Despite a deep knowledge of their subject area, many graduates around the world leave university ill-prepared for roles within the workplace and society.
Find out how the Transforming Employability for Social Change in East Africa (TESCEA) project is helping university teaching staff to design courses that foster problem-solving, critical thinking and other vital skills.
Critical thinking is often neglected on university courses, but students and graduates who can think critically and apply their skills to solve problems are vital to employers and society. While universities around the world largely recognise the need to improve the quality and relevance of curricula and to build stronger connections with communities and industries, the challenge is to bring about change at scale.
Launched in 2018, the TESCEA partnership aims to tackle this issue. Part of the DFID-funded SPHEIR programme, TESCEA brings together universities and partners to foster critical thinking and problem-solving skills within university curricula, in order to better equip graduates for roles in the workplace and wider society.
The TESCEA partnership is led by INASP (UK), working with Mzumbe University (Tanzania), University of Dodoma (Tanzania), Gulu University (Uganda), Uganda Martyrs University (Uganda), Association for Faculty Enrichment in Learning and Teaching (Kenya) and Ashoka East Africa (Kenya).
Developing a skills matrix
One of the first priorities of the partnership was to conduct a deep literature review to identify the skills that employers need. This review was then used to identify clusters of key skills, which were mapped onto L. Dee Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning to develop a skills matrix.
Joanna Wild from INASP explains: “This matrix presents key skills organized within six kinds of learning: foundational knowledge; application; integration; human dimension; caring; and learning to learn. This approach fits well with TESCEA because Dee Fink’s taxonomy encourages transformative learning, which is an important part of our approach.”
Published in January 2020, the TESCEA skills matrix is available to read here: Graduate skills for employability in East Africa: Evolution of a skills matrix for course redesign
Helping university staff to redesign courses
Another key part of the TESCEA project is putting the skills matrix work into action via course redesign workshops. Joanna explains what the workshops involve, “Lecturers map the key concepts in their courses, develop learning outcomes, assessment and teaching and learning strategies to both help students master subject content knowledge and equip them with broader critical thinking and problem-solving skills along the way. The skills matrix is an important component of this work. Firstly, it facilitates development of course-level outcomes. For each of the concepts to be taught in a course, lecturers develop learning outcomes representing each of the six kinds of learning described above. They use the skills matrix to ensure that relevant skill categories are being pulled into the course-level learning outcomes. Secondly, at the lesson-planning level, teachers pull more granular skills, abilities and dispositions under each skill category into the class-level learning outcomes. They then design teaching and learning activities and assessment types that will support students in developing all learning outcomes, including experiential skills and dispositions.”
As one computer science lecturer from Tanzania explained: “The matrix provided me with different views of how to teach my learners. I was able to understand how I can make my students learn through creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving. The use of the matrix has enabled students to understand concepts easily and apply and integrate into real-world scenarios.”
Empowering students and staff
In March 2020, the partners involved in TESCEA met to reflect on the impact of the project during its first two years. One impact noted was that lecturers are already beginning to see their roles differently. Jon Harle from INASP says, “They are starting to understand that they need to become facilitators of learning, not just transmitters of knowledge. Through the course re-design process, they are beginning to connect their curricula more strongly to real-life experiences, and to divide learning time between the classroom and community.”
Colleagues across the partnership noted that this was in turn encouraging students to become more active in the learning process, and sometimes even take facilitative roles alongside their lecturers in the classroom. Veronica Munuve, a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Uganda Martyrs University and the university’s course redesign coordinator in TESCEA, observed: “Learners come to class as knowers and therefore discussion and re-evaluation of preconceived ideas are challenged with informed arguments. I am finding that these approaches are very important and I see the students are beginning to own their learning.”
Connecting with communities and employers
The project is also exploring opportunities for practical learning beyond the classroom. Communities are becoming more involved in university teaching and learning through Joint Advisory Groups (local groups set up by each university partner to engage with businesses and their communities), or as guest speakers, or as hosts of projects and placements. This interaction is helping to shift the way that academics and students think.
David Monk of Gulu University in Uganda explains: “[JAG members] help us to see how we can we include learning from the community in the curriculum. They are interested in enhancing student adaptability, flexibility, self-initiative, critical thinking and those soft skills that are needed in the community and in the workplace.”
Students are engaging with their communities through placements and projects as part of the formal learning programme, but also informally through initiatives that students have been inspired to create. For example, at the University of Dodoma in Tanzania, a series of student clubs have been established, one running its own conference to encourage students to think about preparing for their lives as graduates, another focusing on entrepreneurship. Meanwhile, at Uganda Martyrs’ University, education students work with a school for deaf and blind students, which is both a training opportunity for students, and a chance to share skills.
In some cases, attitudes are starting to shift, for example, agriculture students at Gulu University have been supporting a farmer to improve management of feeding, hygiene and vaccinations, while local hospitals have recognized the value of Gulu’s medical graduates, who are more aware of the needs of rural communities.
As the project enters its third year, there is more to do to forge the connections between teaching, learning and wider society. But there is a shared ambition, and a clearer sense, collectively, about some of those pathways.
The project is also responding to new challenges posed by the Coronavirus pandemic and its impacts on universities, for example, by adapting workshops that were previously face-to-face for an online context, and helping participants develop their own capacity for online learning.
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The Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform (SPHEIR) programme is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and is managed on behalf of DFID by a consortium led by the British Council that includes PwC and Universities UK International.