Skills not swimming

Alternatives to physical education tests

A previous post reported on the reduction in the number of swimming tests
or other physical education assessments which formed part of graduation requirements at US universities.

Now Inside Higher Ed has a report on another university, Notre Dame, “a sports juggernaut”, which is making the shift too:

The university announced last week that freshmen will soon have to take two graded, one-credit courses on topics like wellness, academic strategies and spirituality instead of having to complete a year of physical education courses – for which there are a range of options – and pass a swim test.

An end to all this?

An end to all this?

The new first-year program, in place by fall 2015, will try to fill gaps in “student socialization,” “cultural competency” and independent learning with 250-student lecture courses and smaller breakout sessions in residence halls, according a report from the committee that recommended the change this month.

As a result of the shift, the department of physical education and wellness instruction – which includes about 13 non-tenure-track faculty – will close. The provost’s office will “work closely with those impacted to explore other opportunities for on-campus employment and to develop appropriate transitional strategies,” according to the report.

The report also refers to a recent study on the decline in required physical education at US universities from almost all having it as a graduation requirement down to just 39%. To those of us in the UK, where to the best of my knowledge no university has such a requirement, this still seems like remarkably large proportion. I have to say though I do think the alternative being introduced by Notre Dame sounds very interesting indeed.

These charming men. And women.

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before.

A couple of years ago I noted a report on the teaching of “life skills” to students preparing to leave home for university and having to look after themselves for the first time. Now there is a report on how universities are stepping in to fill students’ social-skills gaps ready for the world of work after graduation. The basics of everyday working life seem to be on offer:

After final exams are over, MIT students will return from their holiday break to experience something different from their usual studies—but almost as important.

It’s the university’s annual Charm School, offering instruction in everything from how to make a first impression to how to dress for work to which bread plate to use.

“And we call these ‘buttons’…”

Other colleges have started teaching students how to make small talk, deal with conflict, show up on time, follow business etiquette, and communicate with co-workers.

These programs may be fun, or even funny, but there’s a deadly serious purpose to them: to give students the kinds of social skills they need to get and keep a job.

All highly necessary I am sure but I suspect it is rare to be faced with a choice of bread plates in most social situations these days.

It does seem a bit surprising that this kind of activity is required but it is clearly widespread:

York teaches a workshop for sophomores called Mastering the Art of Small; Talk two majors, education and sports management, require their students to take it. It also offers a seminar in taking criticism.

“This generation talks better with their thumbs than face to face,” Randall says.

And it’s not just communicating that appears to challenge this latest group of college students. It’s mingling, networking, handling conflict, eating—even dressing.

MIT students participate in Charm School, a series of short classes designed to teach everything from how to network with alumni to tying a bowtie.

“Students don’t really know what’s meant by professional dress, whether it’s a young lady wearing a skirt that’s way too short or a young man whose pants aren’t really tailored,” says MIT’s Hamlett. “Most students just roll out of bed in whatever it is they want to wear. There’s this ‘come as you are’ about being a college student.”

This ‘come as you are approach’ is not confined to the US. Here at the University of Nottingham the Careers and Advisory Service also runs an annual fashion show highlighting the importance of a professional appearance in the workplace.

What difference does it make? We’ll see.

Bristol University launches volunteering award

Volunteering award at Bristol University

According to the Guardian, Bristol has launched a volunteering award:

Organised volunteering and work experience has long been a vital companion to university degree courses. Usually it is left to employers to deduce the potential from a list of extracurricular adventures on a graduate’s CV, but now the University of Bristol has launched an award to formalise the achievements of students who devote time to activities outside their courses. Bristol PLuS aims to boost students in an increasingly competitive jobs market by helping them acquire work and life skills alongside academic qualifications.

This is, of course, a good thing. However, lots of other universities have been doing this kind of thing for some time. The University of Nottingham, for example, established the Nottingham Advantage Award in 2008 and the York Award at the University of York has been running for many years. Nevertheless, this kind of programme is a valuable offering for undergraduates and is just the kind of thing universities should be offering to undergraduates.

Graduates preparing for work (where available)

From the BBC:

Students should get work experience to boost their chances of getting jobs in the downturn, the head of the CBI says. Richard Lambert says students must get skills and first-hand experience of work while still at university.

In launching the report with Universities UK on preparing graduates for the world of work, Lambert said competition for jobs in 2009 will be particularly intense. The report, ‘Future Fit’, also includes a survey of graduate recruiters and HE institutions. As the BBC says:

Of the 581 recruiters surveyed for the report, 78% rated employability skills, such as team working, as essential. And of the 80 higher education institutions which responded to the report’s survey, 91% thought it likely or highly likely their graduates would acquire five out of the seven desired employability skills while at university.

Those employability skills in full:

    Team working
    Business and customer awareness
    Problem solving
    Communication and literacy
    Application of numeracy
    Application of information technology

But also an entrepreneurial approach and a ‘can do’ attitude are valued by employers. Without wishing at all to be cynical It is possible that we could have guessed the content of the list without the survey though. Moreover, universities are unlikely to suggest that their graduates aren’t, by and large, going to acquire these skills.

It’s an interesting report and highlights the value which students and their future employers can get from developing such skills further – especially when the learning is accredited. It also notes the difficulties for both universities and SMEs of pursuing this agenda with companies which are smaller.

Suspect the survey behind the report was undertaken before the economy fell off a cliff but it is helpful nevertheless and arguably even more relevant.