Chris Dillon

  • Sustainable learning: a framework for skills development and assessment

    Convenor: Chris Dillon, The Open University


    Themes: assessment, skills development and lifelong learning, supporting learners


    The ability to develop generic skills that support learning across contexts and in new situations is recognised as an important element in effective performance by HE and employers. This paper discusses a ‘meta-skills’ framework that individuals can use for personal development to plan strategically, monitor progress and evaluate performance, and help them develop apply and assess skills. Metacognition, introduced by Flavell (1976 ), is concerned with being ‘consciously aware of the processes of one’s own learning’. Mayer (1998 ) investigating problem solving tasks, suggests that relevant domain specific knowledge on its own is insufficient and that meta-skills (strategies on how to use the knowledge) and motivation or will (feelings and beliefs about one’s own interest and abilities) are also needed. The studies reported here suggest that the ability to consciously engage with the process of identifying and articulating skills is an important part of the development of the confident and employable learner.

    The symposium will build on the findings of a HEFCE-funded Innovations project Key skills: Making connections between HE and employment which examined the use of a meta-framework for higher level skills development. The overview will outline the conceptual underpinning of the meta-skills framework and introduce three studies where the framework has been used to support students and new employees in developing and assessing their skills.

    1. A study (Undergraduate skills development through discussion and self-assessment, by Fettes and Gillespie), involving groups of undergraduates at the Universities of Warwick and Nottingham, examines how students were supported in articulating the skill demands of their courses and career development needs, and in developing strategies for meeting these. Group discussion, including seeking feedback from others, was a key element in identifying evidence of their skills and assessing their performance against set criteria.
    2. A study (Higher level skills for learning and employability by Dillon, Reuben and Hodgkinson), involving students at the Open University, new graduates at Fujitsu iCL, National Grid and employees at Unipart, examines how the meta-framework was used to raise awareness of an individual’s skills, to provide a focus and a common language for talking about, reviewing and assessing progress, and to identify and support personal and career needs.
    3. A study (Developing and assessing generic skills in postgraduate students by McComb), involving postgraduate students at the University of Durham, focuses on how research students can use the meta-framework to identify and further develop the high level generic skills they need for their work, and to recognise the value of these skills in gaining employment. Research funding councils and the QAA are moving towards a requirement for development of generic skills in postgraduate research. The recent Durham Key Skills Award for Researchers has been introduced to provide assessment of the process of skills development. Findings of the study suggest that raising awareness of this process helps students communicate their achievements effectively and take responsibility for their own learning.

    Paper 1: Undergraduate skills development through group discussion and self-assessment

    Trisha Fettes, University of Warwick andJohn Gillespie, University of Nottingham

    This paper draws on an HEFCE-funded Innovations research project (2002) ‘Key Skills: Making connections between HE and employment’, to examine approaches and interventions used by two institutions of higher education to support, constructively, undergraduates in the development and assessment of higher level generic skills in the context of career and personal development planning (QAA, 2000).

    Following the recommendations of the Dearing Report (1997, higher education institutions are required to provide opportunities for students to acquire generic skills and to develop teaching and learning strategies that include appropriate student-centred assessment practices. However, developing such skills is complex (Bennett et al, 2000) as skills are needed not only for understanding subject material, but also for managing learning. Furthermore, lost points in QAA subject review findings as reported by Rust (2002) has been “almost always something to do with inconsistent assessment practices”, with students often finding it difficult to see “any linkage between [learning] outcomes and assessment”.

    Alongside reflections on student use of a meta-skills framework to plan strategically, monitor, reflect on and assess their skill development, the paper reviews the literature relating to the concepts of ‘metacognition’ and ‘skills of transfer’. For example, Whitston (1998) argues that it is not the skills per se, but the educational process by which skills are developed that is important to learners’ ability to learn in different situations and contexts. Transfer of skills is, perhaps, less important than ‘skills of transfer’ – understanding, using and building confidence in a framework that raises awareness of what is required (what counts) in any particular situation and offers a process by which relevant skills and knowledge can be developed to meet the specific needs of the environment.

    The paper examines how approaches were used with groups of students at the Universities of Warwick and Nottingham to support metacognition and the development of skills of transfer. The research found that group discussions relating to the processes of career and personal development planning were a particularly important element in helping students to: “reach a more critical understanding of the topic” (skill development)…enhance their self-awareness and their capacity for self-critique…” (Brookfield and Preskill, 1999)

    Paper 2: Higher level skills for learning and employability

    Chris Dillon, Catherine Reuben and Linda Hodgkinson, Open University

    This paper builds on research carried out in a recent HEFCE-funded Innovations project Key skills: Making connections between HE and the workplace which examined the role of a meta-framework for higher level skills development and assessment in raising students’ awareness of their own learning and employability.

