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In my opinion

Transferrable skills are a byproduct, not the point, of a university education

A professor reconciles the push for transferrable skills in university courses with her own reasons for teaching history.

BY MAIRI COWAN | JUN 02 2021

The rhetoric around the value of higher education is a strange mix of elevated idealism and vocational efficiency. Why go to university? Recruitment materials champion the institution’s ability to help you expand your thinking, make the world a better place and start a career. Improve yourself, heal our planet and get a job. For that third objective, the emphasis is usually on “transferrable skills.” Even if you end up working outside your area of study, future students are told, the skills you develop at university will make you an appealing candidate on the job market.

We’ve been hearing some version of the employability argument for years. When I was a student, I encountered it through an ad campaign that featured a bank president extolling the study of medieval literature because of the skills it gave his employees. My reaction was ambivalent. Part of me felt vindicated when a successful businessperson declared that my seemingly arcane field of medieval studies had value in his world. But another part of me felt that the campaign diminished the intellectual integrity of the field somehow; and I worried that supporting an academic discipline based solely on its value to business ceded the terms of discussion to those who might care little about knowledge for its own intrinsic worth. Did we really want to make the case that medieval literature, or anything else, was important to understand because it helped train workers who could increase profits for corporations? Wouldn’t it be better to cultivate a more expansive appreciation for what we studied?

Now that I’m a professor, I view the employability argument a bit differently. Although I refuse to place it at the centre of explaining what I do, I see how it can be used to help people study what truly matters to them. Students spend a lot of time and money on their education and they seek reassurance that they’ll be gainfully employed someday. This strikes me – a first-generation graduate from a working-class background – as completely reasonable. I’ve met with many students who say they feel pressured by parents, guidance counsellors and peers to choose a major that will get them a job. When they ask for my advice on how they can study history, I’m grateful for research demonstrating that humanities degrees do in fact lead to satisfying and well remunerated careers. These students already know that a degree in history is a worthy endeavour, and data on employability help them persuade other people whose support they need.

Still, I’ve struggled to reconcile the practicality of the transferrable skills push with the fundamental reason why I teach history: not to make good employees, but to help people discover, understand and engage with the human past. Only recently have I found a way through my discomfort. I have decided that transferrable skills are a useful outcome of studying at university, but not the goal. Transferrable skills are a byproduct, not the point, of a university education.

While it may not seem like much of a difference whether we ask professors to teach transferrable skills or we expect students to transfer the skills that they have learned, I think that this distinction is actually quite important. For me, it has made it easier to explain to students what competencies they are developing and why. Students in history courses learn a lot of skills. They practice how to find and select evidence, interpret sources, listen to different perspectives, assemble a sound argument and communicate their findings persuasively. I have no doubt that these skills are useful in many contexts but, as a history professor, I teach them specifically in the service of history. I teach these skills so that students can understand historical problems and make meaning out of historical evidence. In other words, I’m not teaching these skills as transferrable skills; I’m teaching them as historical skills that my students can transfer to whatever contexts they see fit.

The distinction is also helpful more broadly when explaining and defending the real value of a university education. I have seen that students bring valuable skills with them into my classes that they have learned in other courses and from different disciplines. We are all helping students make sense of their world; the students themselves transfer what they have learned to where they think it is needed. Some of our students will continue their studies in graduate school, but most will finish their degrees and get jobs or look after family or just be in the world for a while without a fixed schedule. I certainly hope that whatever their future roles, these students will bring their learning with them. And I’m keenly aware that the future they face is unpredictable. Returning to the discipline I teach, I tell my students that I do not know what their world will look like, but that I try to follow the advice of Hugh of Saint-Victor, a teacher from 12th Century Paris. “Learn everything,” he wrote. “You will see afterwards that nothing is superfluous.”

Mairi Cowan is an associate professor, teaching stream, in the department of historical studies at the University of Toronto – Mississauga.

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  1. nancy johnston / June 3, 2021 at 12:59

    If only transferable skills WERE a guaranteed by-product of a university education. In truth the transfer literature is clear that just because a skill is potentially transferable does not mean the learner then naturally transfers to each new context. For many, that must in fact be prompted and practiced, often intentionally to start until it becomes a tacit operation for skill “owner”. Teaching about context and mobilizing skills beyond where they were taught is key to having skills and knowledge truly useful to learners beyond the university context, regardless of what the primary motivation is.

  2. Steve Joordens / June 3, 2021 at 14:26

    With all due respect, this perspective reflects what I would categorize as an informal and non-structured approach to developing transferable skills. I do not deny that this is happening, and that some students may indeed be benefitting. However, these transversal skills are so very important to our students’ future success, that I believe we need to do better … we need a more formal and structured pedagogy in place that focuses on skill development.

    By analogy, imagine your child wished to be an athlete of some sport, let’s say a tennis player. They will need to develop some skills. We could just say … “hey, bring your racquet to the park and play whenever you can find someone.” Their skills will develop if they do, but it a bit of hit and miss way that depends on who they play and what they actually do. Alternately we could put them in a formal tennis training program where the skills are drilled in isolation and combination and built in very formally with a lot of feedback and support along the way. Which approach produces the better tennis player? Well, EVERY tennis player at the highest level took the second approach.

    There are now ways to formally develop transversal skills in a structured and powerful manner (e.g., vision.peerScholar.com). In complete contrast to my colleague, and again with complete respect and agreement that the informal approach is happening, I believe we need to augment it with a much more formal and structured approach. This does not deny any of her points, I just think we can and should go a step further.

    • Jean McK / June 10, 2021 at 05:30

      I think this is pretty much what the author is saying. All skills are learned in a context. A lot of research shows that you cannot teach skills independently from context. But what is important is to discuss those skills explicitly with students, giving them an insight and approaches to practicing and evaluating them with awareness, and ideally using the same skill in different contexts, but with all the instructors making students aware that they are using them. The author, as a history teacher, will not be having the students practice the skills in, say, law but she is talking about them as skills that can be developed and used intentionally. We found this with the use of external representations which are a powerful tool for reasoning that can be transferred to many contexts, but they are taught very differently in different areas and with no connection made between them which hindered the effective use by students across domains.

      One of our papers about this is here: The Role of Representation in Teaching and Learning Critical Thinking, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00131910120110884