Promoting student engagement in learning activities

Originally published in Forum Magazine, Issue 41, Autumn 2016.

The design of student work, both within and outside of contact hours, is central to the York Pedagogy. This focus is inspired by research which has shown that educational gain is maximised when learning activities are carefully-designed to increase student engagement in their learning. Here Dr Claire Hughes, Environment Department lecturer, discusses her approaches to maximising student engagement in the modules she teaches and how her observations of student attitudes to specific learning activities compare to findings from published educational research on academic engagement.

The link between academic engagement and educational gain

According to Bloom (1956) an engaged student is one who attends taught sessions and actively engages in learning tasks, finds the work interesting and enjoyable and, crucially, invests mental effort into their learning, going beyond what is expected and enjoying the challenge. The link between academic engagement and educational gain is clear (Trowler, 2010). Consistent with this, I am sure that we have all come across students who have displayed the behavioural, emotional and cognitive characteristics described in Bloom (1956) and have seen them go on to excel both in their studies and in life after graduation. There appears to be no doubt that engagement is essential for academic success and the development of deep and lifelong learners; key educational goals of higher education.

An important question, and one raised in a recent review published by the Higher Education Academy (Trowler, 2010), is who has responsibility for ensuring that students’ engage with their learning. Some place the onus on the student but others are clear that institutions and teachers must bear some of the responsibility and make deliberate efforts to promote engagement. Coates (2005), for example, suggests that engagement and learning relies on ‘institutions and staff providing students with the conditions, opportunities and expectations to become involved’. I agree and think that as teachers we should pay attention to promoting engagement when designing student work and that this should be an important consideration when we reflect on the success of taught sessions.

What promotes student engagement?

I have seen clearly the sorts of learning activities that promote behavioural, emotional and cognitive engagement in my students. Overall the most successful activities are those that have a student-led component [1] but are strongly scaffolded by feedback and opportunities for practice [2]. These observations are consistent with research into the psychology of motivation which suggests that autonomy and perceived competence are effective ways to develop intrinsic motivation (reviewed by Ryan and Deci, 2000). These observations are also consistent with educational research which suggests that personalisation (Prain et al., 2013) and self-efficacy (Linnenbrink and Pintrich, 2003) are important drivers of academic engagement. I have also found that engagement is increased in activities that involve learning which will be useful in terms of future assessments or employability [3]. Such links clearly provide the necessary instrumentalities to drive extrinsic motivation. The use of instrumentalities to promote engagement is consistent with educational literature (e.g. Wigfield and Cambria, 2010) on the importance of students’ perception of task value in learning activities.

1: Student-led learning and personalisation

I have observed a high level of student engagement in a research methods module which asks students to decide themselves on the environmental management topic they will study in the field. This move away from the traditional ‘cook book lab’ has seen students setting up Facebook pages for their project group, independently organising group meetings outside of contact hours and contacting me to ask sensible and engaging questions. The words ‘freedom’, ‘independence’ and ‘choice’ have appeared on over 60 student feedback forms completed for this module in the last 2 years, highlighting that the opportunity to explore individual interests and ideas is a key motivator.

2: Scaffolding to promote self-efficacy

In general I have found that student-led tasks are more successful in terms of promoting engagement when they are scaffolded by opportunities for practice and provide space for getting it wrong and working out how to put it right. For example, in one of my laboratory-based learning activities I ask students to design the experiment they will use to collect data for a summative report on the environmental controls of bacterial growth. This is potentially a daunting task as students are likely to have previously had limited experience of both the methodologies involved in handling microbes and independent experimental design.  In order to build self-efficacy I run a practice session in advance of the main practical during which students can develop skills in the use of methodologies for handling the microbes and measuring their growth. Errors and mistakes that are inevitably made during this first session are almost never seen in the main practical during which groups almost always work well to obtain high quality experimental datasets.  Additionally, they appear to approach the measurements in the main practical with confidence and, rather than worrying about basic practicalities, spend time refining and embellishing their experiments.

3: Useful learning and task value

Students appear to be more engaged in learning tasks that have links to the dissertation (or other high value assessments) and future employability. In my research methods module we provide a framework that students use to design and report on a field project. My observations suggest that students are highly engaged in this module and feedback frequently suggests that they value this task as the framework can be used in the dissertation and investigating an environmental management issue provides the opportunity to undertake work similar to what is done by environmental consultants; a common career goal for our graduates.

