On the importance of skill development in undergraduate students
William Butler Yeats, the greatest poet of the 20th century, once said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire’. ‘Filling of a pail’ meaning acquiring factual knowledge; whereas the ‘lighting of a fire’ points to making learners capable of applying the acquired knowledge. I would argue that a ‘lit fire’ is far more productive outcome of education than a ‘filled pail’.
At the start of their first year of college, students are enthused, filled with hopes and aspirations. Thrilled to have an opportunity to nurture and eventually fulfill their dreams, they are exploding with ideas, creativity and passion. Unfortunately, these are the very things that get suppressed as they go through the three years of a standard college curriculum.
A commonly heard criticism is that our colleges work on the same principle as factories — just as factories churn out standardised products, so too our higher education centers generate many ‘educated’ individuals. But there are no takers for these ‘educated’ individuals — you don’t hear anymore of a BSc student getting a job right out of college, not in academia or industry. They are not self-employable either. Why? Because the tag ‘educated’ only reflects proverbial ‘filled pail’. They possess knowledge but they are not ‘lit fire’, not ‘skilled’, nor do they know where and how to apply the knowledge they possess. Here, I use the term ‘skilled’ to encompass the abilities required to be employable: the ability to ask and answer questions (communication skills), be inventive (creative/innovative skills), apply previous knowledge to solve new problems (application skills), explore (research skills), etc; in addition to subject-specific skills.
Pedagogy needs overhaul, no doubt about it. The focus of college education needs to shift, from just passing examinations to attaining employability after graduation. And this can be achieved only if colleges produce ‘skilled’ and not just ‘educated’ individuals. So, what do we do to develop skills in undergraduate students? Below , I share some examples of skills and various classroom strategies that I use to develop these skills in my students:
1. Effective Communication: Interactive sessions and peer discussions form an integral part of my classroom. Students are also periodically asked to give formal presentations to the class. For honing their writing skills, I urge students to write in their own words. To this end, I will also be introducing in-class writing for students in the near future. Students would be assigned brief writing exercises (as opposed to dictating notes, for example, to write what they understood in the last 15 minutes of the class) which would then be peer-reviewed. In my experience, their course assignments can be used to stimulate thinking as well as develop scientific writing abilities. To this end, I ask students to write a synopsis after reading a research paper or review article. I make sure they know what’s expected of them, and why such an exercise is important to their training. I also sensitize them about plagiarism and its consequences. My students are encouraged to consult resources such as science magazines, research articles, reviews etc. beyond their textbooks on a regular basis.
2. Knowledge application and practical work: A real-world relevance helps students better their understanding of curricular material. Dissolving the boundaries of disciplines in the classroom is also important as students are able to view the broader picture and learn to connect the discrete knowledge they acquire. Interdisciplinary innovation projects are undertaken in my classes to achieve this. Experiments prescribed in the curriculum are performed while making students accustomed to various techniques used in scientific discoveries that act as a foundation for the mainstream scientific research, if they choose pursue it.
3. Research aptitude: Instead of this “cookbook” approach to science, lab exercises can be used to stimulate scientific inquiry in students. My approach is to weave the prescribed exercises into a project rather than teach them as discrete entities in different lab periods. The students collect background information, design protocols, perform experiments and interpret the results generated. At the end, they submit a report that includes the various sections of a research paper (Introduction, Literature Review, Methods, Results, Discussion, and Reference List). I conducted a feedback survey of students about this approach. To my delight, practically every student gave positive feedback. On the whole, they felt that such project-based learning made them gain conceptual knowledge as well as master practical skills. At least 70% of the students claimed it helped them in entrance exams or interviews for research institutes after graduation.
After attending a recent workshop on research-based pedagogical tools at IISER-Pune, I am also planning to introduce inquiry or research-based learning in theory classes. A relevant context, based on prescribed syllabus, will be presented to the class. The students will define the problem, identify resources, devise methodologies and use them to formulate answer/solution. Diagnostic, formative and summative assessments would be done to assess students’ learning.
4. Collaboration and teamwork: Cooperative working stimulates positive interaction among students, helps to develop social and interpersonal skills in them and also improves academic achievement. Students do encounter differences (of opinions, ideas and expertise) but learn to recognize, tolerate, resolve and gain from these differences. Teamwork lessens individual competitiveness and orients the students towards higher collaborative goals such as of finding solution to a problem. Group presentations, group discussions and collaborative/cooperative projects are some of the activities that are adopted.
5. Digital literacy: In addition to classroom hours, I also interact with students in virtual classrooms. These can be a valuable in providing them with resource materials that they can access and utilize as per their own convenience and pace, as well as in facilitating discussions. Frequently, I conduct tutorial sessions to help students learn operation of common digital tools. They make PowerPoint presentations with animations and videos. Subsequently, they submit an academic script (in MS Word) of the presentation. For assignments, I ask them to populate a collaborative wiki or design an e‑poster on a topic.
By no means is this an exhaustive list. These are only some practices that can impart essential skills in students. Incorporating such approaches will definitely open many more doors for them after graduation. As one of my students said, acquiring essential skills will certainly help increase hiring of college graduates, just like “microbial population increases during log phase of a culture”.