Using active learning techniques to facilitate employability and enterprise skills acquisition
Professor Karen Heard-Lauréote and Dr Mark Field
What is the idea?
This active learning strategy utilises the opportunities and challenges of embedding employability and enterprise skills within the curriculum in UK higher education undergraduate provision. By delivering skills acquisition through a standalone module, this strategy addresses the question as to how academics can ‘teach’ employability and enterprise.
To promote the acquisition of transferable employability and enterprise skills, we developed and introduced a second-year module ‘Politics and Policy in Action’ to the undergraduate Politics and International Relations curriculum. This thirteen-week module is designed as a continuously assessed simulation exercise which allows students to develop and then demonstrate key employability skills such as communication, problem-solving and decision-making. The learning and teaching strategy shifts away from the didactic approach towards more student-centred and student-directed learning (Bovill, 2020).
Throughout the module, students work in small, self-managed groups of four or five. They are required to apply discipline, knowledge, principles and concepts applicable to civil society and social mobilisation, to engage in the analysis of policy and the development of an ensuing campaign or lobbying strategy to effectively influence policy. The taught element of the module is delivered by both academic staff and practitioners involved in local campaigns. The latter offer practical guidance on campaigning and provide feedback on both the groups’ campaign proposals and on their final campaign launch.
In the delivery of the practical assessment outlined at module start, students are required to use creative thinking and problem-solving skills, strategic planning skills, teamwork and delegation skills and to be able to deliver a brief. These are all key, advanced employability skills that will stand students in good stead for their future careers by providing them with practical work-based examples to draw on in applications, assessment centres and interviews.
The module constitutes a step-change in the provision of employability within the Politics and International Relations curriculum. Rather than seeking to teach the skills associated with employability, students naturally acquire these skills through the selection, management and delivery of their own campaign. In its design, the module utilises assessment as a continuous and formatively driven exercise which includes team activities (summatively assessed through the group campaign proposal and the final group campaign launch) and a comprehensive individual activity (assessed through a detailed self-reflective journal with several formative submission points along the way).
Formal module feedback from the students has been positive, particularly in terms of the creation of their campaign. Importantly, however, the comments in the students’ individual reflective journals frequently identified areas of generic skills that need further development. Within the wider department, the module is viewed as a model of good practice for the teaching of employability related content. At the institutional level, the module positively contributes to the metrics related to Graduate Outcomes data against which all higher education institutions are benchmarked against sector.
Why this idea?
Whilst degree-level study has always had a role in facilitating the development of students’ professional skills, this facet of an HE course is now a policy priority for the UK Government: one that poses a significant challenge for the delivery of non-vocational academic programmes across the HE sector.
The principle underpinning this chapter and the active learning strategy we present, is that self-managed activities coupled with peer-to-peer learning help to develop students’ generic skills such as judgement, prioritisation, goal setting and confidence. By then inviting students to consider and discuss the obstacles, barriers, and successful strategies related to communication, problem solving, and critical thinking, their capacity for reflective learning is enhanced.
How could others implement this idea?
- Divide students into groups of four/five. If a group is self-selecting, stress to students the importance of including a range of skills within the group.
- Ensure each student has a defined role within the group (e.g., leader; social media expert; networker; researcher).
- Provide exemplar campaigns. If possible, invite members of local campaigns to support students’ learning and to provide practitioner guidance. Encourage these practitioners to help assess group campaign launches.
- Allow students space and time to brainstorm ideas for appropriate and deliverable local campaigns.
- Assessment one (which may be formative or low proportion summative): a group written campaign proposal (such as a shared document) to include compulsory project management elements such as stakeholder analysis; PESTEL etc.
- Require students to identify strengths and weaknesses within their campaign proposal and within their group (e.g., through SWOT analysis).
- Support students as they develop their campaigns but continually stress the need for self-managed delivery and dealing with adversity (e.g., in addressing the ‘free-rider’ issue).
- Assessment two (summative). A group campaign launch. This could be, for example, a campaign film and/or a poster supported by a social media campaign. Launch should be in person and, if possible, audience and assessors should include campaign practitioners.
- Assessment three (summative). An individual reflective journal that identifies strengths and weaknesses of own and others’ contributions to the campaign and an assessment of skills acquired and those that need further practice.
Transferability to different contexts
Although producing a campaign lends itself neatly to a politics-related programme, for this case study this is simply a subject-appropriate vehicle for utilising and developing the key skills valued by employers. In practice, skills acquisition is a function of the autonomy and self-managed nature of the group activity, rather than the outcome of the group work. As such, this case study could be easily adapted for other disciplines.
For example, criminology students could work in small groups to identify and deliver a solution to an aspect of low-level community crime. Mechanical engineering students could participate in an industry sponsored group design sprint to resolve an identified mechanical problem and devise a workable and fully costed solution as part of a hackathon event. Fine Art students could organise and curate an exhibition of their collected works as part of a cooperative – organising an exhibition of their work as a cooperative-style endeavour where commissions, space allocations and themes must be negotiated. Accountancy & Finance students could work together as a team of auditors, scrutinising the books of a real SME to ensure the accuracy of accounts and check for regulatory compliance. History students could work together in small groups to identify significant heritage features in a local area and use this as a basis to devise and develop an interactive mobile app-based map to orientate both visitors and interested local residents.
Bovill, C. (2020). Co-creation in learning and teaching: The case for a whole-class approach in higher education. Higher Education, 79, 1023-1037. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-019-00453-w