Balancing Act: Content & Skills


Rope bridgeA search for “college graduate employment readiness” produces over 2.5 million hits on Google. Unfortunately, the top results have titles like: Study finds big gap between student and employer perceptions (Inside Higher Ed); Why are so many college students failing to gain job skills before graduation? (Washington Post); 2015 College Graduates May Not Be as Ready for the Workplace as They Think (Time). The titles reflect an expectations-performance gap in skills.

Why are graduates falling short? Bean & Carrithers (2008) point to one explanation. Recent graduates and students are often “asked to demonstrate skills they had never been explicitly taught or asked to practice” (p.21). There are several explanations. First, some professors are unconvinced, believing students should have developed skills before college. Others suggest skills are vocational and do not belong in higher education; firms, not the academy, should bear the responsibility. Some assume skills develop inevitably as students advance through the curriculum. Others may want to teach them explicitly, but don’t know where to start because skills fall outside their subject matter expertise. Last, skills can seem more challenging to define, teach and assess than disciplinary content.To close the gap, teachers and program leaders must plan skills instruction and assessment as carefully and thoroughly as disciplinary content.

The process starts with identifying pertinent skills and categorizing them as basic, learning, metacognitive, professional and intellectual. Basic skills include fundamental academic proficiencies like college-level reading, writing, communication, and quantitative skills. Learning and study skills consist of behaviors like time management, organization, review strategies, attentive listening and note taking. Metacognition encompasses the skills of self-regulation: assessing the task, evaluating strengths and weaknesses, planning, information management strategies, comprehension monitoring, debugging strategies, reflection, and evaluation. Professional skills are sometimes called soft-skills, workforce readiness, “non-cognitive,” or 21st-century skills. They include capacities like interpersonal communication, collaboration, technological literacy, discipline-specific attitudes, abilities and behaviors. Intellectual skills are the ones most teachers, students, parents, administrators and policymakers expect college graduates should develop by graduation: thinking critically, solving problems, analyzing evidence, and creating arguments. The number and grouping depends on program particulars and institutional characteristics.

After stakeholders identify target skills, assessment follows the typical sequence: defining goals, identifying outcomes, developing or selecting direct and indirect performance measures, gathering data, evaluating, and delineating subsequent action steps based on the findings (“closing the loop”). It’s worth noting that teaching and assessing skills is different than content instruction. For example, it’s fairly straightforward to teach and assess student’s understanding of the methods of revenue recognition in intermediate accounting. Teaching and assessing how well students can think critically about the implications of the methods is more complicated. Assessing how well students can apply this critical thinking in a new context (transference) presents additional complexity. Thus, teaching and assessing critical thinking and other skills requires different kinds of assignments and assessments. Optimally, skills should be incorporated throughout the curriculum. Students need to develop skills as they learn the discipline; research suggests standalone courses are less effective.

After skills have been identified, each needs to be defined in disciplinary context. What does proficiency of this skill mean in our discipline? What is/are the desired outcome(s)? What does mastery look like? What will students do to learn this skill? When and how often should each skill be taught? In what course or courses? What will students do to demonstrate capability?

Some faculty may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable teaching skills. Training may be necessary. Instructors need time and freedom to experiment with alternative pedagogies. Teachers may need to create new or adapt existing learning activities, assignments, and assessments. Students will need opportunities for practice, and teachers need to provide feedback while it’s happening. Both may necessitate changes in instructional tactics or how class time is allocated. Instructional changes take time and involve risks.

Successful assessment programs require continuity and faculty buy-in. Department heads reinforce skills’ importance and role in comprehensive education by collaborating with faculty. Actively engage in the process to measure what matters. Objective data on scanned forms may be easy collect, but those kinds of assessments may not capture skills mastery well. Carrithers & Bean describe a holistic process based on faculty discourse. Their approach adapts across disciplines and depends on faculty buy-in and leadership.

Meeting the demands of today’s world requires a shift in assessment strategies to measure the skills now prized in a complex global environment… We must move from primarily measuring discrete knowledge to measuring students’ ability to think critically, examine problems, gather information, and make informed reasoned decisions…

~ Partnership for 21st Century Skills Assessment

College graduates and the value of higher education are increasingly judged on more than disciplinary expertise. The skills expectations – performance gap suggests weakness in current instructional and assessment practices. To close the gap, we must promote skills as deliberately as discipline-based learning.


Carrithers, D. & Bean, J.C. (2008). Using a client memo to assess critical thinking of finance majors. Business Communication Quarterly, 71(1): 10-26.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills Assessment. (2007). E-paper. Accessed: June 29, 2016.



About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on August 30, 2016, in Learning, Students, Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Maryellen Weimer

    Powerful and persuasive, good friend.

    I take such pride in the way your blog is developing. Hats off!

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