Personalisation for effective engagement

‘teachers who are autonomy supportive catalyse their students greater intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and desire for challenge’ (Ryan and Deci., 2000)

Whilst it has been criticised for ‘conceptual fuzziness’, personalisation has been endorsed as a key strategy to improve engagement and promote the development of independent learner capabilities (Prain et al., 2013).  In general, personalised learning takes into account the diversity of learner needs by offering students choice in the way that they learn: giving them the opportunity to guide their own journey through learning and providing ownership and responsibility for the learning process. The modular system is in itself a form of personalised learning but promoting every-day engagement would seem to require personalisation at the learning activity-level. I achieve a degree of personalisation in my teaching [Box 1] by allowing students to choose the research question they will use as a basis for the learning activities in my research methods module. This works here as students can still achieve the module learning outcomes, which centre on the ability to design and report on an authentic research project, no matter what topic they choose. However, the extent to which it is possible to allow our students to decide what, when, where and how they learn will clearly vary between programmes, modules and learning activities.

How far we need to go to provide a personalised education that brings the benefits of increased engagement is a topic of discussion. Innovating Pedagogy 2015, the Open University’s fourth annual report on the technological trends revolutionising global education (Sharples et al., 2015), highlights computer-based adaptive teaching as a key form of personalised learning that is likely to emerge in coming years. Such systems can be designed to develop bespoke pathways of study for each learner, providing guidance on, for example, which material to revisit and hints on how to solve problems, and guide classroom teaching activities depending on online test results. Whilst bespoke pathways of study could be of benefit to student learning some are concerned about the loss of collaborative learning they bring and their incorporation into regular teaching activities would require major shifts. However some of the principles that lie behind them could be incorporated into existing teaching fairly easily. For example, modules could be structured around regular in class tests and quizzes that are used to gauge students understanding of taught concepts and the results used to help guide the content of subsequent sessions. Alternatively research suggests that simply ensuring that we have effective interactions with our students should promote engagement through personalisation. Waldeck (2007) suggests that instructor accessibility, level of interest and engagement with students, alongside flexibility in terms of course activities, are key characteristics that influence students’ perception of the degree of personalisation in their education. This could be achieved through, for example, incorporating drop-in sessions into our modules in which, individually or as a group, students receive guidance on aspects of the course they are finding difficult.

Self-efficacy beliefs and student engagement

Self-efficacy beliefs are ‘people’s judgments of their capabilities to organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performances’ (Bandura, 1986). Studies have revealed that individuals with a sense of competence have been found to dedicate greater effort and have greater persistence, deeper cognitive engagement, greater interest and an improved sense of value in specific learning tasks (reviewed by Linnenbrink and Pintrich, 2003). This is consistent with observations from my laboratory practical sessions [Box 2] where students appear to have greater engagement in learning tasks that are scaffolded by opportunities to practice and develop new skills.

Linnenbrink and Pintrich (2003) provide a useful list of recommendations for how to promote self-efficacy in day-to-day teaching practice. These include providing task-specific feedback that promotes the development of reasonable self-efficacy beliefs, setting challenging tasks that can be completed with some effort and fostering the belief that competence is changeable. Whilst whole programmes of study could be arranged around these recommendations there are clearly small changes that could be made at a modular level. Probably the most important suggestions would be to leave room in the timetable for students to practice new skills and deliberately embed opportunities to provide task-specific feedback. Where possible it would also seem appropriate to highlight students’ progression towards mastery of a specific skill so they can see how their efforts have led to improved abilities. In some my own modules I use simple flow diagrams to show students the steps needed to master a specific skill and return to this from time-to-time to show how far they have come and what is left to achieve.

The importance of task value for promoting engagement

Learning activities have a high task value when students value the material in terms of interest, importance, and utility (Wigfield and Cambria, 2010). The framework for research project design that I use as the basis for my research methods module [Box 3] is useful to students in the capstone dissertation and future employability so learning tasks associated with this are seen as high value and they are associated with high levels of engagement. As academic performance and employability are likely to promote motivation in a large proportion of students, learning activities which are linked to these instrumentalities are likely to be associated with higher levels of student engagement. This may seem obvious but efforts to use task value to promote engagement are unlikely to be successful if the links to such instrumentalities are not obvious and made clear to our students.

