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Stuff they should already know

In May 2015, Anya Kamenetz wrote an NPR Online piece titled “Nonacademic Skills Are Key To Success. But What Should We Call Them?” She suggests the following terms and phrases are often used imprecisely and interchangeably:

  • 21st Century Skills
  • Character Education
  • Grit
  • Growth Mindset
  • Non-cognitive Traits & Habits
  • Social & Emotional Skills
  • Soft Skills

The article discusses the pros and cons of alternative definitions, interrelationships, and overlaps. The terms and phrases lack clarity making it difficult to teach, research, and assess these skills. Inconsistent usage and intent also promote disagreement about what is most important for students.


Photo credit: LA Johnson, NPR

Additional terms and phrases were suggested in the comments: life skills; coping skills; emotional intelligence; social-emotional learning; Achievement Behavioral Skills; educating the whole person. “Life skills” was widely endorsed and generally preferred over the seven phrases discussed in the article.

A number of respondents (primarily elementary and high school teachers) questioned when and where life skills should be learned. Many suggested these skills are “stuff your parents should have taught you,” implying teachers shouldn’t bear this responsibility.

How does this connect to teaching and learning in higher ed?

I am currently researching informal communication in accounting. Research shows many faculty believe students should already possess these skills. It’s also common to blame students; data suggests accounting programs attract students who are weaker communicators than those in other majors. Students are also blamed for failing to understand the importance of good communication skills. Another popular rationalization is that skills education is vocational and doesn’t belong in higher education. In sum, elementary teachers blame parents. High schools say “life skills,” like interpersonal skills, should have been learned in primary school or taught at home and the academy denies responsibility or blames everyone else.

The buck must stop here. We can lament the circumstances and wish things were different. But since most of us are teaching in places where students possess these skills to limited degrees, it’s time for teachers to ask themselves some hard questions.

If I teach technical content and students develop mastery but they lack “skills” like the ability to communicate informally, have I met my professional responsibility?

Likewise, program leaders should ask:

What barriers inhibit students’ skills development in our courses and programs?

What are the ramifications of teaching skills outside the discipline? For example, what are the implications of teaching writing or speaking in a communications or writing course v. teaching them within technical courses?

It’s also time for institutions to ask: What does an offer of admission imply?

Have you been following the “drowned bunnies” story at Mount Saint Mary’s? Their president suggested the school’s 6-year graduation rate could be strategically improved if high-risk students are “weeded out” during the first few weeks. He is quoted as saying: “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”

Essentially, newly admitted students (not knowing the purpose of the questionnaire) would be asked to respond to questions designed  to identify those at high-risk. They would be encouraged to leave. Those who disagreed with the program publicly, have been relieved of duty (the provost) and fired (two faculty). You can follow the ugly story here and here.

If we don’t think a student can be successful, we should not offer admission. We must also acknowledge that higher education isn’t responsible or able to fill all the skills gaps students have when they arrive. But if we admit them, we have an obligation to provide opportunities to learn content and develop skills. The academy has focused a lot on content, particularly in technical fields. It’s time we do more.






Same old song

A colleague and I were discussing frustrating and unproductive student behaviors.  You know the list of gripes faculty have about students: unmotivated, under-prepared for higher ed, unprepared for class, apathetic, etc.

I wondered if it’s always been this way: faculty complaining about students “these days.”  Sure, there’s a lot that sets the Millennials apart from prior generations, but the real question I wanted an answer to is this:  Have faculty always longed for “better” students?  And closely related: Have teachers always thought back to their own time as students as the good old days when students were serious, worked harder, etc?

To begin to get a handle on these questions, I decided to look back several decades into the teaching and learning literature.  Surely, the titles of the articles would suggest the hot-button and critical issues teachers were facing then.  Generally, articles were more focused on the quality of teaching, than they were detailing with students’ behavioral issues.  Evidence-based pedagogical scholarship was really just getting started in the 40s and 50s.  Quality of programming, growing enrollments and hiring enough qualified faculty were issues discussed then as now.  Technology was different, but it was also discussed.  Specific to Penn State was a large experiment dealing with television and televised lectures and how that might revolutionize higher education, definitely prescient of MOOCs, blended/flipped/online and other technology-enhanced instruction that are part of today’s literature.

But as to teacher’s views on students’ attitudes, behaviors, and preparation, there is a long history of teacher frustrations:

“It became rather customary to say that a certain large percentage of the Freshman must fail because of lack of preparation, or lack of brains, or both. The attitude, generally speaking, of the state university was that the Freshman must adapt himself to collegiate methods and subjects; there should be no mollycoddling!” P186. Rightmire, G.W. 1930. The Floundering Freshman. The Journal of Higher Education, 1(4): 185-192.

“A lack of seriousness in the college student today is possibly due to the absence of a realization of his own importance in this drama of education. He is the star- teachers, books, equipment, and all else are the props, scenery, and cast. The inner force in him is his will power that must be the propeller to set the machinery into action.” P32. Arnoldy, M.D. 1955. Stimulating an Appetite for Knowledge and the Projection of It. Improving College and University Teaching, 3(2): 32-33.

“As a teacher handles more and more freshman and sophomore classes in college, he becomes aware of the deficiencies of our mass education: students lack of interest, poor reading ability, poor writing ability, lack of basic knowledge, and lack of good study habits.” Karner, E.F. 1965. Our Dilemma of Mass Education. Improving College and University Teaching, 13(1): 38.

“… the majority of students in the sample spent far less time in preparation than the assumed two period standard frequently listed by colleges and universities as desirable.” p309. Marwardt, F., Sikkink, D.E. 1970. Student Preparation Time. Improving College and University Teaching, 18(4): 308-309.

So what’s a teacher to do?  Allowing for some occasional venting about students “these days,” we need to face the reality that teachers have always longed for “better” students.  Ah those good old days…