Improving Student Learning – For the 21st Century Learner

The 17th Improving Student Learning Symposium, Imperial College London, UK, 7 –9 September 2009.

Identifying skills for research learning is just the beginning: Examining the role of capability

Margaret Kiley and James Cumming, The Australian National University

Research seminar

Themes: skills development and lifelong learning, graduate outcomes

Wednesday 9 September 2009, 09.00 - 10.00 in room G65

This research seminar discusses an 18-month study of skill development programs for research candidate, i.e. PhD and MPhil students’, in Australian universities. Most research candidates—and those with responsibility for their development—recognise the importance of an enhanced capacity to analyse, conceptualise, present, publish and so on. However, with significant increases in the number and diversity of the research student population in recent years, the demand for supplementary research training has increased.

While most universities have carefully thought through lists of research graduate attributes, key stakeholders in the skills debate remain divided on how research candidates should develop and demonstrate this broadly-based set of skills most effectively. Some argue for a more structured approach (e.g. programs, courses and units), while others believe that there is a need to be more open and flexible and to embrace work-integrated learning, cognitive apprenticeship and related concepts (e.g. placements, internships and related hands-on experiences). To a large extent the research from this project challenges much of the conventional framing of the skills agenda, and suggests that more integrative and holistic frameworks are needed to shift the focus from graduate attributes to contextualised performance. This finding is in line with two recent research studies, the first by Pearson, Cumming et al (2008) which found that “candidates do bring a range of useful skills into their doctorates from their current or previous work experiences” and the second, by the University of Queensland Social Research Centre (2007), which found that there was a two-way flow of skill development and implementation between research degree experience and work experience.

Following a review of the literature a mixed method approach was adopted in the form of desktop and case study research. Given the increasing availability of online materials it was possible to undertake a preliminary mapping of institutional and departmental websites in higher education and related sectors. In addition, an extended case study was also undertaken with the aim of generating a ‘micro’ perspective on skills’ development.

One significant conclusion of the study was to suggest that what might be more important than developing ‘lists of skills and programs’ is a focus on research candidate, institution and employer recognition of capability development and performance. This conclusion will be the focus of discussion in the paper and the presentation.

References

  • Pearson, M., J. Cumming, et al. (2008). Exploring the Extent and Nature of the Diversity of the Doctoral Population in Australia: A profile of the respondents to a 2005 national survey. Quality in Postgraduate Research 2008 Conference, Adelaide, The Australian National University.
  • University of Queensland Social Research Centre (2007). PhD graduate five to seven years out: Employment outcomes, job attributes and the quality of research training: Final report. Brisbane, Prepared for Department of Education, Science and Training.