Asking what are student learning outcomes in the context of employment might seem like a redundant question. Many consider employment and academia to have different goals.
Academia is sure to enhance a student’s understanding of the subject they are studying and to broaden their mind. This is not a goal that can always be defined.
Conversely, setting goals for student learning outcomes to prepare for employment has the end goal of preparing a student for a specific job. In fact, this is a purist interpretation of a university education system. It does not match up to the demands of the real world.
Universities should – and are – capable of setting student learning outcomes that cater to both the academic output of the university and employers.
What Are Student Learning Outcomes?
Student learning outcomes are a way of measuring the skills and knowledge students should have at the end of a defined period of learning. A good course has outcomes for every stage. From the individual seminar right up to the entire degree program itself.
Student learning outcomes can take the form of a particular set of knowledge. If a student was studying a history degree it would reasonable for one learning outcome to be ‘having a basic grasp of the major events in world history’.
Assessing this objective could take the form of a short exam. This could ask students to remember key dates and events and describe them.
Another learning outcome could be ‘having strong analytical skills’. This could be assessed by an extended essay based on a range of challenging sources.
Skills and knowledge form the basis of student learning outcomes.
The ‘Awareness Gap’
It is clear that universities do put in the work to ensure that most of their courses relate to both academia and building the necessary skills for employment.
But it is clear that a lot of the time students don’t know how to advertise the meaningful employment skills they have learned whilst at university. Nor are they always aware of what they have learned and how that might apply in a work setting.
This is called the awareness gap and it is a growing problem in universities around the world. In order to try and fix it, good universities are keen to make students aware of what they have learned both at the start and the end of each lecture, module or seminar.
Most universities have a careers service and they now often play a bigger role in determining those learning outcomes. In fact careers, based learning is becoming part of the curriculum.
Some lectures in courses of any discipline are devoted to explaining and teaching how the skills on the course link to specific jobs.
Most universities also offer a department or school-specific careers advisor who is expected to have specialist knowledge of both the subject and employers to be able to bridge the gap between the two.
Macro Vs Micro Student Learning Outcomes
It’s not just skills and knowledge that are assessed in learning outcomes, they can also be divided up into micro and macro student learning outcomes.
Microlearning objectives are what students are expected to learn through attending the classes, engaging with their professor and reading the list of set books each week. These objectives can only, therefore, be skills based. But like all student learning outcomes, they cannot be realized without the help of a great teacher.
Macro learning objectives are about what all graduates should have achieved. They are based on the ethos and values of the university. Furthermore, they are determined by both senior executive staff and academic experts.
Our website, for example, has the macro objectives for our company, which is led by our core ethos and values.
Macro objectives are to some extent harder to gauge. They can include values and core ideas as well as specific targets. So having a deeper understanding of different cultures and backgrounds might be one value the university hopes to instill in its students.
This could be realized through the various different cultural and academic exchange programs and summer schools that the university runs. Or indeed it might be reflected in the large and diverse student backgrounds that the university takes on.
Another macro value could be one of critical thinking and debate. The university could try to arrange a diverse range of thinkers and speakers through the students’ union. They could also finance guest lecturers from experts from other universities. This means that students are exposed to lots of different ideas. This could help them to re-think and re-consider their world view.
Macro Learning Objectives Can Only Guide
But these macro goals can only be a helping hand to students. The university can only create conditions that can help to expose students to diverse backgrounds and critical thinking. This doesn’t necessarily mean that students will achieve these goals when they leave the institution. Nor is there any realistic way of measuring them.
The same applies to employer-based student learning goals. They are macro goals since the university can only try to create the right conditions for the student to improve his or her employability.
Linking Students’ Learning and Employability
One way in which universities have tried to link employability to a goal that can be measured is through creating their own qualifications for employment. A student studies these alongside his or her course.
The course consists of both micro and macro goals that the university feels employers want.
Loughborough University in England, U.K trialed something called an Employability Award. It was not compulsory but it did allow students to complete practical tasks that could be considered micro learning objectives. They could then reflect on them in a write up which was part of the macro learning objective.
A student was awarded points for placements and extracurricular activities they had completed, for languages they had learned and even for any student organisations, they had been part of. The award also helped to boost pride in the university. It encouraged students to get involved with the university community.
The award was a proper qualification. It was handed out at degree ceremonies and employers value it.
What Employers Want
In order to establish what employment based student learning outcomes should be, it is important to consult employers. Getting universities and employers on the same page can help reduce the relatively low unemployment rate amongst graduates.
Figuring out what employers want is vitally important. Overwhelmingly what employers want are well-rounded students.
A student who has the skills and the knowledge base to be able to carry out his or her job without too much on-the-job training is important. Indeed it is clear that being goal orientated is also vitally important. This means an employee who knows where he or she is going in terms of their career ladder.
But employers also want someone who is curious. Someone who will investigate matters further on a specific project. Someone who will work independently to come up with new solutions. This requires creativity, someone who is well read and a critical thinker. These all tie into the macro student learning outcomes that many universities state are part of their ethos and long term goals.
With the challenges that many businesses face being global, employers also want students to have a broad knowledge of different cultures and that is why study abroad programs are so popular at universities.
Student Learning Outcomes And Employment Do Go Hand-In-Hand
It is also clear that employers don’t want students to follow a strictly academic program. They don’t want students just taking tests and retaining information. And most universities don’t just recognize this, they relish it.
This is one of the reasons why many courses in history now do not just focus on Britain. They also investigate historical change across the world. This would meet both the academic goal of getting students to learn a broad scope of historical knowledge and to learn about different cultures. This helps satisfy businesses looking for employees who can operate and think globally.
Both the macro and the micro-objectives of universities are often implicitly centered around making students more employable. One of the biggest problems is educating students to be aware of how the objectives they are meeting for their course are helping their employment goals. The goal is to have every student confidently be able to answer what are student learning outcomes?
Because at the moment students often sell themselves short. In fact, they have already achieved a huge range of micro and macro learning objectives that would look very impressive to employers.
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