Why can’t students recognise transferable skills?


In 2012, Georgetown University professor Randy Bass published an article in Educause Review that really frustrated me. In the article, “Disrupting ourselves: the problem of learning in higher education”, he claimed that students found little value in the assignments that they complete for college and university courses. “In my experience of holding focus groups and informal conversations with students, if you ask them where they think their deepest learning has taken place, they will sometimes point to one or two courses that had meaningful impact for them,” Bass wrote. “But they almost always point enthusiastically to the co-curricular experiences in which they invested their time and energy.”

My frustration didn’t stem from the thought that Bass’ idea was ridiculous and patently wrong. Instead, I was bothered by the small part of me that wondered if he might be right.

For starters, there was the anecdotal evidence that occasionally cropped up in my course evaluations. Students would tell me that my assignments were pointless, even when I had spent a lot of time trying to ensure that they weren’t. Case in point: I asked graduating students in my Transition to Work course to select a career path that interested them and for which a BA in psychology provided a solid foundation. I gave the class a research assignment and a template for writing up their findings. Among other things, they needed to look up the salary and projected demand for the job, as well as any further educational requirements. Once they had written it up, they uploaded their work to the university’s wiki server and I connected the link to our department’s website for other psychology majors to view.

I thought it was a good assignment. In addition to giving students a sense of the questions they should ask about a potential career (and where they could find reliable data to answer those questions), I thought it might help to foster some good career-related skills. Communication skills? Check. Technical skills? Check. Research and information literacy skills? Check and check. As an added bonus, the assignment was non-disposable and would be useful to the broader community of psychology majors in my department. On the course evaluations, though, two people told me that it was dumb. Fortunately, one was kind enough to explain why: the student had “no interest in editing webpages for a living”. Score one for Randy Bass.

I decided to test Bass’ claim further by looking at some data. The Transition to Work class also completes an e-portfolio assignment each year, and the first step in the process is to have students outline eight significant learning experiences they had while completing their degree. I don’t restrict where those experiences come from, so students do sometimes mention extracurricular activities as well as volunteering and paid work. Of the 534 experiences provided by the class as a whole, only 25 per cent were connected to assignments completed for coursework. A similar pattern was found at my university when we sampled broadly across graduating students from all disciplines. Another point for Bass.

By now, I was curious, so I had majors in my department evaluate two assignments that might reasonably be given in a psychology programme. One was a conventional 10-page essay; the other was a group-based assignment that involved editing a Wikipedia page related to a psychological concept, theory or process. The students wrote down, in their own words, what they thought the instructor’s goals were in giving the assignment to their class. They then provided both a “relevance rating” (how relevant they perceived the assignment to be in terms of their future career) and a written rationale for that rating.

The results of this small study were interesting: overwhelmingly, students felt that the instructor’s goal in asking students to do the assignments was to further their understanding of the assignments’ subject matter. Very few of them mentioned that the instructor might be trying to help them foster transferable skills, and this was particularly true for the essay. The relevance ratings came in right around the middle of the scale (4 out of 7), but the justifications for those ratings were helpful in providing some context. For the most part, relevance ratings were based on the content of the assignment (whether the subject matter would prove useful to them in their career), and on the features of the assignment (whether they imagined they’d have to do something similar to an essay or a wiki in their career).

I was troubled about the fact that students didn’t seem to spontaneously see the potential for course-based assignments to further their transferable skills. After all, assignments are often set up with skill development as an important objective, and those skills that are applicable to a wide range of careers, such as communication, collaboration and critical thinking, are typically prominent in instructors’ minds.

Moreover, it seemed to me that this was key to addressing Bass’ assertion that students didn’t fully appreciate the value of course assignments. If students understood that they could build important skills through these assignments, then it seemed to me they’d be more likely to understand their utility. Initially, I thought the answer was to simply be more explicit about skills in the assignment itself. I was wrong: further study suggested that making skills clear to students in the assignment instructions didn’t really move the needle on their perceptions of an assignment’s relevance to their future career.

It was a student comment that helped me to see why that might be true. In a candid conversation about a paper that she wrote for my introductory psychology class, a fourth-year history major explained to me why she had found writing an empirical manuscript to be pointless. (To be fair, she was much more diplomatic in her choice of words.) She started by focusing on the content of the paper, which didn’t seem terribly relevant to a history major who intended to go to grad school. When I pointed out that the assignment also provided practice with written communication, she was unmoved. To paraphrase her comments, the paper I had assigned might be relevant to the way psychologists communicate, but it in no way represented how historians “do” written communication.

It was those comments that really helped to crystallise my thinking about why Randy Bass might have been correct. I’m now starting to believe that it’s not enough to tell students about the transferable skills that assignments help develop, because many students need our help to recognise how skills transfer in the first place. To understand why some scaffolding might be necessary, let me take you on a very brief tour of some relevant research.

