Adding Future Proof Skills to Course Syllabii

There are many college-level courses that are required but not beloved by students. Math requirements, in particular, are particularly disliked by most students. I believe that we teach mathematics to help students develop logical thinking, attention to detail, and a method for attacking problems of all types. The subject of mathematics provides a common language and structure to allow the development of these skills. Unfortunately, in our zeal to explain “when we are going to use this” we wander into the dark land of contrived application problems and ridiculous problem constraints. But what if there were another way to frame the value of the skills developed in learning mathematics?

During my last year of teaching, I began to reframe the syllabus in a way that focused on the general skills that would serve students well in the future, rather than the standard answers to “when am I going to use the specific learning objectives of this course?” The six skill categories are: Focus, Explain, Flex, Interact, Analyze, and Learn. They are explained in more detail in the original post: What skills should we be teaching to future-proof an education?

Beginning with an empty template with the skills and more detailed descriptions, I walked through all the activities in each course I taught, and outlined how the course would help my students develop the skills they need to be prepared for future jobs.

You can find the empty template as a Word Doc here: Future-Proof Template for Course Syllabus. It looks something like this for each skill:

 

Some skills were not covered in the course. If that was the case, I just removed that line of the table.  However, a surprising number of the subskills were covered in every course I did this exercise with.

The syllabus section about the “future-proof” skills begins with a general description of what the students are about to see:

This is a list of the skills we believe will make you a valuable worker even as careers and technology shifts. These skills are not particular to any discipline – they are skills that overlay the content that you learn. To prepare for an uncertain economy, you should strive to practice and improve on the skills listed below. In this class, you will practice and improve on many of these valuable skills. These are outlined below.

Here is an example of the future proof skills applied to a Calculus II course:

Note: You can see the entire Calc II Future Proof Skill list here.

When framing topics like Techniques of Integration as a skill like “learning to change your bearings” it is much easier to justify the learning objective to Pharmacy students (let’s face it, they won’t ever use a technique of integration on the job, but most do have to take Calc II).  Pharmacy students will have to be able to determine when a chosen treatment plan is failing, and adjust course to suggest an alternative approach.

So now a little thought experiment. Let’s pretend we reframed the college experience as a way to gain and improve on these types of skills while also gaining subject-matter expertise. Suppose freshmen came into the system with a way to measure their current skill levels in these areas. Students could make goals to improve on specific areas in specific courses (I asked my students to commit to specific improvement goals in each course).  At the end of the semester, students could write a self-evaluation for areas they think they have improved on and ask instructors to “endorse” (or disagree) with the written evaluations. During their college experience, these students could graduate their real, measured, and endorsed abilities into a system like LinkedIn or Degreed.

It’s important for students to gain subject matter expertise in college, but equally important to gain skills that will make them valuable employees and colleagues, and surface those skills to potential employers.  As a fresh graduate entering the workforce, it would be incredibly valuable to be able to provide proof that you can “write so others understand” or examples that show you can “adapt to new situations”  even when they made you uncomfortable. It is my belief that these are the skills that are not being measured and surfaced in higher education.

There are rare examples of schools that provide this type of unique focus at the core of their educational structure (e.g. Alverno College), but a college doesn’t have to be restructured in order to provide this focus. The educational technologies we have today could be adopted to track a students’ successes and failures at improvement on the future proof skills. Each instructor could evaluate their own unique approach to courses to assess which skills might be focused on as the subject-matter is delivered.

An initiative like this would have to be championed at the leadership level by a President, a board, or a Dean of Academics and jointly supported by the faculty. But can you imagine? An entire institution devoted to helping students not only become subject-matter experts, but also to prepare for the employment world of the future? Well, I can dream. It is, after all, a thought experiment.

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What skills should we be teaching to future-proof an education?

Some time last year I spent quite a bit of time reflecting on what skills we could be focusing on in higher education to “future-proof” a degree.  What skills will stay relevant no matter what future careers look like?  There are two frameworks used and endorsed in K-12 education: Partnership for 21st Century Skills and Equipped for the Future.

I felt that the lists not quite right for adults that are returning or seeking an education.  Here is the list that I developed, and a link to the Prezi that includes many video resources that correspond with the skills.

Focus

  • Manage your information stream
  • Pay attention to details
  • Remember (when you need to)
  • Observe critically
  • Read with understanding
  • Set and meet goals

Explain

  • Media literacy (determine and create the right media for the job)
  • Present ideas digitally
  • Design for the audience
  • Depict data visually
  • Convey ideas in text
  • Speak so that others understand

Interact

  • Advocate and influence
  • Resolve conflict and negotiate
  • Collaborate (F2F or virtually)
  • Guide others
  • Lead

Analyze

  • Interpret data
  • Make decisions
  • Think critically
  • Solve problems
  • Forecast
  • Filter information

Flex

  • Think across disciplines
  • Think across cultures
  • Innovate
  • Adapt to new situations
  • See others’ perspectives
  • Be creative

Learn

  • Formulate a learning plan
  • Synthesize the Details
  • Information Literacy
  • Formulate good questions
  • Reflect and evaluate
  • Know what you know

 

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Prezi: Future-Proof Your Education

Here is my new prezi (designed for students) called Future-Proof Your Education.

How do you prepare for uncertain career paths where technical knowledge doubles every two years? You pay attention to the skills that surround the content: Interact, Flex, Learn, Explain, Analyze, and Focus.

ANALYZE … think critically, interpret data, predict, solve problems, make decisions, scrutinize information sources
EXPLAIN … convey ideas in writing, depict data visually, speak so that others understand, present ideas digitally
FOCUS … observe critically, read with understanding, be self-directed, listen carefully, set and meet goals
EXPLAIN … convey ideas in writing, depict data visually, speak so that others understand, present ideas digitally
LEARN…find information quickly, reflect and evaluate learning, manage information, leverage tech to learn, metacognitive
INTERACT … guide others, lead, collaborate, advocate and influence, resolve conflict and negotiate, share
FLEX … be able to adapt, be creative, innovate, think across disciplines and cultures, design/usability

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