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Thursday, February 11, 2016

Teaching 'soft skills'

A recent commentary in the Chronicle suggests that "To Solve the Skills Gap in Hiring, Create Expectations in the Classroom". The author notes that employers today report larger gaps in 'soft skills' like time management, work ethic, motivation and professionalism, than in technical skills; yet, the policies adopted by many college instructors do not do much to help students develop those necessary skills. The author refers to her own policies about expecting students to arrive to class and turn in work on time, not offering extra credit, etc.

I think most instructors try to find an appropriate balance between holding students accountable for acting like adults, and understanding that sometimes, life happens. For what it's worth, I thought folks might be interested in how I handle this, at least in my upper-division writing course. In that course, I use a form of specification grading - it's not full-blown specs grading but students' grades are based on performance in three categories: grades on final drafts of papers, points on all other assignments, and "professional responsibility". I explain in the syllabus and on the first day that "professional responsibility" means fulfilling the expectations of this course in a timely and responsible fashion: 
The Professional Responsibility portion of your grade is based entirely on your ability to display good workplace behavior. In general, this means displaying the following skills:
  • Time management: attend class and submit assignments on time; notify appropriate parties when circumstances require missing class or assignments.
  • Professional communication: emails are clear, well-written and relevant; discussion in and out of class is appropriate and respectful.
  • Professional conduct: follow directions; come to class prepared and use class time effectively; demonstrate self-awareness in accepting responsibility for own choices.
Warning: The most common violations of professional responsibility are 1) failure to follow directions, 2) poorly written or irrelevant emails (for example, asking a question that is clearly already answered on Blackboard) and 3) late assignments. I will start the semester assuming that you understand what constitutes professional behavior (and we will be discussing in more detail in class on the first day). After the first instance of unacceptable professional behavior, I will notify you, usually by email. After that, each incident will cost you ten points; however, I do reserve the right to waive this penalty in certain circumstances.
So this gets factored into their grade both through points and through an absolute cut-off for missed assignments - missing more than 2 assignments will reduce their grade to the B range, regardless of their points and grades on papers, missing more than 3 drops them to the C range and missing more than 4 drops them to the D range.

I also talk to them about the grades in terms of their "job performance". That is, in most jobs, you sit down with your manager periodically to review your performance and I tell my students that since their semester grades are a signal to future employers of what to expect from them as an employee, the way I think about grades corresponds to the categories that a lot employers use for those periodic reviews:
A (4)    Excellent work, worthy of bonus and promotion
B (3)    Good work, shows potential
C (2)    Meets basic requirements
D (1)    Needs significant improvement
F (0)    Unacceptable

This also helps me make the point that they should not expect an A or even a B for just showing up and doing all the work - that's what they are expected to do. A higher grade requires they show that they can do good work and go the extra mile. I think literally putting into terms that corresponds to a job makes sense to students, especially given that so many of my students see school as just a means to the end of getting a good job.

What do you do to help students develop these 'soft skills'?