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Graduate Attributes

An increasing number of universities are recognising the link between research and teaching and the fostering of certain graduate attributes.  Though defining 'graduate attributes' is difficult, a broad definition that has been suggested is: 'the skills, knowledge and abilities of university graduates, beyond disciplinary knowledge, which are applicable to a range of contexts'.  In the overview booklet of the Research-Teaching Theme, Alan Jenkins offered the following, more focused alternatives:

At undergraduate level:

  • Critical understanding (for an interesting perspective of 'critical thinking' in the context of graduate attributes see To critical thinking and beyond by Dai Hounsell)
  • Informed by current developments in the subject
  • An awareness of the provisional nature of knowledge, how knowledge is created, advanced and renewed,  the excitement of changing knowledge
  • The ability to identify and analyse problems and issues and to formulate, evaluate and apply evidence based solutions and arguments
  • An ability to apply a systematic and critical assessment of complex problems and issues
  • An ability to deploy techniques of analysis and enquiry
  • Familiarity with advanced techniques and skills
  • Originality and creativity in formulating, evaluating and applying evidence-based solutions and arguments
  • An understanding of the need for a high level of ethical, social, cultural, environmental and wider professional conduct. At Master's level
  • Conceptual understanding that enables critical evaluation of current research and advanced scholarship
  • Originality in the application of knowledge
  • The ability to deal with complex issues and make sound judgements in the absence of complete data. (

"Barrie (2004, p 262) defines graduate attributes as being 'the skills, knowledge and abilities of university graduates, beyond disciplinary content knowledge, which are applicable to a range of contexts'. Arguably, such attributes are what makes higher education distinct from other forms or 'levels' of learning".

Source: Research-Teaching Linkages: Enhancing Graduate Attributes Overview

For a further discussion on the notions of 'graduateness' and 'supercomplexity' in the modern world and the need for graduates to be equipped to handle it see graduate attributes and research-teaching linkages.

The G21C Enhancement Theme encouraged institutions to examine graduate attributes in depth and in their individualised contexts. In the paper entitled Graduates for the 21st Century: Integrating the Enhancement Themes. Institutional activities, Dai Hounsell detailed the following eight graduate attribute domains as identified by Scottish HEIs:

  • Lifelong learning. Equipping students with the ability and interest to continue to enlarge their knowledge, understanding and skills throughout their working lives.
  • Research, scholarship and enquiry. Providing students with a sound grasp of how new understanding is generated in a given field or subject area through experiment and empirical investigation, and the ability to apply a systematic and critical assessment of complex problems and issues.
  • Employability and career development. Developing students' knowledge, skills and qualities relevant to chosen career paths and to those paths which may open up in the future, enabling each to succeed in a rapidly changing workplace.
  • Global citizenship. Encouraging a capacity to thrive in a globalised society and economy, and an awareness of cultures beyond and different to one's own
  • Communication and information literacy. Cultivating students' abilities to communicate effectively their knowledge, understanding and skills, in a range of settings, and using a variety of media; and formulating, evaluating and applying evidence-based solutions and arguments.
  • Ethical, social and professional understanding. Nurturing a reflective awareness of ethical dimensions, and responsibilities to others, in work and everyday life.
  • Personal and intellectual autonomy. Developing a capacity to think independently, exercise personal judgment and take initiatives.
  • Collaboration, teamwork and leadership. Cultivate skills for working in teams and groups, and leading where appropriate.

The paper analyses the 60 case studies that were effected across the sector in response to the G21C Theme and groups them into seven main types of institutional strategy, with examples of each taken from the case studies:

  1. Knowledge exchange and professional development activities
  2. Evidence gathering and enquiry
  3. Policy refinement and strategic development
  4. Advances in learning-teaching and student engagement
  5. Career preparation, employer and community interaction and engagement
  6. Surfacing and sharing good practice
  7. Seedcorn projects and award schemes

The main challenge in moving forward to the later enhancement theme, Developing and Supporting the Curriculum is to embed graduate attributes into subject-focused reviewing and enhancing of practices (for an example of strategic endeavours to embed attributes, see the presentation by Professor Debra Humphris of the University of Southampton entitled Curriculum Innovation Programme.

The paper offers examples from three areas:

  1. Ethical, social and professional understanding.
  2. Global citizenship.
  3. Communication and information literacy.

Its conclusion, however, is that graduate attributes (however well taught they may be) will have limited significance for students if they (the students) are removed from the process and graduate attributes are seen chiefly as something that has been designed for students by others. Instead, graduate attributes need to be seen by students as helping them to shape and support their individual futures.

For an example of one university's move towards curriculum reform and the development of specific graduate attributes see ACHIEVE: Graduate Attributes Making the Implicit Explicit. For an overview of the G21C's contribution to integrating the Enhancement Themes see Philip's Winn's presentation Graduates for the 21st Century - Integrating the Enhancement Themes.

