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The Skills Agenda

Moving skills instruction from implicit to explicit outcomes

Give your students clear learning objectives and concrete opportunities to apply what they are learning.

BY LOLEEN BERDAHL | APR 14 2021

After deciding to add career skills training to their teaching, some instructors may realize that they have already been indirectly seeking to develop their students’ skills for years. Perhaps this has been your experience: you have aimed to have your students strengthen their writing abilities, laboratory skills or problem-solving approaches, but these aims have been an indirect aspect of your teaching, rather than a focused, systematic approach.

The challenge with teaching skills indirectly is that while some students will benefit from your efforts, others will struggle to make the desired connections. The good news is that there is a simple solution to this: explicit skills instruction.

What is explicit instruction?

Explicit instruction, also referred to as explicit teaching, is a transparent, effective and evidence-based teaching practice. In their 2017 review of the literature, Charles Hughes et al define this approach as follows (emphasis mine):

“Explicit instruction is a group of research‐supported instructional behaviours used to design and deliver instruction that provides needed supports for successful learning through clarity of language and purpose, and reduction of cognitive load.”

Pedagogical research shows that explicit instruction of skills and competencies is more effective than implicit instruction for teaching causal reasoning, argumentation, problem categorization and solving, metacognition, and disciplinary writing skills. This makes sense, as explicit instruction provides students with clarity of the learning objective and concrete opportunities to apply learning. The result is student understanding, rather than frustration or confusion, or simply an absence of skill learning. (Figure 1, the “clarity grid,” in No-Fail Communication, inspired my table.)

Figure 1: Implicit versus explicit instruction for student skill training

Implicit instructionExplicit instruction
Concrete skill (e.g., statistical technique)Student struggles with skill development

Outcome: Frustration

Student follows clear steps to develop skill

Outcome: Understanding

Abstract skill (e.g., critical thinking)Student may misunderstand or miss skill development entirely

Outcome: Confusion, lack of learning

Student follows clear steps to develop skill

Outcome: Understanding

Three easy steps to make skills training explicit

To make skills training explicit, simply take the following steps when designing your next course:

  1. Add the skill to the course learning outcomes: Learning outcomes explicitly state how the student will be different after the successful completion of a class; that is, the things the student will be able to do after they complete your course (“By the completion of this course, you should be able to …”). Once you have selected a skill to teach, simply select a learning outcome verb and include it with your other course learning outcomes in the course syllabus. Here are some examples:

    • Apply critical thinking skills to evaluate a journal article
    • Formulate a complete data analysis plan
    • Write a persuasive opinion editorial
  1. Build the skill into the course evaluation components: If developing a skill is among your learning outcomes, it should be evaluated. In some cases, the skill application can be the assignment itself, such as the example of “write a persuasive opinion editorial.”

In other cases, the skill application can be built into the assignment grading rubric. Here is an example of a rubric I used for a presentation assignment, with presentation skills being the career skill explicitly taught. Notice how the criteria focus explicitly on the many aspects that make a good presentation, breaking down the individual parts of the overall skill even for the section on “content.”

Satisfactory (60-69%)Good (70-79%)Excellent (80-89%) or Exemplary (90% and higher)
Content
  • Presenter provides a sufficient overview of the articles
  • Presenter provides a clear critique of the articles
  • Terminology is used correctly
  • Evidence is given to support claims
All items in previous category plus:

  • Article selection is clearly justified
  • The article critiques are balanced, considering both strengths and weaknesses
  • Additional literature is used effectively to justify critiques
  • Terminology is clearly defined
All items in previous category plus:

  • The presentation displays a careful, thoughtful approach to the material
Organization
  • Presentation has clear structure, with introduction, body and conclusion
All items in previous category plus:

  • Sequencing in presentation is logical and effective
All items in previous category plus:

  • Presentation includes effective transitions between ideas; ideas tie together
Presentation skills
  • Presentation was appropriate length
  • Presenter spoke clearly, slowly and loudly enough to be heard without shouting
  • If used, technologies and handouts were appropriately and competently handled without any fumbling
All items in previous category plus:

  • Presentation style was professional and engaging
All items in previous category plus:

  • Presenter used expressive, appropriate body language and maintained eye contact with audience
Q&A
  • Presenter responded directly to all questions
All items in previous category plus:

  • Answers provided were succinct and appropriate
All items in previous category plus:

  • Presenter responded to questions convincingly
Overall
  • Presenter conveys an acceptable grasp of the subject material
  • The presentation is somewhat convincing
  • Presenter conveys substantial knowledge of the subject matter
  • The presentation is convincing
  • Presenter conveys comprehensive grasp of the subject matter
  • The presentation is very convincing

  1. Use instructional time to model skill application and allow for practice over the semester:

Students need to have the skill both explained to them and modelled for them. Your approach should be “show and tell,” not just “tell.” Dr. Hughes et al find this is done most effectively by breaking skills down into smaller parts that are taught sequentially over time. I used this approach myself to explicitly teach critical thinking skills and found it effective to keep students (and myself!) from being overwhelmed.

By spreading skill development over the semester, and breaking it down into manageable parts, you can help your students build on past learning successes. This might take the form of short, in-class applied learning activities that build to an end-of-semester final assignment.

How explicit instruction helps you as an instructor

When you start to use explicit skill instruction, you will likely find it provides structure and focus.

Adding the skill to the course learning outcomes shows students the priority that you place on the skill training while providing a level of motivation and accountability to you as the instructor. I am a big fan of transparency in teaching practices, and explicit instruction is a highly transparent practice.

You will also likely find explicit instruction leads to more satisfying grading experiences because it often pushes instruction from beginner/foundational learning outcomes (“remember,” “understand”) to intermediate (“apply,” “analyze”) or advanced (“evaluate,” “create”) learning outcomes. These intermediate and advanced outcomes are often rewarding to teach. Not only does explicit instruction increase the effectiveness of that instruction for students, it adds the joy and satisfaction that comes from seeing students develop and advance their abilities.

Continuing the #SkillsAgenda conversation

As I noted in the start, many instructors are already trying to develop student skills, but implicitly rather than explicitly. The transition to explicit instruction is thus a relatively easy step with high impact. Indeed, a 2018 article in Higher Education Research & Development recommends broad adoption of explicit instruction and assessment. I share their enthusiasm for this approach.

What are your own thoughts? Please comment on this article below or let me know by connecting with me on Twitter at @loleen_berdahl using the hashtag #SkillsAgenda. And if you have yet to read them, please check out my past Skills Agenda columns.

I am excited to hear from you. Until next time, stay well, my colleagues.



ABOUT LOLEEN BERDAHL
Loleen Berdahl
Loleen Berdahl is an award winning university instructor, the executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina), and professor and former head of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Since 2016, Dr. Berdahl has spoken about student skills training and professional development at conferences and university campuses across Canada. Her research on these topics is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant program. Dr. Berdahl’s most recent books include Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD (University of Toronto Press; with Jonathan Malloy) and Explorations: Conducting Empirical Research in Canadian Political Science (Oxford University Press; now in its 4th edition with Jason Roy).
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  1. Andrea Williams / April 15, 2021 at 09:22

    Thanks for your thoughtful piece on explicit instruction. The approach you’re advocating has a lot in common with the transparency in learning and teaching movement https://tilthighered.com/, which argues that being explicit about goals helps all students, but particularly students from marginalized groups such as first-generation learners. What you’ve argued for here has many benefits, including helping us teach in a more equitable way.

  2. Travelling professor / April 21, 2021 at 12:36

    Thanks for sharing your teaching. It is great. And I am wondering whether there are rooms for discussion related to explicit instruction. For non-arts students, they always argue every single point. For example, from your rubric, the range of “Good” is from 70% – 79%. What grade do you give to students? 71%, 73%, 75% or 79%? Students request clearly why he/she receive 71% while other receive 72% or 78%.

    Rubrics and grading are very challenging. Many students want marks instead of how to improve. I have to deal with students about their gradings in every test, exam, and assignment for most of my time.