In my own modules I have been working towards strengthening the links between my teaching, and other modules and employability. This has been through designing resources such as handbooks and statistics decision trees that students can take away from my modules and use in others. Even explaining to students that the material they are learning in my modules will be of use to them in others appears to promote greater engagement. For the first time this year we will be linking the projects that students undertake in my research methods module with key issues of concern to the Campus Estates Manager. First class reports will be compiled into a report to Estates with contributing students as co-authors.  We are hoping that this will enhance the perception of task value in this module even further and promote even greater engagement.

Student engagement under the York Pedagogy

I think that there are key opportunities to promote student engagement under the York Pedagogy. Programme maps will allow us to identify how the teaching within our modules is linked to that in others and provide us with a framework to clearly highlight the value of learning activities to wider academic achievement. Programme learning outcomes provide us with educational goals that we can use to explain why students are being asked to engage in specific learning activities. Additionally, a programme-level approach to the design of teaching allows us space to embed the opportunities for developing self-efficacy through practicing skills and providing the feedback that encourages development across multiple modules.

Some may argue that it is difficult to incorporate the suggestions for improving engagement described here due to time constraints. However, the careful design of the work students undertake outside of contact hours should leave room for face-to-face activities that promote student engagement through personalisation, self-efficacy and task value without adding to our workloads.

Dr Claire Hughes


Bandura, A., 1986. Social foundations of thoughts and actions: a social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall

Casuso-Holgado, M. J., Cuesta-Vargas, A. I., Moreno-Morales, N., Labajos-Manzanares, M. T., Baron-Lopez, F. J., and Vega-Cuesta, M. 2013. The association between academic engagement and achievement in health sciences students. BMC Medical Education 13: 33-40

Prain, V., Cox, P., Deed, C., Dorman, J., Edwards, D., Farrelly, C., Keeffe, M., Lovejoy, V., Mow, L., Sellings, P., Waldrip, B., and Yager, Z. 2013. Personalised learning: lessons to be learnt. British Educational Research Journal 39, 654-676

Linnenbrink, E. A., and Pinntrich, P. R. 2003. The role of self-efficacy beliefs in student engagement and learning in the classroom. Reading and Writing Quarterly 19: 119-137

Waldeck, J. H. 2007. Answering the question: student perceptions of personalised education and the construct’s relationship to learning outcomes. Communication Education 56: 409-432

Ryan, R. M., and Deci, E. L. 2000. Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist 55: 68-78

Sharples, M., Adams, A., Alozie, N., Ferguson, R., FitzGerald, E., Gaved, M., McAndrew, P., Means, B., Remold, J., Rienties, B., Roschelle, J., Vogt, K., Whitelock, D. & Yarnall, L. (2015). Innovating Pedagogy 2015: Open University Innovation Report 4. Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Bloom, B.S. (ed.) (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: the Classification of Educational Goals. New York: D McKay & Co, Inc.

Coates, H. (2005) The value of student engagement for higher education quality assurance. Quality in Higher Education 11: 25–36

Trowler, V. 2010. Student Engagement Literature Review: Higher Education Academy.

Wigfield, A., and Cambria, J. 2010. Students’ achievement values, goal orientations, and interest: Definitions, development, and relations to achievement outcomes. Developmental Review 30: 1-35


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.

The holistic student

Thomas Ron and Chris Wall discuss how linking societies and academic departments can help students reach their full potential (Forum Viewpoint article, Summer 2016).

Thomas Ron will be delivering a workshop on ‘the holistic student’ at the York Learning & Teaching Conference 2016, ‘Value Added Graduates’, Tuesday 7 June. Places are still available to attend –Conference ProgrammeBooking Form.

Our employability landscapeforum

At York, we spend considerable time and energy on the issue of graduate employability. That said, first year students regularly do not think about employability and it was remarkable that this year was the first one where they made up a significant proportion of Careers Fairs. Our experience as students tells us that there isn’t always consistency of approach from academic staff in dealing with employability: some are promoting it, talking about it, embedding it and making it part of the course experience, whilst others are relying on Careers and, as a result, on students making an early and proactive attempt to tackle the complicated employment and employability space. Furthermore, and as a result of a traditional academic approach, many of the skills learned through course interaction are academic in nature, focusing on solving problems or helping students embark on a research career, rather than looking at industrial work. This could put the University at a significant disadvantage: as students have become savvy about the value of an industrial placement, they’re more likely to make the decision not to apply or to put York as their first choice.

