculum: A Strategy for Internationalizing Work-Integrated Learning for the 21st Century Global Village” at: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/S1479-367920170000032008

  8. Robert Smart says:

    I think some clarification on the very definition need to be established otherwise the “bridge” into the world of work will continue to be misunderstood between universities and industry alike.
    Industries interpretation of skills, is not what I constantly hear from Universities.
    You cant simply relabel or tweak a curriculum or content as competences.
    Skills are demonstrable and factual capabilities to physically do something safely while demonstrating knowledge and understanding at the same time. It is a combined process that also gives the indication of risk.

    Using phrases above like “skills into competencies” are wrong. The very definition of the word competence are Skills and Knowledge combined, you cannot separate out the understanding of Skills in this manner when applied in an end result.

    You would not expect a pilot to only be able to articulate, explain and write a thesis about flying a plane. It is no accident they are only passed to fly certain types as well. It is based on observable and demonstrable skills in a real or simulated environment.

    Skills are a “Doing” attribute and to labour the point, passing a driving test requires the theory to be demonstrated first (exam etc), followed by a practical assessment to then be deemed competent to drive. it is not as a result of a written test etc, it is a combined practical and theoretical demonstration of ability and until training providers can master this concept, the “skills gap” will always be apparent to an employer.

    Last month 11% of employers thought universities offered some skills for the workplace, where 96% of Universities felt they were providing skills for the workplace. That says a lot about the “Understanding” of the very concept itself.

    Just look at Google, Apple etc who now hide credentials on CV”s as they mislead employers. A skills e-portfolio is a must, and certificates, statements, testimonies and exams will not provide the skills industry need to see with the level transparency they can trust.

    I should know, I was head assessor verifier for BMW, First Group and work with many industries from Rolls Royce PLC, to Government institutes.

    Now that I have had my commercial rant, I want to offer some support to Universities. Those that understand this concept and embrace it, and are able to clearly show the complete competencies of students will flourish and thrive. And I have seen some exceptional ones. However many still miss the point, and to this end it needs someone or something to stand back and say, hey.. what are we actually trying to do. And if this is something new, then are we internally equipped to deliver it to industries expectations. To me that is more the question and I fear too many are lost in an “Academic” translation of the very meaning of skills, competences and ability.

  9. Jill Tomasson Goodwin says:

    Thank you to the blog authors for weighing in on this important higher education issue and for providing a welcome student perspective in a conversation that has, to date, been taken up almost entirely by universities, colleges and employers.  

    At the University of Waterloo, our research team is completing a two-year, 3500-student, cross-campus study built on both your observation (that professional skills and competencies are largely invisible inside the classroom) and on Rob Shea’s work (that students have professional skills and competencies and that they can be taught to articulate these to employers). Our early quantitative results show that students can, in fact, identify the professional skills that are announced in course syllabi, and master, through a practice and feedback cycle, skills articulation by anticipating the behaviour-based questions employers routinely use during interviews (https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/bridging-articulation-skills-gap-through-watcv-career-and).  We welcome inquiries about our work in advance of 2018 dissemination (jtomasso@uwaterloo.ca for Professor Jill Tomasson Goodwin and klithgow@uwaterloo.ca for Katherine Lithgow, Centre for Teaching Excellence).

  10. Jen Davies says:

    Thanks for the student perspective!

    Those those interested in simple means for incorporating skills identifying and course syllabi may be interested in the work of Rob Shea and Rhonda Joy at MUN. A past presentation from Cannexus can be found here:
    https://www.google.ca/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=10&ved=0ahUKEwie_f2z8pjXAhVpw4MKHZ9UBWIQFghXMAk&url=http%3A%2F%2Fcannexus.ca%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2014%2F04%2Fadvancing-career-integrated-learning-at-memorial.ppt&usg=AOvVaw0dvDV7yyXVDQbJBw1jRPlq

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