It is increasingly an expectation – of students, academics and potential employers – that University education will encourage and support the development of ‘Graduate Attributes’.

To this end, Dr Heather Morgan, Institute of Applied Health Sciences, has introduced a work based placement elective course, with the health and development sector organisations. Read below to find out how Dr Morgan achieved this. 

Problem

It is increasingly an expectation – of students, academics and potential employers – that University education will encourage and support the development of ‘Graduate Attributes’. Graduate Attributes are designed to enhance preparedness for further study, future employment and citizenship post-graduation. While they are becoming recognised internationally, Graduate Attributes vary between institutions. At the University of Aberdeen, we have nineteen undergraduate and twenty postgraduate Graduate Attributes grouped across four domains.  A common approach to fostering their development, and an improved student experience, is through work based placements.

Solution

We introduced work based placements with health and development sector organisations as an elective for MSc Global Health and Management students at the University of Aberdeen in 2013. One of this course’s ‘selling points’ is enhanced student employability once they complete their degrees. In 2017, I took up the role of course co-ordinator and added an explicit focus on the development of Graduate Attributes (for enhanced employability) to the course aims and assessment.

Evaluation

Three multiple choice surveys were conducted at two time points with our 2017-18 cohort of PU5521 Work Based Placements with Health and Development Sector Organisation students to ascertain their expectations and experiences of developing our Graduate Attributes through their placements. Responses could be submitted anonymously. Reflective Commentary submissions (30% of assessment) were also reviewed (unblinded). Descriptive statistics were applied to survey responses and grounded theory analysis was applied to Reflective Commentary submissions.

Seventeen students took part in the course in 2017-18. Fifteen completed the course by the assessment deadline of 30 March 2018 (two completed later due to host organisational issues affecting start dates). From the fifteen who completed, thirteen (87%) responded to surveys about their Graduate Attributes development intentions and perceived progress. Seven (47%) completed the survey to provide a final self-assessment of their development. All fifteen (100%) submitted Reflective Commentaries. Six (40%) students reflected explicitly on the development of Graduate Attributes.

The survey results showed that respondents set out to develop at least one Graduate Attribute, with most of the focus being on Academic Excellence attributes (1-5). The most ‘popular’ attribute that students perceived they were developing, however, was 7. A capacity for problem identification, the collection of evidence, synthesis and dispassionate analysis (n=6;40%). After completing placements, the same number of respondents reported that they had developed this attribute. In addition, 10. An ability to work independently and as part of a team and 16. An awareness and appreciation of social and cultural diversity, were considered to have been developed by an equal number of respondents (n=6;40%). No respondents set out to or perceived that they were developing 8. A capacity for attentive exchange, informed argument and reasoning, 18. An appreciation of concepts of enterprise and leadership in all aspects of life or 19. A readiness for citizenship in an inclusive society. However, at the end of the placements, at least one respondent reported developing each of these attributes. In their Reflective Commentaries, some students specified examples that contributed to their development of one or more attribute. Others were not explicit. Students generally reflected positively about their placements, using words like ‘helped’, ‘valuable’, ‘different’, ‘interesting’. Challenges were welcomed as learning experiences.

Impact

Our 2017-18 Masters students reported the development of all University of Aberdeen Graduate Attributes through work based placements when surveyed, but did not always explicitly identify them when reflecting. Research and communication skills were highlighted and student learning experiences appear to be improved through work based placements, indicating potential evidence for enhancement. However, the link with employability cannot be discerned from this work. Work based placements may offer increased and accelerated development of Graduate Attributes, but this is not clear. More work is needed to map and measure the development of Graduate Attributes through intended learning outcomes within and across courses and programmes at the University of Aberdeen. Distinctions between Graduate Attributes development at Undergraduate and Masters levels, and between Universities’ Graduate Attributes, should be further explored. Future pedagogical research in this area should also incorporate employer perspectives.