What employers are looking for

We all know that employers today are increasingly looking for ‘more than a degree’ and in some cases are no longer considering undergraduate attainment in and of itself. What this actually means is that they are looking for a rounded individual that has grasped the university experience, has undertaken a part-time job, been in or lead a club or a society, represented other students, or completed a placement. Employers want graduates who have got knowledge about a subject, but also skills and experience that they can apply to accomplishing different tasks and jobs. These skills include but are not limited to:

  • Leadership and teamwork
  • Effective communication
  • Self-management
  • Problem solving
  • Commercial awareness

How Academic Societies build these skills

Academic societies provide a basis for these skills and much more. Students who engage in their academic society are often involved in organising events; this in itself requires students to exercise a range of skills. For example organising a speaker event for the committee will require liaising with other members of the committee to consider who they should book, budgeting for the event, engaging with external contacts, and so much more – all providing opportunities to develop skills outside the degree. Balancing all of this with their studies also demonstrates excellent time management. These skills are ones we do not always receive from traditional study or at least do not get the chance to apply pragmatically in a safe environment.

Involvement in an academic society also provides evidence that an individual is engaged beyond their degree and wants to learn more holistically and perhaps independently. The fact that they cover additional course material is also a benefit to the students who ultimately have chosen their degree because they enjoy it. Allowing them to explore areas which they enjoy continues their interest and encourages the independent learning culture we are looking to promote at York.

Examples where departments and societies have worked well together

It is notable that many departments that have ‘bucked the trend’ on employability tend to have a strong working relationship with their Academic Societies. One such example is the Law Society who have built very close links with senior lecturers in the Law School as well as a close association with their Employability Teaching Fellow. These links have allowed the Society to bring in leading Law firms to multiple events and those firms end up leaving with plenty of prospective interns. The connection has been there from the inception of the Law School and the Law Society and has allowed them to work with each other and maintain Law as a school that does well. Another good example is ShockSoc, who have been highly involved in helping students do independent lab work and promoting ideas within Electronics. This has helped students engage in collaborative work, a trait which is highly sought after with employers. Electronics helps this by fully subsidising membership in ShockSoc for all Electronics students. Therefore, as the club is free at the point of use at any point in time it has a large membership of Electronics students who make the club strong and help with the soft skills employers are looking for while the department can get on with the business of teaching.

Ideas for further links

  • Departments and Academic Societies should work together more in order to derive the greatest mutual benefit and ensure they complement one another fully.
  • The incentives and help that some departments provide should not be the exception, they should be the rule.
  • Furthermore, these incentives should be provided with benchmarks for the society to meet, so that the investment has an obvious quantifiable return.
  • Therefore, we would welcome working with departments to create a framework for providing incentives as well as ensuring societies keep up to their commitments.

user-photo-54241Thomas Ron is the Academic Officer of YUSU for the academic year. He has long been an advocate for student engagement and has held positions in YUSU since 2013. He is particularly passionate about involving students in making changes to their course. He has piloted methods of involving students in all areas of university life and bringing academic societies into academic decision making. He can be contacted at

user-photo-42186Chris Wall is the Activities Officer of YUSU for this and the last academic year. In his role he has had overall responsibility for societies and our charitable activities. He is particularly passionate for societies to develop into new roles and ways of providing for students. He can be contacted at


A practical model of graduate employability

Lorraine Dacre Pool (University of Central Lancashire) discusses the key components of graduate employability development through an exploration of the CareerEDGE Model (Forum Feature article, Summer 2016).

Lorriane will be delivering the Keynote address at the York Learning & Teaching Conference 2016, ‘Value Added Graduates’, Tuesday 7 June. Places are still available to attend – Conference ProgrammeBooking Form.

Models of employability provide a framework for enabling students to reach their full potential and become successful ‘value-added’ graduates. The CareerEDGE model of graduate employability was introduced in 2007. Since that time it has been received extremely positively, both nationally and internationally. The original article (Dacre Pool & Sewell, 2007) published in the journal Education + Training, has been downloaded almost 30,000 times and the model has featured in a number of publications from other authors.

