Andrew Comrie

  • Perspectives on teaching generic skills: what academics say and do

    Andrew Comrie 
    University of Surrey

    Kate Farley 
    University of Durham

    Session 2g

    Tuesday 4 September 2007, 09.00-10.00

    Research paper

    Themes: Skills development

    This paper discusses a research project at the University of Surrey which seeks to inform practice in graduate skills development. While Dearing highlighted the need to improve students' skills, the report’s failure to engage with anything more that a superficial discourse of ‘generic skills’, presents a challenge for educators. Where there ought to be clarity, there is a conceptual muddle:

    “Although the Dearing Report (1997) was influential in setting future policy direction, it did nothing to clarify the conceptual confusion surrounding the notions of key or, as we have called them, generic, skills; indeed it exacerbated them. It amply illustrates the lack of any theoretical or conceptual base to their consideration of these skills by forcing very different categories of skill into the same ‘key’ box, whilst at the same time limiting their number to those which seem most able to be assessed.” (Bennett, Dunne and Carré, 2000)

    The current research investigates academics’ understandings of skills in order to inform professional development. Previous research at the University of Sydney, undertaken from a phenomenographic perspective (Barrie, 2004), has indicated the considerable qualitative variation that exists in academics' understandings of skills. While Barrie’s ‘outcome space’ usefully maps the variations in the conceptualisation of skills that may exist, the idealisation inherent in the phenomenographic method means that the richness and complexity of individual responses to implementing the skills agenda in their particular disciplinary context is lost. The current study seeks to tease out that complexity. Semi-structured interviews with academic teaching staff were recorded that were designed to elicit their understandings of skills and how they might be taught in their particular context. These interviews were then transcribed and analysed adopting a fine-grained, thematic approach which highlighted how academics think about skills and how they say they seek to develop them in practice through their teaching.

    The analysis suggested a fourfold categorisation of skills in the lecturers’ discourse: skills as individual entities, those closely allied to subject-specific skills; information and information processing skills; and skills as enabling entities. This is broadly consistent with Barrie’s categorisation. However, in discussing the teaching of skills, some staff claimed to adopt a student-centred approach while simultaneously talking as though students were inherently deficient and dependent on teacher intervention. At the same time, the lecturer’s discipline could be portrayed as especially efficacious for remedying the situation. It is suggested that university teachers are responding to the skills agenda by positioning themselves defensively in relation to what they perceive as a highly politicised discourse. This positioning was felt to be inextricably linked to the fact that the interviewer was known to be employed by a central unit with a university-wide responsibility for promoting skills development.

    The complexity of the discourse was further investigated using metaphor analysis (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980; Ortony, 1993). This revealed patterns relating to lecturers’ perceptions of students, subject matter, learning and teaching and skills that are explored in relation to previous work (Martin et al, 2004). Additionally, however, links are discussed between the metaphors interviewees use and their perceptions of their learning and teaching contexts.

    The research had originally been conceived as a means of illuminating the various understandings of skills in use at the University of Surrey, with a view to encouraging academics to reflect on their own beliefs and practices, in the light of the findings, to promote development across the whole institution. Given the conflicts implied in individuals’ thinking about skills and the stances that they adopt, consideration is given to how this research may be used to inform professional development.


    • Barrie S.C. (2004). A research-based approach to generic graduate attributes policy. Higher Education Research and Development. 23 (3), 261-275.
    • Bennett, N, Dunne, E., and Carré, C. (2000) Skills Development in Higher Education and Employment, SHRE and Open University Press.
    • Dearing, R. (1997) National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, HMSO.
    • Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M (1980) Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
    • Martin, E., Lueckenhausen, G., Prosser, M. and Middleton, H. (2004) ‘Complex coherence and the teaching researcher – metaphors of professional life’. Proceedings of the 12th International Improving Student Learning Symposium, Oxford: Oxford Brookes University.
    • Ortony, A. (1993) Metaphor and Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press