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How to develop student employability skills

Employers want graduates who are work-ready. The work-ready soft skills most in demand include teamwork and collaboration, leadership, interpersonal, and communication skills. The ability to give and receive feedback is a paramount component of collaborative teamwork. Unfortunately, many teachers don’t teach these skills in university courses. Quite often we simply hope that students develop these skills on their own when doing group work in class or during more formal group assignments. It is possible that some students will acquire these skills without much intervention from the teacher. However, for the majority of students, a formal methodology is required to develop and hone their employability competencies through their group assignments.

The methodology that we advocate is quite simple: 

  • With your students, define what it means to be a good team member. Break that definition down into the components or attributes that align closely with being an effective team player, such as involving others, managing conflict, and chairing meetings.
  • Construct a rubric to further define the different success levels for each of those attributes (For example,  what behaviours must a person exhibit to receive a superior, average, or mediocre performance rating for the attribute of chairing meetings. 
  • Give students the responsibility to peer assess one another against the criteria outlined in the rubric
  • Train students how to give and receive qualitative feedback that illustrates key highlights of the quantitative ratings determined using the rubric

Teamwork attributes and rubric

Students should receive training in the assessment practices they will use (Sprague, Wilson, & McKenzie, 2019).

Before students start doing their group assignments, it’s important they understand what it means to be an effective team member and that they will be held accountable to those standards. One starting point is to introduce students to the ten attributes that we use in our peer assessment survey, adapted from The Team Learning Assistant Workbook

Once the students have been shown the ten teamwork attributes, you explore how the different gradations of each attribute can be demonstrated. This is best exemplified by introducing the students to the rubric that will be used for peer assessment. At this point, it’s imperative to go through the rubric and discuss the differences between being a novice and an expert practitioner for each of the ten attributes. By the end of the exercise, students will understand what it means to be an effective teammate and know the measures to reliably peer assess their team members. This process is presented in much more detail in Step 3 of our ebook, How to teach using GROUP ASSIGNMENTS:  The 7 step formula for fair and effective team assessments.”

Fair opportunity to adjust behaviour and outcome 

“When teammate peer assessment has the prospect of materially raising or lowering the grade for an academic programme then early formative peer assessment and feedback should be used to provide students with fair opportunity to adjust their behaviour to gain the grade they seek” Academic Policy 3 in Chapter 2 – Why peer feedback?

We advocate that students conduct peer assessments twice during a group assignment. The first peer assessment activity must be formative and no later than halfway through the group assignment. This will give students the opportunity to adjust any unconstructive behaviours that their team members have identified so that they can be better team members for the remainder of the group assignment. This will also give the teacher the opportunity to identify at-risk individuals and teams.  

The second peer assessment can be summative and used to determine individual grades from a group score using a peer assessment platform such as PEER ASSESS PRO that automatically calculates individual grades based on their peer-assessed scores

The feedback delivered to the student after each event lets them know their strengths and weaknesses of being an effective team member. Over time, this peer feedback and teamwork training help students develop and hone their employability competencies.

Courageous conversations

Once students receive their peer assessment feedback, dedicate a portion of the next class for teams to meet and formally discuss the feedback that was received. If this was the formative peer assessment conducted halfway through the project, the team can discuss ways to improve during the final stages of their group assignment. The process is comparable to a sprint retrospective that comes after a scrum sprint in agile development. 

The sprint retrospective is a recurring meeting held at the end of a sprint used to discuss what went well during the previous sprint cycle and what can be improved for the next sprint. The Agile sprint retrospective is an essential part of the Scrum framework for developing, delivering, and managing complex projects (What is a sprint retrospective?).

One of the activities that we do in our formative retrospective is formal feedback. In this activity, one group member leaves the room. The remaining team members provide formal feedback that will be read out to the student when they rejoin the group. Of course, there is a formal methodology that we use to structure our feedback that is taught to the students beforehand. The methodology is based on the BET (behaviour, effect, thanks) and BEAR (behaviour, effect, alternative, result) models of giving feedback. I illustrate this methodology in a presentation given at the Talking Teaching symposium in 2019 (view video).

Teaching students the art of giving and receiving feedback is an excellent way to help students develop these soft skills. Unfortunately, giving and receiving peer feedback is not a skill that comes naturally to most people. With practice, students will perform better in group projects and hone their work-ready soft skills. 

Students don’t naturally learn to become effective team members by simply participating in group assignments. Just like acquiring other skills and knowledge, work-ready soft skills must be taught by the teacher and practised by the student until mastery of those skills has been attained. Peer assessment and feedback are crucial to the process as this is often the only formal guidance that students will receive about how they are progressing.

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