Imagine you’re a manager in a large manufacturing company that builds highly sophisticated electronic control terminals for Network Rail. You’re on a staff recruitment panel and are looking to recruit a recent graduate who can lead a small team of software engineers. The skill-set required includes advanced knowledge of computing code as well as a strong grasp of Maths and Physics. So, basically, you’re looking for a STEM graduate. A small group of your colleagues have carried out a first ‘sift’ of the applications and your HR department has forwarded to the recruitment panel a shortlist of 6 applications. These are graduates from a range of Universities, some from the Russell Group, some from MillionPlus group, and some from what were until recently members of the 94 Group. Reading through them, you realise that all six candidates have gained a 1st class degree. All six have performed consistently well across the three years of their degree, and all six have terrific academic references from senior lecturers and professors in the universities concerned. Hmmmmmm. You suddenly realise that this is going to be a tricky business – how do you differentiate between them when they all seem to have such a strong academic record.
But, on reading in more detail, you suddenly realise that one of the candidates spent 6 weeks working on a voluntary basis in a residential summer camp for disabled school students in California and her supervisor provided them with a glowing testimonial which the student alludes to in the covering letter that is attached to their CV. It’s only a few lines, but it refers to the fact that the student worked really well with the staff team and helped to organise a ‘buddy’ scheme for the less confident children. They had also completed mentor training, safeguarding training, and advanced first aid training.
You also then notice that the student has been working on a paid, part-time basis for 12 hours a week, in a medium-sized restaurant, and was responsible for coordinating shifts and training opportunities for the small staff team concerned. They also worked for 3 hours each Sunday at a cat sanctuary, again on a voluntary basis, and assisted the owner with organising purchases of consumables and even helped with budget management. The student had also served for 9 months as secretary of the University netball team. You check the other applications, but none seem to contain similar evidence of co- and extra-curricular activities, selfless commitment to others and a sustained track record of taking on extra responsibility. Who are you going to give the job to?
The scenario I have described above illustrates the importance of students engaging in co- and extra-curricular activities that ‘add value’ to their CVs and make them more attractive to potential employers. We all know, of course, that it is important for students to dedicate themselves to their studies and engage proactively in assessments etc. This will ensure a positive outcome – hopefully a good degree – which will help them when they start to hunt for that all-important first graduate position. But the scenario also serves to illustrate another important point – namely, getting a 1st class degree isn’t enough. Students need to find other ways of standing out in a crowd. This is why it’s so important for Personal Tutors and others to work with students to emphasise the importance of building experiences that show that they can do more than just perform well in academic assessments.
Many of the Graduate Attributes that students develop during their studies can be developed within the context of the formal ‘curriculum’, but some of the life skills and attributes they will need to succeed both in their studies and in their future careers are best developed in what might loosely be termed ‘co- and extra-curricular’ activities – e.g. paid work, volunteering activities, paid internships, work as University ‘ambassadors’ or ‘student mentors’, sports and sporting leadership roles, student societies and just chatting to their friends in social contexts etc. I’m not suggesting that lecturers will have great control over most of these extra-curricular activities, but you can encourage students to recognise the value of them, and in some Universities departments are actually developing school-level projects and schemes that both staff and students engage in – these are often entirely extra-curricular but bring staff and students together in less formal contexts. They learn a great deal from each other as a result. It may be worth reminding students that, despite the huge importance of understanding the factors which led to the Education Act of 1870, or the chemical composition of Marmite, or the economic merits of the Gold Standard, that most employers will be much less interested in the minutiae of the subjects they studied, than in the kinds of skills and attributes they developed, and the evidence of their development as more ‘rounded’ human beings. Recent reports suggests that 80% of employers are not bothered which degree subject students have studied – they are looking, instead, for graduates who have the right combination of personal qualities, attitudes, capacities, values and skills. Many of these are most effectively developed outside of the formal HE curriculum, either in activities that are closely related to the course of study (co-curricular), or less closely related to it (extra-curricular).
The key point I’m making here is, of course, that student centred teaching is often – indeed almost exclusively – interpreted in terms of the pedagogies and teaching interventions we employ that are focused around the needs of students, but it can also be seen as creating an environment in which students are supported to think beyond the academic curriculum, in partnership with academics. Sometimes these academics will be personal tutors or advisers, sometimes they will be module leads, course leaders or even guest lecturers. The services and support that Careers specialists provide is also important, but a student-centred approach to teaching in higher education also requires academics to re-think the way they work with students to think about strategies that will help them to ‘stand out in the crowd’ once they leave university and enter the increasingly competitive world of graduate employment. Many universities already have in place varied kinds of ‘Skills Award’ that recognise and acknowledge skills developed in curricular, co-curricular and extra-curricular contexts – for example, see the UEA Award. Are your advisees making the most of the schemes available to record, verify and reward such engagement? Are they looking beyond the confines of the course to become that applicant that every good manager will want to employ?
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Dr Adam Longcroft spent more than 20 years teaching undergraduate and post-graduate students at the University of East Anglia in the fields of landscape archaeology, history, education and professional studies before joining Anglia Ruskin University as the new Deputy Head of Anglia Learning & Teaching in August this year. He served as UEA’s Academic Director for Taught Programmes for 5 years – a role in which he had a major influence over the University’s approach to teaching and learning and enhancing the student experience. In his new role Adam is focused on enhancing the provision of continuing professional development for academic colleagues at ARU. Adam won an individual award for teaching excellence in history from the HEA in 2005, and is both a National Teaching Fellow (2007) and a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (2015).
We invite you to join the discussion using the comment box below in response to Adam’s questions.
1. How do you promote co- and extra-curricular opportunities with your students?
2. Do your students understand the importance of engaging with opportunities outside of the formal academic curriculum?
3. Are there schemes or awards in place at your own institution that recognise and verify co- and extra-curricular skills development? Are they successful?
4. What are the man barriers to students engaging with co- and extra-curricular opportunities?