Simon Barrie

  • Using conceptions of graduate attributes for research-led systematic curriculum reform

    Simon Barrie, The University of Sydney

    Research seminar

    Theme: Implementing and managing change and innovation

    In seeking to accommodate new demands and reinterpret their purpose over the past decade, universities in many countries have attempted to clarify the nature of the education they offer to their students and their contribution to society through a description of the generic qualities and skills their graduates possess (Barnett 2000). Even though claims of graduate attributes sit at a vital intersection of many of the forces shaping higher education today, they lack the support of any conceptual framework or theoretical underpinning (Clanchy & Ballard 1995, Holmes 2000).

    Universities' endeavours to describe and foster the development of generic attributes of graduates are characterised by a plurality of view-points and approaches and, despite extensive funding in some quarters, have met with limited success (Kemp & Seagraves 1995, Drummond et al 1998, Coaldrake 1998).

    Recent research (Barrie 2003) that has revisited the rhetoric of institutional claims of 'generic graduate attributes' from the perspective of phenomenography (Marton & Booth 1997) has shown that Australian university teachers charged with the responsibility of developing students' generic graduate attributes, do not share a common understanding of either the nature of these outcomes, or the teaching and learning processes that might facilitate the development of these outcomes. Instead academics hold qualitatively different conceptions of the phenomenon of graduate attributes. In these conceptions particular understandings of graduate attribute outcomes are associated with particular approaches to the teaching and learning of such outcomes.

    These findings shed a new light on universities' claims of a certain set of 'generic attributes' on the part of all graduates, regardless of the particular degree studied. Such claims are currently being critically re-examined in some Australian universities in the context of attempts to implement more systematic and widespread curriculum reform to address the efficient development of graduate attributes through university education. Such curriculum reform and development poses a considerable challenge for academic development units charged with supporting the process.

    This paper considers the implications of the interactions between conceptions of graduate attributes and approaches to teaching and learning identified in the research, in the context of a research-led academic development strategy based on the student centred perspective (Prosser & Trigwell 1999) on learning. In doing so the paper considers how the qualitatively different conceptions of graduate attributes identified in previous research might be applied to the challenge of revising a university's statement of graduate attributes and developing a coherent approach to the development of these attributes in the context of students' experiences of university education.


    Barnett, R. (2000). Realizing the University in an Age of Supercomplexity. Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.
    Barrie, S.C. (2002).What are Generic Graduate Attributes? Paper presented at ISL conference Brussels, 4-6 September.
    Coaldrake, P (1998). Reflections on the repositioning of the government's approach to higher education, Keynote address, Reworking the University Conference, pp 1-17, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia.
    Clanchy, J. & Ballard, B. (1995). Generic skills in the context of higher education. Higher Education Research and Development 14 (2), 155-166.
    Drummond, I., Nixon, I. & Wiltshire, J. (1998). Personal transferable skills in higher education: The problems of implementing good practice. Quality Assurance in Education. 6 (1), 44-58.
    Kemp I.J. & Seagraves L. (1995). Transferable Skills - can higher education deliver? Studies in Higher Education 20 (3), 315 - 328.
    Holmes L. (2000). Questioning the skills agenda, in Fallows S. & Steven C. (eds) Integrating Key Skills in Higher Education. London UK: Kogan Page.
    Marton, F. & Booth, S. (1997). Learning and Awareness. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.
    Prosser, M. & Trigwell, K. (1999). Understanding learning and teaching: The experience of higher education. Buckingham: SRHE & Open University Press.

    The committee suggests this would work better as a seminar. Please re-submit as a seminar.