Tried and tested ways to teach your students soft skills

The introduction of ChatGPT reignited the debate surrounding employability skills. Add two decades of intensifying international competition and a pandemic, and it is no wonder we’re fundamentally rethinking the modern workplace

Kate Pettifer's avatar
20 Jun 2024
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Students working together in class
image credit: iStock/DisobeyArt.

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Created in partnership with

University of Exeter

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In education, the traditional emphasis on knowledge accumulation is likely to be replaced by skills that are not readily automated. Consequently, there has been a renewed focus on the importance of employability skills and how we best embed their practice into the education system. HE institutions have been re-examining learning across their faculties and determining the impact not only on the core nature of their courses, but more widely on issues of what should be taught, by whom and how it all should be assessed.

Thankfully, there is consensus on the best practice of embedding skills into learning and teaching. The good news is many of these actions constitute good teaching practice, and you are most likely doing much of it already!

Here are some ways to help embed skills practice into your learning and teaching:

Explicitly and consistently reference skills practice in your teaching

The notion that skills are acquired incidentally through education or are inherent in a person, and cannot be taught, is outdated. This has led to a lack of awareness about soft skills and the importance of practising them. 

Employability skills are best learned when explicitly referenced and included in formal objectives. An easy option is to include them in or with your intended learning outcomes. This will give you a chance to highlight the importance of these skills to your students but also where and when they are being practised. With consistent reference to employability skills, students will make the connection between skills being taught in your session and skills important for the workplace. Linking skills to workplace scenarios helps provide context and validity to the skill in question. For example, highlight the importance of verbal and written communication for employability when students are presenting work and provide feedback on how they can improve their communication skills in conjunction with assessing the work itself.

Pick a skills taxonomy that works for you and your organisation

If you asked 100 organisations to list the skills needed for a contemporary workplace you would have 100 different answers! There is no universal list that would be “fit for purpose” across all contexts. They will change over time as workplaces do. In practice, there is widespread agreement on both basic functional skills and soft skills. “Employability skills” is often used as the umbrella term. The likelihood is your institution already has a skills taxonomy it is using, and it is just a case of locating it. The main employability skills are:

Basic “functional” skills

  • Literacy
  • Numeracy
  • Digital literacy

Soft skills (competencies and characteristics)

  • Teamwork/collaboration
  • Communication/interaction (verbal and written)
  • Problem-solving and critical thinking 
  • Creativity and innovation 
  • Initiative
  • Resilience 
  • Leadership
  • Cultural and civic awareness

There are also some great frameworks out there such as the World Economic Forum’s 21st Century skills framework, the Confederation of British Industry/NUS’ employability skills framework and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Learning Compass 2030.

Be less ‘sage on the stage’ and more ‘guide on the side’

Experiential and active learning are highly effective at developing many employability skills, especially communication, problem-solving, initiative, teamwork, critical thinking and creativity. It is likely that you already do much of this as part of general good teaching practice but do prioritise activities that focus on idea exploration and learner autonomy. This can range from quick problem-based scenarios, debates or discussions in small groups to longer presentations and project-based work. Some examples include – fishbowling (a discussion technique that encourages constructive participation in large groups), for and against debates on current issues in your subject, role play and problem-based case studies.

Additionally, allow time for reflection and feedback on these activities. To truly appreciate the benefit of the skill being practised, students need time to reflect and feed back on their thoughts. This is also a great way to encourage critical thinking and communication.

Build in workplace scenarios

The context in which skills are taught is a key determiner of their development. Do speak regularly about your experiences in the modern workplace and the skills you used. It is likely that you are already using real-life examples in your teaching, but link in as much real-world context as you can from both local and wider contexts. The more you can build in activities based on real-life scenarios, the better. Even a short 10-minute problem-solving activity using a real-life example helps reinforce the link between learning and the workplace. For example, you could show a product or piece of equipment used in your subject’s workplace and ask students the best way to use it. Another example is to bring in a newspaper article with a problem related to your field and ask students to provide solutions. Try also simulating the physical working environments that students may encounter after leaving. If the workplaces in your field do a lot of long project-based work then, if possible, build in similar student work. Can you collaborate with other departments on an activity? Can you adapt the workspace your sessions are in to mimic a workplace environment?

Shake up assessment methods

It should come as no surprise that high-stakes, traditional summative assessments such as exams do little to foster or measure the skills coveted in the modern workplace. Multiple choice questions and end-of-semester exams are rarely used to assess work on the job. People in the real world use a mixture of subject knowledge and technological tools to solve problems or build products or services. Project work, presentations and problem-based case studies are more authentic and valuable assessments that are often used in the workplace. They are also much more AI-proof. Building in formative assessment throughout your sessions and encouraging peer feedback is much more aligned with a modern workplace where colleagues discuss and debate their work. It also encourages greater communication and reflection, both important skills.

Do not forget that your institution already has a wealth of expertise in skills development. It may be worth contacting your skills and careers team and your educator developers for more ways to embed skills practice in your teaching.

Kate Pettifer is an educator developer at the University of Exeter.

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