Blog Archives

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.



Skills & Content: Challenging the zero-sum mindset

Imagine an accountant. What comes to mind? Slightly, or not so slightly, nerdy? Wearing a pocket protector? Glasses? Holding a calculator? Lacking interpersonal skills?

nerd piggy bank 3d

Now consider the following quotes, from partners at CPA firms:

  • The accounting profession is a communication business.
  • The most serious deficiency I see in the new people coming into our firm is a lack of good verbal and written communication skills.
  • All other skills lose importance and usefulness when combined with poor communication skill.
  • Oral communication skills…are extremely important… More emphasis has to be given to this area in college courses.

Are you surprised to learn these statements were reported nearly 30 years ago in The CPA Journal (Hanson, 1987)?  The need for good communication skills is not confined to CPAs or accounting majors.  A 2015 article in Inside Higher Ed reported only 28% of employers think graduates are well prepared in oral communication (AAC&U survey of 400 firms). The accounting education literature refers to this problem as the expectations-performance gap. The gap persists for many reasons. Today’s post considers just one: misplaced priorities.

Very little accounting education research deals with oral communication in general, and fewer address interactive communication skills. A search of “teaching communication” in the Journal of Accounting Education (JoAE) yields 7 hits, all from the 1980s. In contrast, searching “teaching APB” in JoAE yields 38 hits, the first in 1983, the most recent in 2014. Similarly, searches on “teaching SFAS,” “teaching SAS,” and “teaching IFRS” generate 42, 91, and 30 hits, respectively, ranging from the 1980s to the present.  Technical content is a priority. That’s appropriate.

Clearly, programs and instruction should teach discipline-based knowledge and competencies, but not at the expense of interpersonal or learning skills. Technically proficient graduates lacking communication skills will face limited career prospects. Similarly, highly skilled communicators lacking disciplinary expertise will also experience difficulties in career advancement. Graduates in all majors, not just accounting, need both.

The gap’s persistence suggests the academy’s responses to the calls for instructional and curricular change to promote skills like interpersonal communication have been ineffective. Some programs respond by adding communications courses. Often, there is an emphasis on formal presentations, but few opportunities for students to practice interactive oral communication in the discipline. Perhaps most telling, very little accounting ed research addresses how to integrate content instruction with skills development. (The gap across majors suggests this isn’t just an accounting ed issue.)

One explanation may be that many in higher ed believe the fundamental goal of education is to provide students with sound technical competency and content knowledge; teaching skills isn’t important or appropriate (Blanthorne, Bhamornsiri, & Guinn, 2005 and St Pierre & Rebele, 2014 discuss this in the context of accounting). Collectively, the academy hasn’t demonstrated a commitment to developing skills. Taking that one step further, one can say teachers and programs promote technical competency at the expense of skills, as if teaching both is mutually exclusive or a zero-sum endeavor. It doesn’t have to be.

Educators and program leaders “need to find innovative ways to deliver on the demands of stakeholders if they wish to remain relevant and competitive and the providers of choice” (deVilliers, 2010, p. 11).  To close the expectations-performance gap, teachers and administrators need to “see some aspects of skills development as paralleling the needs of students’ intellectual development… In this light we need to see skills development not as something that can be ignored in the accounting curriculum, or seen as a ‘necessary evil’ forced on us by educational bureaucracy and the accounting profession, but an essential element of the path to providing a successful accounting education experience” (Stoner & Milner, 2010, p. 136). Although Stoner & Milner were writing about accounting education, their points apply broadly.  Skills should be an integral part of comprehensive education.

It’s time for teachers and administrators to initiate conversations about the expectations-performance gap. What skills do graduates need?  In what sequence of courses are they best developed (let’s coordinate skills education like we coordinate content)? What kinds of assignments and activities promote each skill (formal presentations are valuable, but they don’t achieve the same outcomes as other oral communication activities)?  How can skills be more fully integrated with discipline-based instruction and programming (instead of adding a few communication courses into the major)?

Promoting skills and content isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s time to revisit our instructional and programmatic priorities, because closing the expectations-performance gap is long overdue.


Blanthorne, C., Bhamornsiri, S., & Guinn, R.E. (2005). Are Technical Skills Still Important?: Certified Public Accountant. The CPA Journal, 75(3): 64-65.

Dow, K.J., & Feldman, D.A. (1994). Educating future CPAs: A survey of accounting professors. Massachusetts CPA Review, 68(1): 20-22.

Hanson, G.A. (1987). The Importance of Oral Communication in Accounting Practice: Certified Public Accountant. The CPA Journal, 57(12): 118-122.

Stoner, G. & Milner, M. (2010). Embedding Generic Employment Skills in an Accounting Degree: Development and Impediments. Accounting Education: an international journal, 19(1-2): 123-138.

St Pierre, E. K., & Rebele, J. E. (2014). An agenda for improving accounting education. In R. M. S. Wilson (Ed.), The Routledge companion to accounting education. Oxford: Routledge.

de Villiers, R. (2010). The incorporation of soft skills into accounting curricula: preparing accounting graduates for their unpredictable futures. Meditari Accountancy Research, 18(2): 1-22.