Posted by: Margaret Blackburn, Senior Advisor, Strategic Learning and Teaching Initiatives, Office of the Dean, Learning and Teaching, Academic Portfolio, RMIT University.
As publisher and presidential advisor C. D. Jackson said, ‘Great ideas need landing gear as well as wings’. The notion of graduate attributes is a pretty abstract one, so the challenge is to provide some landing gear and make them mean something to students and teachers. Otherwise, the risk is that they’ll stay in orbit somewhere in the educational stratosphere and make little impact on the ground.
At RMIT, we have a set of six graduate attributes. They are skills or qualities that we expect all of our graduates, whatever their specific program, will have had the chance to acquire to a suitable level. We want them to be work ready, to be active and lifelong learners and so on. But what does this mean for the curriculum and for how it is delivered, learned and assessed?
Before we go further, let’s agree that there’s confusion over the range of terms used to describe these qualities. Aren’t we talking about learning outcomes here? Well, yes, but we are now being more precise with outcomes at different levels. At the course level, we have outcomes that are assessed to and gained by successful completion of a course. But outcomes also exist at the program level (what we used to call ‘program capabilities’) and above and informing these are RMIT’s graduate attributes.
As a tertiary environment at RMIT, we also use the TAFE sector’s labels of competencies, elements, performance criteria and employability skills.
In the new program guide matrix developed to meet AQF requirements, program capabilities are now referred to as program learning outcomes. The matrix enables teachers to align program learning outcomes with the overarching graduate attributes and in the other direction, down to the courses of the program. Work is currently underway to complete this.
TEQSA now requires institutions to demonstrate that all of their graduate attributes, including English language competency, have been attained. Why this new focus on outcomes? The tertiary context has changed radically in recent years. There can be a haphazard quality to the bundle of skills, knowledge and attributes students graduate with. Degrees from different institutions vary in terms of minimum standards as well as content. The kaleidoscope of higher participation rates, funding pressures, more varied models and modes of learning, have all led to a new focus on outcomes and how to measure them. Research also points to a need to re-examine the role of graduate attributes when it comes to standards.
To breathe life into graduate attributes in curricula, in teaching and learning and in assessment, the key is context. To use the word ‘generic’ to describe graduate attributes suggests that we can ‘unplug’ graduate attributes entirely from a specific discipline or teaching area. But Anna Jones’ research indicates that they are not ‘generic’ or ‘super skills’ that exist beyond disciplinary contexts or professional and vocational fields. Graduate attributes don’t exist in a vacuum. Rather, they start with the content and culture of particular disciplines or fields. A key question is: what is the essence of this discipline? Jones found that the ways that graduate attributes are taught and learned depend on the conceptual frameworks, language, assessment practices, technologies and even physical settings that form the heart of particular disciplines, professions and vocations. As de-contextualised statements, they don’t work. This makes sense to the classroom teacher or lecturer who ideally is also a practitioner or has a deep knowledge of their industry counterparts.
Although the terminology is the same for different disciplines and fields, for example ‘work ready’, graduate attributes have different meanings and are weighted differently in every field or profession. For example, a ‘work ready’ engineering graduate will prioritise in-depth technical competence in at least one engineering discipline. In media and communications, work readiness is primarily about creative practice and critical reflection. ‘Innovative’ in fashion and design disciplines may spotlight imaginative and creative endeavours whereas in business disciplines, innovation is about designing new rules and processes that improve traditional business models. In a business degree, ‘cultural and social awareness’ should include an understanding of how enterprise and business activities affect groups and individuals. In social sciences, however, to understand social justice issues in professional settings may be an essential aspect of this attribute.
Where do you start to bring graduate attributes down to earth? One approach is, as per the King of Hearts, ‘begin at the beginning’. Consider what gives your discipline or field its identity, its own distinguishing stamp. What are the essential skills or qualities that you want your graduates to have? For example, in economics, one central skill is to be able to apply economic tools to problems. Another might be to analyse macroeconomic data to make predictions. A third might be to be able to develop further economics expertise by being an independent and active learner. But does your economics degree, as you’ve sketched it out, prepare students for the cultural and social implications of their profession? If you use the graduate attributes as a screen while listing those essential skills and qualities, you may find that elements you thought peripheral have a place in ensuring that every RMIT program has the best chance to develop a well-rounded graduate.
As you make your list then, use the graduate attributes as a reference point to help you frame the skills and knowledge of your discipline or profession. Then you are ready to express the skills and qualities it contains in a set of five or six broad program learning outcomes that take into account AQF levels.
How do those program learning outcomes shape the curriculum at course level? They are the starting point for drafting detailed course level learning outcomes that spell out in detail what students will learn and be assessed on in each course. Course learning outcomes must fit with both program learning outcomes and the overarching graduate attributes. Mapping all three across the entire program is helpful. The point is that graduate attributes don’t mean much on their own. They’ll gain their real meaning and impact from the detailed context provided by the learning outcomes at both program and course level.
Finally, and critically, structure your students’ learning activities to help them actively engage with the course learning outcomes. Ask yourself: how will this activity, exercise, problem, online discussion exercise, help my students get to grips with a specific learning outcome? And how will the elements of my assessment program enable students to show that they have met the learning outcomes at a particular level? By taking a holistic approach to all three elements, learning outcomes, learning activities and assessment, you’ll ensure that those elusive graduate attributes come back to earth.
Share your comments on graduate attributes in the comments below!
 Royce Sadler, (2012) Assessing and assuring graduate attributes, keynote address to AAGLO Conference, July 19.
 Anna Jones, (2012) There is nothing generic about graduate attributes: unpacking the scope of context, Journal of Further Education, DOI:10.1080/0309877X.2011.645466