Retrofitting a syllabus with Graduate Attributes

Graduate attributes such as a sense of research-mindedness, an orientation to problem-solving and a tolerance for ambiguity can bring an EAP syllabus closer towards the expectations of the academy.

I was asked to do a CPD workshop recently on how to incorporate graduate attributes into an EAP syllabus. Graduate attributes are ‘the skills, knowledge and abilities of university graduates, beyond disciplinary content knowledge, which are applicable to a range of contexts and are acquired as a result of completing any undergraduate degree’ (Barrie, 2006).

Graduate attributes are variously referred to as transferrable skills, meta-skills or soft skills and are thought to help recent graduates compete in a crowded job market. They include a sense of research-mindedness, an orientation to problem-solving, a tolerance for ambiguity and an ability to derive meaning from complexity, judging on the basis of evidence. My co-author, Sue Argent, and I used graduate attributes to frame the syllabus for our coursebook Access EAP: Frameworks.

In the workshop, I presented a typical skills syllabus for a reading course, whose stated aim was to ‘provide students with the reading skills they need to function efficiently in an academic environment’. I asked the workshop participants to think about how the skills could be recast as functions. In other words, what would a student performing well in their chosen area be able to do? What performance would be achieved using the skill? The skills syllabus is shown below followed by the functional revision.

  1. understanding long, complex and abstract texts
  2. reading for information and argument
  3. reading longer texts for gist
  4. reading longer texts and locating specific information
  5. reading and taking notes
  6. reading and paraphrasing
  7. reading and writing summaries
  1. understanding genre – identify purpose, audience and context of texts (genres) in a range of disciplines.
  2. using assignment instructions and research questions to identify appropriate criteria with which to evaluate claims, their support and evidence for them.
  3. sampling long texts by focused reading of selected parts, e.g. title, introduction/conclusion/abstract. Evaluating a text’s scope and usefulness for a particular task or research question.
  4. selecting information relevant to a particular research question and adapting their stance accordingly.
  5. preparing to use what you read for another purpose;
  6. selecting evidence to support points in your argument
  7. providing overviews of issues you want to question

Once the syllabus was converted from skills (the means) to functions (the purposeful performance), participants then discussed how the functions contribute to the higher level graduate attributes. These are framed as ‘what the university expects’ in Access EAP: Frameworks. An example for this reading skills syllabus would be:

  1. understanding academic communication practices– in order to join an academic community
  2. tracing developments in a discipline’s key concepts and theories, the reasons underlying these developments and their impacts on the discipline community.
  3. reading a number of texts to develop a critical understanding of opposing viewpoints on a range of specialised theories, concepts and principles in a discipline
  4. reading to find support for a particular viewpoint or justification for a research question
  5. working autonomously to critically review their own knowledge and understanding in a discipline.
  6. reading to provide evidence of understanding of key theories, concepts and principles in a discipline
  7. reading to develop a context within the research literature for a new contribution to the discipline

The benefit of recasting a syllabus in this way is that it makes EAP learning outcomes more specific and aligns them more closely to the expectations of subject lecturers on degree programmes. Lecturers use these higher level functions and aims to give instructions for assessment tasks. An EAP syllabus framed around graduate attributes helps students to transfer the skills they are learning in an EAP course to the performance expected on a degree programme. It also enables EAP staff to feel more confident speaking to subject staff in a language these staff recognise and it helps to raise the profile and status of EAP staff within the institution.

Barrie, S. (20060 Understanding What We Mean by the Generic Attributes of Graduates. Higher Education, 51/2, pp. 215 – 241.

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm an author and researcher in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I collaborated with two friends and colleagues, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, to write EAP Essentials: a teacher's guide to principles and practice, now in its second edition. Sue and I also wrote the course book series, Access EAP: Foundations and Frameworks.

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