Thinking at the core of employability

Cecilia Lowe, Head of Learning Enhancement, considers the value of critical thinking skills in graduate employability (Forum Viewpoint article, Summer 2016)

Cecilia Lowe will be delivering a workshop on ‘An academic approach to employability’ at the York Learning & Teaching Conference 2016, ‘Value Added Graduates’, Tuesday 7 June. Places are still available to attend –Conference ProgrammeBooking Form.

forum 2The employability agenda is certainly at the forefront of current debate concerning the purpose and value of higher education, whether in relation to ensuring graduates have the key skills needed to compete in the modern job market or the ‘soft skills’ necessary to build a multi-job career (Atkins, 1999; Knight & Yorke, 2004; Yorke, 2006). This is not surprising as not only are societies, governments and businesses struggling to survive in a fast-moving, highly competitive and increasingly unpredictable world, graduates are also facing overwhelming amounts of information and data, work and workplaces which are more mobile and less time-bound, and requirements to be ever-more flexible and adept in the face of change and disappearing career structures.

If we look to research into employability skills to guide us in how to prepare our graduates for such demands, we may be disappointed: multitudes of lists of attributes, abilities and skills have been produced (Yorke, 2006), resulting in a confused and confusing picture. What I would like to suggest in this article is that while due attention should be given to conative and affective skills, such as team-working and modes of communication, we need to ensure we don’t forget the primary skills universities were designed to foster and nurture – the cognitive skills involved in critical thinking.

There is certainly evidence that the most sought after skill for today’s ‘knowledge worker’ is the capacity to activate subject knowledge through critical engagement, but there is also evidence that this is the ability that employers often find lacking (Arum and Roksa, 2014; Korn, 2014). Looking at critical capacities, Dede (2010) highlights the importance of graduates having the capacity to enquire, investigate, and continuously create new methods of discovery through what he terms ‘thinking scientifically’. Additionally, in a disordered environment of information overload, he proposes that ‘thinking skills’ foster the ability to rapidly filter increasing amounts of incoming data to extract information that is valuable for decision making. Similarly, in discussing managing the complexity of the modern world, Reich (2002) describes a new class of workers – the ‘symbolic analysts’ who are happy to experiment and analyse by defining the parameters of problems, seeing the path from abstract principles and models to concrete situations, and thinking through a system from its parts to its whole. These will be the most sought after people in the modern workplace and therefore will be the ones with the power to define their own future. The question is: are these the graduates we are producing?

Surely as a research-driven university we should have no worries about such a question. However, all too easily as educators we can feel the pressure to cover the enormity of our discipline in the classroom, or feel pushed into focusing time and energy on introducing an ever-expanding set of transferable skills, and therefore lose sight of the more nebulous critical skills in our module design and our classroom practice. As a result, students on our programmes may gain the impression, or make the strategic decision, that they just have to learn what is put in front of them and compartmentalise their knowledge in order to survive.

In this situation, giving consideration to how we produce graduates who think, question, challenge, analyse and debate and who are therefore curious, rigorous and adventurous in their approach to the world may take a backseat. The workshop session at this year’s Learning and Teaching conference – An academic approach to employability: or ‘How thinking environments can produce thinking graduates’– will provide participants with space to consider exactly what we mean by a ‘thinking approach’, what we value about it and how we can provide an environment which supports the development of critical awareness and skills. Colleagues from Physics, Psychology (Edinburgh Napier) and Health Sciences will contribute examples of practice.


Arum, R. and Roksa, J. (2014) Aspiring Adults – Tentative Transitions of College Graduates. The University of Chicago Press.

Atkins, M.J. (1999) Oven-ready and Self-basting: taking stock of employability skills, Teaching in Higher Education, 4:2, 267-2.

Dede, C.(2010). “Comparing frameworks for 21st century skills”. In 21st century skills: Rethinking how students learn, Edited by: Bellanca, James and Brandt, Ron. 51–76. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Knight, P and Yorke, M. (Reprinted 2006) Embedding employability into the curriculum.

York, Higher Education Academy.

Korn, M. (2014) Bosses seek Critical Thinking, But What Is it? The Wall Street Journal October 22nd, p. B6.

Reich, R. B.(2002)The future of success. London: Vintage

Yorke, M. (2006) Employability in higher education: what it is and what it is not. HEA Learning and Employability

Cecilia Lowe is a HEA Senior Fellow and Head of the Learning Enhancement Team. Her main interest is in supporting academic staff, students and support staff in creating challenging learning environments. Before joining the university, she worked in the higher education sector in both Sri Lanka and Turkey.

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