Psychologists have known for years that transfer of knowledge is hard work. In a classic experiment published in 1980 in Cognitive Psychology, University of Michigan researchers Mary Gick and Keith Holyoak provided participants with a scenario in which a doctor had a patient with a tumour. Radiation would kill the tumour, but the intensity of the ray that would be needed would also kill a substantial amount of the surrounding healthy tissue. What should be done?

The paper, titled “Analogical problem solving”, reported that many participants struggled to see one potential solution: irradiate the tumour from multiple directions using weaker rays that would spare the healthy tissue but whose power would aggregate when they converged on the tumour. The experimenters provided this solution to those participants who were unable to generate it themselves, and then gave everyone another problem. The second story was about a general who wanted to attack a nearby fortress. Explosives had been laid along all of the roads leading into the fortress. Consequently, no army could travel towards the fortress on any single road because the combined weight of the soldiers and equipment would detonate the explosives.

What’s interesting about the second problem is that it’s conceptually analogous to the first. In spite of this, very few people were able to spontaneously generate an answer to the fortress problem, even though they had heard the answer to the tumour problem only a few minutes earlier. Once the analogy was pointed out, however, people could easily come up with a solution to the story about the fortress.

In his 2010 book Why Don’t Students Like School? cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham provides a concise summary of why transfer of knowledge can be so difficult. Problems, he argues, have two components. The first is surface structure and relates to the problem’s superficial features. The second is deep structure, which refers to the problem’s fundamentals. In Gick and Holyoak’s study, the surface structure of the two problems would be tumours and fortresses. The common deep structure has to do with dividing up a positive force into smaller units that converge on a central location where their efforts can be combined.

The reason that transfer is hard rests on the idea that while surface structure is easy to see, deep structure, typically, is not. Our attention is often captured by the superficial aspects of a problem while its underlying fundamentals – which are critical to transfer – are elusive, especially for non-experts.

So how are surface and deep structures relevant to students’ perceptions of course assignments? Two observations are important. First, my students’ evaluation of the essay and Wikipedia assignments suggested that they were focused on their surface structure – the subject matter and obvious features. They weren’t as likely to see the less obvious deep structure common across many college assignments: broadly applicable skills that can be transferred to a career of their choice.

The second observation, though, is more important. I mentioned that even if we explicitly point out the skills an assignment is intended to foster, it still might not be enough to change students’ perceptions of its relevance to their career path. I now think that this is because students don’t just focus on the surface structure of the assignment, they also focus on the surface structure of the skills themselves.

The history major in introductory psychology looked at my assignment and saw writing that required her to develop the introduction, method, results and discussion sections for an empirical paper. It’s written communication, sure, but its surface structure suggested to her that it’s a niche variety of written communication that’s used by psychologists but would never be relevant to someone who wants to do an MA in history.

What, then, is the deep structure of the transferable skills that we want students to practise in our courses? I’m sure that people could debate the subtleties, but it seems to me that if we take written (and oral) communication as an example, the deep structure would involve things like:

  • Deciding what information should be presented: this includes figuring out what information is critical and what is more tangential, as well as considering what the audience already knows and what might need to be carefully explained
  • Deciding on an appropriate order in which to present the information to ensure comprehension
  • Considering how to promote the audience’s receptiveness to the message: this might include establishing the credibility of the information being presented, thinking about the tone of the writing, and considering how audience characteristics might shape their interpretation of the message
  • Ensuring clarity through proper spelling, grammar and appropriate word choice.

If you think about it, these fundamentals underlie many kinds of communication in all types of fields. They’re relevant to a marketing manager trying to design a social media campaign for a new product, but they would also apply to a cop who was testifying to a jury about an arrest that she made. They’d matter in an email that detailed the outcome of a three-hour meeting, as well as to a school psychologist telling parents about their son’s results on a test to detect learning disabilities.

That very same deep structure of communication is important when I ask my first-year psychology class to write a short empirical paper and when I have my third-year students do a Ted-Ed talk. And I’m sure those same fundamentals apply when other instructors have students lead seminar discussions or write short stories or chemistry lab reports. What’s more, learning research suggests that developing expertise in a particular skill is more likely if you practise it in a variety of contexts. Becoming a good writer, then, is more likely when you write history and psychology papers, rather than just history papers alone.

If we want students to see value in our course-based activities, we need to help them move beyond the surface features of assignments and see transferable skills. More importantly, though, we need to acknowledge that doing the “transfer” that’s implied in transferable skills is likely to be hard for them, and that they may need our help to see the deep structure of key skills like communication, critical thinking and collaboration.

Is it worth the time and effort? I’m convinced that the answer is yes, and it was Randy Bass who has helped me to understand why. In his Educause Review essay, Bass speaks of the need to design learning experiences with a “post-course consciousness” that will help students see boundaries between course assignments and other life experiences as fluid rather than firm. Fostering an appreciation of deep structure and transfer is one way that we can press students to see how the skills being developed in our assignments can be useful in other areas of their lives – including a career that may, on the surface, seem completely unrelated.

Author Bio: Tanya Martini is a professor in the faculty of social sciences at Brock University, Ontario, Canada.