There is strong evidence of individual courses that have established ways of linking teaching and research to enhance graduate attributes. Such good practice operates across a broad range of institutional types, is strong in final years of undergraduate study and to an extent can also be seen in earlier ones. See key findings from the Research-Teaching Linkages Overview.

Disciplinary programmes are working hard to ensure that the student voice and experience is central to the discussions and the development of policy in this area. Find out more about the nine cognate disciplinary areas and the key findings from the overall disciplinary picture.

There is, however, less evidence of a systematic or strategic approach to embedding research-teaching linkages and thence to certain attributes. Such a systematic approach recognises a progression from years one to four of an undergraduate programme; uses assessment regimes that help students to develop and articulate research-based graduate attributes and promotes employability by making skills more transparent. Institutional structural mechanisms, such as course approval procedures, encourage and monitor research- teaching linkages, which in turn focus staff on the need to develop greater connectedness. Inevitably there are potential barriers to such interventions.

Colleagues at the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) have mapped Graduate Attributes against their curriculum. The College offers students multiple exit points and so mapping the attributes to the SCQF Framework is important. To facilitate this process, programme teams will consider the progressive development of graduate attributes as part of internal subject review and (re)validations.

Edinburgh Napier University (ENU) has developed a Graduate Attributes Model in response to the G21C Enhancement Theme. As part of the developmental process, it used an externally facilitated event for some 50 students and alumni, to elicit from the student perspective what the attributes of an Edinburgh Napier graduate in the 21st Century should be and how the achievement of these attributes could best be supported. Other contributions flowed from cross-institutional staff and student involvement, which reflects ENU's approach to programme development and delivery.

Critically, the model builds on, and explicitly links to, long-term work around employability (which is embedded and delivered at Module level) and HE higher level graduate attributes developed by students as a consequence of their holistic engagement with the programme and the wider world. For more details, including the way the model has been used at a discipline level, in Nursing, Midwifery and Social Care.

St Andrews University is introducing graduate attributes into its module descriptors. This follows an earlier decision to revise programme specifications to include learning outcomes within a framework of graduate attributes. However, the information in programme specifications is high level and serves a variety of purposes and audiences, including academic faculty and quality processes as well as students. The intended audience for the descriptions of modular graduate attributes is students and the intended benefits include students being able to recognise the attributes which they could develop which may help them in later life generally or in immediate employability specifically.

One of the case studies for the G21C Enhancement Theme describes the process that Glasgow University went through to identify the graduate attributes of a 21st century Glasgow student. For more details, including an interesting comment that academically strong students and/or those on vocationally-linked courses are less open to the benefits of considering their graduate attributes because they are perceived as being unnecessary.

Two further case studies describe the ways the University plans to implement the embedding of graduate attributes across the institution. A further incentive for this work was provided by the Developing and Supporting the Curriculum Enhancement Theme, which started in 2011. The university is using a two pronged approach: top down and bottom up, via Programme Course Design and approval; annual course monitoring and periodic subject review; staff support and development; and student and external stakeholder engagement.

Strategic funding has been obtained, pilot projects identified and Academic Development Fellows appointed with specific remits to help disseminate the outcomes of the Graduate Attributes Working Party. Partnership agreements have been signed between the University's Careers Service and the University's four colleges. The work is overseen and promoted by The Implementation Group, the successor committee to the Graduate Attributes Working Party.

Edinburgh College of Art used the G21C Enhancement Theme to identify, isolate and make explicit where students, through the pedagogic vehicle of project design, begin to develop the type of attributes implicitly associated with the visually creative disciplines. These include: lateral thinking, creativity, entrepreneurship and the ability to problem solve, develop and visualise ideas; each one highly desirable and essential to the success of a business or organisation.

Graduates from many Art Colleges posses these intellectual and practical skills in abundance yet employers outwith the creative industries often fail to recognise this, and similarly, graduates are often unaware that they possess such highly prized qualities and are often unable to fully articulate how they can contribute more widely within a multi-disciplinary team.

The aim of the work was to encapsulate the key characteristics of project design and learning experiences along with the underpinning pedagogical principles and to make these explicit and transferable across disciplines and subjects. Subsequently, through sharing best practice, to encourage all staff to ensure that their students explicitly understand the types and significance of the types of attributes they are developing and their potential relevance to their career.

The future design of these learning experiences also ensures that students reflect upon their own developing strengths and key attributes thereby enabling them to be fully confident in articulating their abilities.

The BSc (Hons) Nutrition programme at Queen Margaret University was revised and revalidated in 2009, with the aim of taking better account of employability issues and professional body requirements. The main change was to introduce two new modules to the programme at Level 3, the Professional Module and the Techniques for Nutritional Research module. While it would not be fair to say that the programme has been developed specifically with any one Enhancement Theme as a driver, it has constantly been influenced by institutional discussion on issues arising from Enhancement Themes, most particularly, Research-Teaching Linkages, Employability, and Graduates for the 21st Century.

The programme change represents an example of how mainstream activity at Queen Margaret University reflects and embeds the ideas resulting from the Enhancement Themes.