Other models of employability werein existence before the introduction of CareerEDGE but were considered either too elaborate to be practically useable or too simple to capture the meaning of this somewhat elusive concept. CareerEDGE helps to fill this gap by acting as a clear framework for employability development that is useful for academic staff, careers staff and any other practitioners involved in employability activities. It also allows us to explain to students what we mean by employability development without clouding the issue in complexity. In the context of this article it provides a framework for discussing the key components of graduate employability development.


The mnemonic CareerEDGE is used as an aid to remember the five lower tier components of the model and it is suggested that students should be provided with opportunities to develop all of these components. CareerEDGE highlights that it is essential that students are given opportunities to reflect on and evaluate these experiences, to develop higher levels of self-efficacy, self-confidence and self esteem; crucial links to employability.

Employment and employability are not interchangeable concepts

One intention of developing the model was to avoid the mistaken belief that when we use the term ‘employability’ we are just concerned with ‘employment’ or are just talking about developing the ‘skills’ that many employers now expect to see in graduate recruits. Although these are important aspects of employability they are not the complete picture. Using the model can be helpful when explaining that employability is involved with the much broader development of students into graduates who feel ready and prepared for whatever life holds for them beyond university. As Hallett (2012) states,

‘It is refreshing to think that ‘employability’ might grow into something broader than a particular set of skills and competencies, into a richer idea of graduate readiness …’ (p30).

CareerEDGE – the key components 

Exploring the key components of the CareerEDGE model allows us to highlight what we consider to be the most important facets of ‘employability’, including career development learning, experience, degree subject knowledge, skills and understanding, generic skills  and emotional intelligence.


CDL in the context of Higher Education has been described as being ‘… concerned with helping students to acquire knowledge, concepts, skills and attitudes which will equip them to manage their careers, ie their lifelong progression in learning and in work.’ (Watts, 2006, p2). Learning a selection of ‘job getting’ skills, such as writing an effective CV, completing a job application or presenting yourself in an interview, is incorporated in this element but in itself forms only one aspect of CDL. By providing students with support and guidance that enables them to develop their self-awareness, who they are and what they want from their future lives, and to consider what opportunities (local, national and global) are out there for them, we will help them to make more informed decisions. Included here could be activities that encourage students to consider if self-employment is something they might wish to explore. We can also help them to prepare for a competitive graduate labour market by ensuring they know how best
to articulate how their time within HE has enabled them to develop both personally and professionally into the graduate recruits potential employers are looking for. As with all elements of CareerEDGE, CDL is an essential component. A student may gain an excellent degree classification and develop many of the skills employers are looking for, but if they are unable to decide what type of occupation they would find satisfying or are unaware of how to articulate their knowledge and skills to a prospective employer, they are unlikely to achieve their full career potential.



Another element from the lower tier of the CareerEDGE model is that of ‘experience’. This includes work experience but, importantly for many students, other life experiences too. Harvey (2005) contends that, in particular, younger, full-time students who have not had significant work experience as part of their programmes of study often leave university with very little idea of the nature and culture of the workplace and consequently can find it difficult to adjust. There is also research which suggests that graduates with work experience are more likely to gain employment upon graduation than those without (Pedagogy for Employability Group, 2006). Other research has found overwhelming evidence for the value of work-based and work-related learning experiences in promoting the employability of graduates (Lowden, Hall, Elliot & Lewin, 2011). The necessity for students to gain work experience now seems to be accepted by employers and most HE staff alike. Indeed this was one of the major points made by the Wilson Review of Business-University Collaboration (2012). Most universities have recognised this thinking and have staff dedicated to helping students to engage with some form of work-related learning. For many students this will not only allow them to develop the professional skills expected in all graduate recruits, but may also allow them to think about how the theory and knowledge they are gaining through their degree studies can be related to the real world. They will also be able to incorporate these real-life experiences into their studies and hopefully see how the theory and real-world experience can contribute to their overall understanding of their academic discipline.


This has always been and remains at the heart of CareerEDGE. Students come to university to learn about a particular subject – some with a view to gaining work within this field, others purely because they are passionate about developing their knowledge and understanding of the subject. It is arguable that we all want our students to gain the most from their studies, to develop a love of learning and gain the best degree classification they can.


