Students as reflective practitioners: a personal development journey
Professional development is often taken for granted and seldom well embedded into university curricula. Alexandra Mihai looks at how intentional learning design can help make it an integral part of students’ learning experience
We want our students to have a rich and multifaceted learning experience. This means we need to reassess our focus on knowledge and ask ourselves “What do our students need to succeed in the ‘real world’?”
Professional skills development and personal growth are very important, but they are often taken for granted. They tend to be an afterthought and remain on the sidelines of educational programmes. A key challenge is that skills development is often not (well) embedded in the overall curriculum. This results in a fragmented approach, rather than a coherent and meaningful skills trajectory. Moreover, we often forget to communicate clearly and explicitly to students that working on certain skills and competencies is an integral part of their learning experience. This results in low levels of engagement, depriving students of a valuable opportunity to work coherently on boosting employability skills so that they are well equipped for their professional life after graduation.
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What can we do?
One way to engage students in working on their professional competencies is by encouraging them to take ownership of their learning and create their own personal development story, linking the puzzle pieces they get from various learning experiences. At Maastricht University’s School of Business and Economics, we do this through competence-based coaching that is run in parallel with other courses that make up our master’s programme.
Students choose four competency areas they want to work on as a focus, as well as specific skills within those competencies. They set their own goals and document their progress in a format of their choice. Some go for a written account of their journey, while others prefer a multimedia approach, using blogs, ePortfolios or podcasts. Throughout the process they work with one academic and one professional coach, who guide and support them in their respective areas of expertise. While being a genuine personal development journey, this course offers students a chance to become familiar with the labour market and its demands and take an important step towards becoming reflective practitioners.
Learning design ideas
Linking professional skills development to learning design is very important. By leaving it vague and implicit, our students miss out on opportunities. Here are ideas on how to approach competency and skills development in a holistic manner in educational programmes:
- Talk about it. By making it explicit at the design stage and communicating it clearly to students, professional skills development becomes part of the core curriculum and is also perceived as an integral part of the learning experience.
- Design it into the curriculum. You can design skills-specific learning objectives and create activities to train these skills. For instance, if teamwork or presentation skills are an integral part of your course, students can get targeted coaching along the way as well as feedback from the teacher and peers not only on the content but also on how they worked together or communicated their message.
You can link skills development with active learning. In the case of project-based learning, for example, the focus could be on project management skills as well as on the actual output of the project.
Skills are best trained alongside content knowledge and not in a vacuum, through one-off workshops. When students work on their skills in a specific context they get the chance to better understand their relevance in the real world. Moreover, giving students control over the competencies they want to develop can also keep them intrinsically motivated. You can do this by asking them to set their own goals and build a personal development plan, integrating both curricular and extracurricular experiences.
- Build a coherent framework. Intentional learning design comes into play here. To be effective, all these efforts (see points above and below) need to be anchored in an overarching story. This can be a planned course, a coherent series of sessions throughout the programme, a progressive set of online challenges, and more. Just use your imagination! And don’t forget to communicate this framework and its progression clearly to students.
- Support and scaffold through coaching. Teachers take up a new role, as coaches, facilitating students’ personal journeys. This is not a role that comes naturally, so we may need to hone our coaching skills too. Involving professionals from relevant fields in this process, as mentors, coaches or project partners, brings real added value to the students’ experience and complements the academic perspective. Don’t forget about alumni; they are a valuable resource. Technology can facilitate this process by creating bridges between academia and the labour market. Students can virtually experience a specific work environment, train their skills using virtual reality and connect in real time with experts in their field regardless of distance.
- Engage students in reflective practice. Encourage student reflection throughout all the different courses and on their overall learning experience. Guide and support reflection in various formats: learning journals, podcasts, vodcasts, portfolios, etc. This is how students learn to tell their own stories, which can prove very useful for the transition to the labour market.
- Keep pace with an ever-changing environment. As new competencies take centre-stage in the labour market at an accelerating pace, it’s important to adapt our approach regularly to keep pace with employer demands and make sure our efforts serve students well in their transition into the future workplace.
This approach does require a high level of coordination at programme and course level, but it is worth the effort as it enables us to intentionally prepare our students for the challenges ahead. And ultimately this should be the goal of our work as educators.
Alexandra Mihai is an assistant professor of innovation in higher education at Maastricht University.