    Enhancing awareness of employability skills in HE is a UK governmental priority. In the workplace, employers seek graduates who can cope with the broader demands of a rapidly changing environment, bring ‘soft’ skills such as team working and effective communication, rapidly contribute to profitability, and continue learning. For the individual, the ability and confidence to develop and apply skills and acquire new knowledge through life brings the flexibility to adapt in a rapidly changing and uncertain job market. Raising awareness and articulating learning has a crucial role in the intellectual development of the independent learner.

    One of the critical changes in moving from HE to employment is the shift in the way assessment and measurement of achievement is done. In HE, assessment plays a central role in supporting learning where feedback and group activities help students evaluate and improve their own performance. In employment, competency frameworks are often used by employers and professional bodies to make judgements about individuals, and address performance and development needs.

    An important ability for the graduate in the workplace, therefore, is to be able to adapt to new assessment methods and use them to judge their own performance and capabilities. It is the ability to plan, adapt previous experience, monitor own progress and evaluate the effectiveness of their learning strategy that the meta-framework addresses. As HE begins to focus more on employability issues there are benefits both to individuals and employers in recognising the value of a developmental framework, a shared skills language, and self- and peer-assessment opportunities which can actively support continued learning and professional development.

    This paper focuses on the use of the meta-framework by students at the Open University, new graduates at Fujitsu iCL and National Grid, employees at Unipart, and recent work with the Institution of Electrical Engineers. Findings indicate that high level skills development and assessment requires support and takes time. However, with support individuals can effectively identify, develop and communicate the skills needed to bridge across contexts from HE to employment.

    Paper 3: Developing and assessing generic skills in postgraduate students

    Lowry McComb, University of Durham

    This paper builds on research carried out in a recent HEFCE-funded Innovations project Key skills: Making connections between HE and the workplace which examined the role of a meta-framework for higher level skills development and assessment in raising students’ awareness of their own learning and employability.

    Within the UK, the last few years has seen considerable emphasis on the development of generic skills in postgraduate students, especially amongst research postgraduates. A number of reports (e.g. Roberts, Metcalf) have identified a skills gap between the generic skills that employers expect from postgraduates (especially after completion of a PhD) and the skills that young researchers have developed; and have recommended that all UK postgraduate research students should undergo the equivalent of two weeks per year of generic skills development. This has become such a concern of government that the 2002 Comprehensive Spending Review has provided considerable funding to support generic skills development – £800 per year for each Research Council funded research student is being provided.

    More recently, the UK Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) has published a revised code of practice for postgraduate research students, which again recommends the provision of generic skills development for postgraduates. At this stage QAA does not require a research student’s generic skills development to be assessed but does ask universities to consider implementing some form of recognition of the acquisition of transferable skills in parallel with, or as part of, the academic assessment of the student's progress. There are other future pressures that may lead towards assessment of generic skills development in postgraduate students, including the evolving requirements of the transcript and the diploma supplement.

    This paper concentrates on evidence of the value of the meta-framework for higher level skills development and assessment with groups of post-graduate research students at the University of Durham and the subsequent development of a skills development qualification, the Durham Key Skills Award for Researchers. Findings of this study are similar to those of the others in the project; higher level skills development and assessment requires support and takes time. However, with some support, research students can take responsibility for their skills development and effectively communicate their achievements.


    • Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education(2000) Policy Statement on a Progress File for Higher Education
    • Dearing, R (1997) Higher Education in the Learning Society report from the National Committee of Enquiry into Higher Education
    • Bennett, N Dunne, E and Carre, C (2000) Skills Development in Higher Education and Employment, Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press
    • Rust, C (2002) The impact of assessment on student learning, in Active learning in higher education, Vol 3, No 2,145-158. London: ILT and Sage Publications
    • Whitston, K (1998) Key skills and curriculum reform, Studies in Higher Education, 23(3), 307-319
    • Brookfield, SD and Preskill, S (1999) Discussion as a way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for University Teachers. Buckingham: SRHE & Open University Press
    • Roberts, G, SET for Success: The supply of people with science, technology, engineering and maths skills, London, 2002.
    • Metcalfe, J, Thompson, Q and Green, H, Improving standards in postgraduate research degree programs, Bristol, 2002.
    • Quality Assurance Agency, Code of practice section 1: Postgraduate research programmes, Gloucester, 2004.