Although it has been argued that the skills approach alone is insufficient to do justice to the much broader concept of graduate employability (eg Tomlinson, 2012), employers do understand the language of skills and are often quite specific about the skills they expect to see in graduate recruits. As they also attempt to measure these in their recruitment and selection processes, it is difficult to argue that we should not be providing our students with knowledge of these requirements together with opportunities to develop these skills whilst at university. Many of the generic skills listed by employers as vital in graduate recruits, such as communication, team working, problem solving, digital literacy and many more, including those sometimes classified as ‘enterprise skills’ such as creativity and innovation, are also skills that will help students to make the most of their academic studies. As such, they can often be developed within the HE curriculum; but students do need to be made aware of when this is happening, which can be done through ensuring these are included as learning outcomes. This way students are able to see how they are developing the skills and competencies employers are looking for and will be able to offer evidence of these when applying for work experience opportunities and/or graduate jobs.


This might have been one of the more controversial elements within CareerEDGE but all of the feedback received since 2007 has been distinctly positive. Emotional Intelligence ability is something that has a significant effect on relationships and well-being (eg Mayer, Roberts & Barsade, 2008) and as such deserves a place within any model of graduate employability. It is also a desirable attribute for potential leaders (Walter, Cole & Humphrey, 2011) which many graduates aspire to become. EI ability is concerned with how people perceive, understand and manage emotion; a graduate who is unable to pay attention to their own and others feelings, understand those feelings and manage them effectively is likely to experience difficulties in their personal relationships and their professional relationships with colleagues, managers and customers. Therefore it is important to make students aware of this and help them to develop their ability in this area. Again, activities to help with this kind of development can be, and in many cases already are, incorporated into the curriculum. Any activities that encourage students to work together, communicate effectively, negotiate with each other and reflect on their learning experiences, can be used to develop EI ability. There are many opportunities to include such activities in most HE curricula and research has demonstrated that it is possible for students to improve their EI ability together with confidence in that ability (Dacre Pool & Qualter, 2012). It can also be helpful to include activities in other related areas such as diversity and cultural awareness, both of which require us to consider how our words and actions can impact on the feelings of others.

Reflection and evaluation

Providing students with the opportunities to gain the necessary skills, knowledge, understanding and personal attributes through employability related activities is obviously of great importance. However, without opportunities to reflect on these activities and evaluate them, it is unlikely that this experience will transfer into learning. This type of reflective learning often takes the form of written learning logs or reflective journals but could also include audio, video and e-portfolios. Reflection can help a student to gain employment by providing a means by which they can become aware of and articulate their abilities. But additionally it is an ability that will help them in their employment (many roles now call for reflective practitioners) and as a contributor to lifelong learning skills; as such it is an essential element both in relation to HE learning and in the employment context (Moon, 2004). It is also through the process of reflection and evaluation that our students are able to develop their self-efficacy, self-confidence and self-esteem – crucial links to employability.

The CareerEDGE model is helpful for explaining the concept of employability to students, enabling them to take responsibility for their own employability development. It can also be helpful to inform the planning of programmes and structured interventions by providing clarity of information about what needs to be considered and included. Importantly, it can serve as a clear, practical framework to help all who work in HE to unite in their common objective of supporting students to develop into well-rounded, employable graduates.


Dacre Pool, L. & Qualter, P. (2012). Improving emotional intelligence and emotional self-efficacy through a teaching intervention for university students. Learning and Individual Differences, 22, 306-312.

Dacre Pool, L. & Sewell, P. (2007). The key to employability: developing a practical model of graduate employability. Education + Training, 49(4), 277-289.

Hallett, R. (2012). The Rhetoric of Employability. Bridging the University – Employer Divide. Available at: cgi-bin/webadmin?A2=EMPLOYABILITY­DEVELOPMENT;37330c08.1209 (retrieved 24.2.16)

Lowden, K., Hall, S., Elliot, D. & Lewin, J. (2011). Employers’ Perceptions of the Employability of New Graduates. London: Edge Foundation. Available at: skills_as_pdf_-_final_online_version.pdf (retrieved 9.3.16)

Mayer, J.D., Roberts, R.D., & Barsade, S.G. (2008). Human Abilities: Emotional Intelligence. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 507–536.

Moon, J. (2004). Reflection and employability. Learning and Employability Series 4. York: Learning and Teaching Support Network.

Pedagogy for Employability Group (2006). Pedagogy for employability. Learning and Employability Series 1. York: The Higher Education Academy.

Tomlinson, M. (2012). Graduate Employability: A Review of Conceptual and Empirical Themes. Higher Education Policy, 25, 407 – 431.

