A theory suggests that testing a 5G network in Wuhan in China caused the COVID-19 pandemic. Another theory claims that the coronavirus is a human-designed and deliberately released virus. How can we distinguish between reliable and unreliable information in this era when the world is full of questionable and false information? This calls for generic skills, write Kaisa Silvennoinen, Heidi Hyytinen and Jani Ursin, who are working on the evaluation of higher education students’ learning outcomes.

There is no single, generally established definition for generic skills, but the term refers to expert skills needed in studies and working life, including skills for problem -solving, critical thinking as well as interaction and communication. These skills are needed in all fields of education and areas of life. Beside content knowledge, they are important competences that higher education is expected to produce.

However, generic skills are essential not only for working life but they are also needed during studies already and for continuous learning as well. Generic skills influence learning and development of expertise throughout one’s life.

Although it has been found out in research that generic skills are associated with study achievement and study progress, for example, it seems that higher education studies do not always develop these skills as expected. For example, the level of students’ skills varies extensively. Like other skills, also generic skills call for conscious practicing. In practice, however, identifying and verbalising these skills may be challenging to a student and a teacher alike. In educational goals and evaluation, generic skills often receive lesser attention and may thus remain ambiguous to students while the primary focus is placed on various subject-specific contents. Therefore, it would be important to integrate learning of various generic skills as a natural part of studies.

In practice, this requires that generic skills be clearly included in the goals, contents and evaluation of discipline-specific education. This would direct student learning and make learning of these skills visible.

Often already small steps are sufficient to integrate generic skills to discipline-specific contents. A good example of this could be, for instance, a course on research methodology during which students – in small groups – design, carry out and report a research. The teacher’s role here is to tutor the small groups. On the course, students gain insight into discipline-specific research and learn its basic concepts and research skills, but also many generic skills, such as those needed in teamwork, information analysis, drawing conclusions and presenting the arguments.

Nonetheless, the integration of generic skills into individual courses is just a good start, since for deeper learning, these skills should be taken holistically into account in education programmes. This would give students chances for well-rounded practicing of their skills through different courses and exercises.

Like in all learning, feedback and reflection are essential for the development of generic skills as well. In teaching, it is also important to remember that in this area of learning as well, some students need more support than others do.

A key question for consideration is how generic skills and their development are discussed in different fields and units of education. Optimally, teaching of skills is not dependent on an individual teacher but the skills are incorporated as a natural part of the whole curriculum. It would be preferable to take this discussion widely to various bodies responsible for educational planning, development and implementation– not forgetting the students; after all, they will be the future experts.

Kaisa Silvennoinen, Project Researcher, Finnish Institute for Educational Research (FIER), University of Jyväskylä

Heidi Hyytinen, Senior Lecturer, Centre for University Teaching and Learning (HYPE), University of Helsinki

Jani Ursin, Senior Researcher, Finnish Institute for Educational Research (FIER), University of Jyväskylä

The writers are working in the KAPPAS! project on the evaluation of higher education students’ learning outcomes in Finland. The project is conducted jointly by FIER, University of Jyväskylä, and HYPE, University of Helsinki. The project investigates the level of Finnish higher education students’ generic skills, what kind of factors explain the observed level, and how these skills develop during higher education studies. The KAPPAS! project is funded by the Ministry of Education and Culture. The final report of the study will be published on 21 January 2021 in connection with the project’s final seminar. Further information: https://ktl.jyu.fi/fi/hankkeet/kappas

Get latest articles from The University of Jyväskylä’s stakeholder magazine into your email. You can cancel your subscription at any time.