Students in higher education go through a number of transitions in close proximity.
There’s transition from school to higher education, transition through stages of a programme and after a few years transition into the labour market or further study.
Across those stages there is a transition from a structured approach to studying for A levels (or similar exams) to an independent model of learning. And for most, there is a transition from being close to family and friends they have known for years to having to present themselves to new people – with a renewed need for self-awareness in light of their new surroundings.
For those students finding themselves enrolled in a higher education course in 2020 they have to go through an additional transition: navigating a global pandemic which has limited their opportunities to complete internships, work while studying, or equip themselves with skills and networks which might prove useful when looking for graduate employment.
Not what you know
The importance of moving beyond a knowledge curriculum has been highlighted extensively. For example, there are calls for assessing competencies, developing skills which will be crucial for students’ future, and government initiatives to create degree apprenticeships.
An agenda that complements all of this and is gaining prominence is critical self reflection – and the way in which it can positively contribute towards students increased self-awareness. It enables students to be better able to manage their expectations, overcome the challenges posed by a different social life and an independent learning style, and are able to reflect on the skills they have developed during their studies.
There have been studies which support that self-reflection should be not only about cognition and what one has achieved academically, but acknowledging one’s emotions: reflection is a matter of hand and heart. If part of the aim of higher education is to prepare students for work, a reflective, skills-based approach to higher education helps students prepare for life, including their professional lives.
So how might higher education courses adopt a self-reflective element to help students navigate what is to come – the professional and academic landscape post-covid-19?
A skills development approach
It is important to enable students to articulate their strengths and weaknesses. This is not only relevant for a job interview but because we know that people who are able to reflect on their character strengths and weaknesses experience better subjective wellbeing.
For our undergraduate work-integrated modules we have created a skills development framework where we ask students to reflect on a number of skills they develop across the 3 years of studying. Every term they fill in a skills audit which enables them to break down the various skills into their individual components.
Lastly, they look for (and write about) ways they can develop these skills in relation to their professional and academic performance and set realistic goals. In a world of uncertainty being able to reflect on one’s skills, strengths and weaknesses, and act accordingly, can be beneficial in navigating the future.
Why a focus on skills?
So why have we taken this approach to skills? Teaching students metacognition (teaching them to think about their thinking and to act on this thinking) allows students to understand their strengths and limits and to make good decisions. This overlaps significantly with teaching approaches that build student autonomy over their learning and require student self-regulation and efficacy.
We believe it is this combination that is crucial to student success. Modules that require students to unpack their own thinking and their action and then require them to take concrete steps based on this (in our case, this involves setting goals and timelines, collecting and responding to feedback on their ideas, coming up with real-world solutions for a problem, and reflecting on the limits of their knowledge) build in students the skills they need to navigate uncertainty and engage with complex problems. It also builds students’ confidence and their willingness to take intellectual risks.
We have seen this in student responses to the recent move to online teaching with students comments that despite the rapid change, it was “very refreshing to have a new style of teaching”. Also, by encouraging them to continually reflect on their progress with regular “check-ups” with tutors, students have been able to set realistic goals while recognising areas for improvement.
Teamwork and peer review
Higher education usually places an emphasis on individual achievement without providing adequate opportunities to engage in teamwork and collaborative tasks. However, Covid-19 has shed light on the importance of community and support for one another.
For a recent survey we did, we found that students believe the importance of teamwork and collaboration are important not only for their future employability but also for them navigating the current crisis. Students have expressed missing their peers and not being able to socialise on campus or just making small talk during breaks. Even though they have spent a lot of quality time with their families, not seeing peers who they might only see at university is very important.
This is very aptly described as the need of interacting with weak ties (those we might interact with on a casual basis rather than family and our close friendship group), something which can contribute to happiness and wellbeing. We have shifted all our teaching online with an emphasis on “breakout rooms”, collaborative tasks, and peer working opportunities. Students are regularly asked to give each other feedback and comment on each other’s work and progress.
They have expressed they find the process beneficial as it allows them to support each other not only academically but also have these “small talk” discussions they would have in the classroom. This increased emphasis on teamwork and collaboration is something we will extend into the next academic year and will inform our thinking of module design.
Teaching metacognition and teaching students to reflect, to work as a team, and moving beyond a knowledge-based curriculum provides students with the skills they need to navigate their transition into and out of higher education. But more than that – it equips them to handle other transitions throughout their lives.
We have seen students using these skills to navigate the challenging circumstances we all find ourselves as a result of Covid-19. This approach to teaching and learning prepares students for the unprecedented world they have found themselves in and should be part of any teaching and learning planning for the next academic year.