Walter, F., Cole, M.S., & Humphrey, R.H. (2011). Emotional Intelligence: Sine Qua Non of Leadership or Folderol? Academy of Management Perspectives, 25(1), 45-59.

Watts, A.G. (2006). Career development learning and employability. Learning and employability, Series Two, York: The Higher Education Academy.

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Lorraine Dacre Pool Lorraine is a Chartered Psychologist and Senior Lectlorraine_dacre_poolurer in Employability at the University of Central Lancashire, based in the
Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. Recognising the need for a clear, practical model of graduate employability, she designed and published the CareerEDGE model and later developed the Employability Development Profile, both of which have appeared in a number of publications and are in use in many universities nationally and internationally. She has particular expertise in the subject of Emotional Intelligence and the role this plays in graduate employability.


New look for Forum magazine: Employability special edition

For the Summer 2016 issue we have a new look for Forum. This issue of the magazine is linked to the University of York Learning and Teaching Conference which focuses on ‘value added graduates’. With articles on ‘developing skills for industry’,  ‘authentic ‘real world’ assessments’, ‘group student research-led projects’ and blogging. As well as, viewpoints from Cecilia Lowe (Head of Learning Enhancement) and Thomas Ron (YUSU Academic Officer) highlighting ways in which we could further enhance the employability of our graduates.

The feature article by Lorraine Dacre Pool (keynote speaker at the conference) discusses the key components of  graduate employability development through an exploration of the CareerEDGE Model.

Places are still available to attend the 2016 Conference – Value added graduates: enabling our students to be successful – Conference ProgrammeBooking Form.  

Blog post on the workshops and presentations linked to the articles in this issue of Forum will be made available following the University of York Learning and Teaching Conference 7 July 2016.


Derwent Global Community

Eleanor Brown and Lynda Dunlop secured Rapid Response Funding to explore developing capabilities through a non-formal learning community focused on international development and human rights

It is widely acknowledged that higher education offers great opportunities for students to develop as learners, as future employees and as citizens. Much of this learning and development takes place outside of the structures of the formal classroom and yet there is little evidence about the ways in which these spaces best create conditions for students to develop their capabilities and interests, and flourish as positive members of a just society. Universities are in a position to ‘provide the enabling spaces and conditions for development and learning in the way that individuals cannot do alone’ (Walker, 2006, p. 37). With this in mind, Derwent College established its first living-learning community (Derwent Global Community, DGC) in September 2014. Living-learning communities are structured with the express purpose of encouraging students to connect ideas from different disciplines and of creating long-term, sustained social interactions (Zhao and Kuh, 2004). DGC is a college-based living learning community led by students around the theme of international development, social justice and human rights (

Research conducted in the USA has found that there are positive outcomes for students in relation to retention, engagement with learning and academic performance as a result of involvement in a learning community (Stassen, 2003; Lenning and Ebbers, 1999). However, living-learning communities are less common in the UK, and universities tend to provide opportunities for informal learning through a wide range of student organisations and societies. The DGC differs from these in that the conditions for an informal learning community, led by students, have been created by the college through provision of structured, non-formal (i.e. non-credit bearing and optional) education, such as workshops and networking events with local organisations. The aim is to foster political engagement and a sense of community and commitment from the students, offering opportunities for students to develop and grow in a safe and supported environment. Learning and confidence growth is facilitated through providing a broad range of ways to engage.

The theme of the learning community was decided based on the ethos of the college and the partnerships and collaboration that had been developing for several years within it. The theme was described as a focus on ‘International Development and Human Rights’. It was set as broadly as possible, with the idea that the students would be able to narrow this down and focus on aspects that they were most interested in. Students were invited before the start of their first term to sign up to live in one residential block, which was allocated to the Global Community, as it became known. Eleven students signed up to this: three UK students, three international students and two European students on full degree courses and three visiting international students in the UK for one term. In addition, the opportunity was opened to all students in the college to get involved on a non-residential basis. Over 30 students turned up to the information session, from all years, and of these, several second and third years and postgraduate students became fully involved with the group, and a small number of other students engaged sporadically with the activities. This has drawn on support from the Department of Education, the Human Rights Defenders from the Centre for Applied Human Rights, and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

We held a number of networking meetings, discussion groups and workshops to enable students explore ideas associated with human rights and international development. The students then took a series of actions that aimed to raise awareness of associated issues amongst the wider student body. These included a cine forum, operation empty cupboard, a series of events organised to raise awareness about issues associated with asylum and migration including a debate, quiz, clothes swap and arts night.

As the academic year drew to a close, we interviewed students to find out about their experiences and development through their participation in the Derwent Global Community. They highlighted enablers and barriers to their participation in the community and discussed their sense of commitment, and ways in which they felt able to act and bring about change through participation in the Global Community. The interviews aimed to explore the ways in which they had developed their capabilities, i.e. their sense of agency and their ‘freedom to achieve well-being’ (Sen, 1992, p. 48). In these interviews, students discussed ways in which they had developed wellbeing though the Global Community through their own personal development and through the development of a community. A key development area was the way they developed ways to negotiating different perspectives on complex issues:

“Good experience with the difficulty of trying to do stuff around human rights and development, which obviously is a really difficult topic to ever say we are an educated group … about, then I think in the discussions we’d have…I got a good understanding … of how that is going to be a challenge if I go into this sort of line of work, where people have moral stances on it and there are ethical stances. Everyone’s got a different viewpoint, actually.”

This tested communication skills within a non-hierarchical community where everyone’s voice was equal, but decisions were made through consensus. This meant that students had to work hard to collaborate:

“I think by the end I was more willing to express my ideas but I think it pushed me to find other ways to express my ideas…just finding other ways so that my ideas can be heard”

In addition to learning to communicate with each other, students found it valuable to learn from others in the wider community working on these issues:

“I think it’s good that I’m more aware of the opportunities that there are in York with these organisations and I think it’s nice to meet a lot of people who care about the same kind of things, and I also helped to organise some of the events …and that was really helpful.”

 Through a highly participative and experiential pedagogy with a focus on critical reflection and challenging social inequalities, it could be argued that the first year of the global community was a chance for some students to enhance their capabilities and feel empowered to work towards social change. The nature of their engagement conformed to ideas from popular education (Freire, 1972) and transformative learning theory (Mezirow, 2000). The students’ commitment to being part of a community and the opportunity to challenge their own perceptions and assumptions and consider different perspectives in dialogue with their peers opened up new spaces for learning.

Our observations and preliminary analysis of interview data from students suggest that this type of initiative can enable students to develop capabilities that could prepare them for participating more in society and working towards social justice and social change. However, there were also occasions when the activities were not sufficiently critical of the status quo, or where participants took away only a superficial understanding of complex issues. Moreover, the numbers of people involved were low. The core group reduced from around 30 at the original meeting to only nine, and participants in the activities run by the group ranged from three to thirty, but tended to be less than ten. There are certainly things to be learned for future cohorts and a clear range of aspects to be explored further through interviews with the students themselves, in order to more deeply understand their perspectives and interpretations. Indeed, as we prepare the new cohort arriving and the second year of DGC. There are already lots of students taking interest in living-learning communities, which are available in both Derwent and Halifax this year. With student-led activities and a broad scope we don’t know how Derwent Global Community will develop this year, but with lots of freshers applying we are looking forward to another eventful year.


Freire, P., 1972. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum.

Mezirow, J., 2000. Learning to Think like an Adult: Core concepts of transformation theory. in Mezirow, Jack and Associates (ed.) Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress. San Francisco: Jossey Bass. pp.3-34

Walker, M., 2006. Higher Education Pedagogies. Maidenhead: The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Sen, A., 1999. Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stassen, M. L. A., 2003. Student outcomes: the impact of varying living learning models. Research in higher education, 44(5), pp. 585-613.

Zhao, C-N. and Kuh, G. D. (2004). Adding value: Learning Communities and Student Engagement. Research in Higher Education, 45, (2), pp. 115 – 138.

A9_brownEleanor Brown is a Lecturer at the University of York, where she is based in the Centre for Research on Education and Social Justice. She teaches and supervises on undergraduate and postgraduate courses and her research interests are in transformative learning, critical pedagogies, international volunteering and development education in non-formal settings. She is also the Head of Derwent College, where she has strategic lead on college ethos and direction.

A9_dunlopLynda Dunlop is a Lecturer in Science Education based in the in the University of York Science Education Group (UYSEG). She has a background in teaching science and philosophy at the secondary level and now teaches on undergraduate and postgraduate education programmes. Her research interests are in science education in primary and secondary schools, and in the teaching of ethical and controversial issues associated with science.