Teaching Basic Skills to Economics and Business Students

Some Reflections from Delivering a Dedicated Module

Contact: Dr. Paul L. Latreille
School of Business and Economics, University of Wales Swansea
E-mail: p.l.latreille@swansea.ac.uk
Published October 2006

Introduction/Context

There is a widespread perception among academics that students are increasingly ill-equipped for the demands of university study (note 1), lacking many of the basic skills that would largely have been taken for granted a generation ago and prior to so-called 'massification'. In turn employers seem less than impressed by the preparation that degrees appear to provide for the workplace, and in surveys consistently identify particular deficits in transferable skills and competences such as commercial awareness, team working, problem solving and analytical thinking (note 2).

Partly as a consequence of these concerns, universities are now having to engage with an agenda in which the development of such skills assumes greater importance than was hitherto the case, and indeed is recognised as an end in itself alongside the inculcation of subject-specific knowledge. Most educators now recognise that the acquisition and enhancement of skills cannot be presumed to occur incidentally and reflexively as a by-product of studying for a degree; they must instead be promoted and cultivated explicitly, either within existing modules, or through some form of dedicated training provision (the 'embedded' and 'parallel' models respectively). Whichever mode of delivery is deployed, learners themselves must be encouraged and supported to reflect on and to take responsibility for developing and recording their skills via Personal Development Planning (PDP) (note 3).

In Swansea, PDP has been embodied in its Learning and Professional Development (LEAP) policy launched in 2005 (see http://www.swan.ac.uk/leap/), which requires each of its ten Schools to introduce students to the LEAP principles and to provide opportunities for them to reflect on their learning, including that acquired from extra-curricular activities. The policy is enabling rather than prescriptive however, and a wide range of approaches has emerged across the institution. In the School of Business and Economics, basic skills training and elements of PDP/LEAP at Level 1 are delivered by means of a dedicated module delivered collaboratively by staff from both the Business and Economics subject areas within the School, from Library and Information Services (LIS) and from the Careers Centre. Entitled 'ICT & Study Skills for Business and Economics', and compulsory for all single and the vast majority of joint honours schemes within the School, the module ran for the first time in the 2005-6 academic session. The following provides some reflections on the experience.

Module design and coverage

The syllabus/coverage of the module essentially has three distinct yet related components:

  • Study skills
  • ICT skills
  • LEAP

The first of these covers an extensive range of topics, including learning styles & strategies; time management; effective reading and note-taking; problem solving and critical thinking; essay writing, report writing and bibliographic skills; team working; presentation skills; memory and revision; and examination technique. The ICT component includes a brief overview of several of the basic IT tools used in business including Word, Excel, Access, PowerPoint; use of the Internet and how to evaluate source validity; plus some general IT knowledge required for running a business, including data security and privacy. Finally the third section of the module discusses PDP/LEAP principles; academic skills audits; competitive CVs; and 'what the employer wants'. There is in addition, a 'hands on' induction session provided by LIS staff early in the module so as to familiarise students with the facilities available, including bibliographic search engines, Blackboard, student e-mail, etc., as well as basic housekeeping matters such as borrowing rights, the library classification system, and so on.

A major advantage of delivering a new module is that it was possible at the conception stage to identify the skills that students ought to possess or be developing, and to design the module structure and its assessment around these skills. Rather than teach the material in 'lumps', the three strands to the syllabus were therefore interwoven so that as far as possible, material appeared in a logical sequence, for example, with a general discussion of presentation skills appearing before an introduction to the use of PowerPoint. In the context of the PDP/LEAP elements, this had the potential advantage that students would see the PDP/LEAP elements as being very firmly embedded within the module rather than simply as an 'add on'. Introducing employability matters this early in a student's university career also highlighted the importance of developing a broad set of skills and maintaining a body of evidence to support claims of competency.

Given its compulsory status for most students in the School (and that it was also taken by a handful of extra-School students as an elective), enrolment was somewhat in excess of 325 students, which numbers had implications for the way in which the module was taught and assessed, most notably that small group teaching was precluded by resource constraints. Delivery of the module was instead therefore restricted to lectures supported by a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) - in Swansea's case, Blackboard. This made it especially important to introduce some form of active learning in the lectures, and use was made both prior to and during some of the lectures of self-evaluation 'quizzes' and exercises. For the ICT section, exercise sheets offered an opportunity for checking understanding after lectures.

Assessment for the module comprised three components: an individual academic skills audit and CV (20%); a group study skills portfolio (40%); and a group spreadsheet project (40%). The first of these is self-explanatory. The first group assignment required each group to complete a series of tasks, including the preparation of a short presentation on a topic of policy significance for an imagined audience of government policymakers; a press release detailing the policy measure selected from those in the presentations (note 4); a short, critical evaluation of one of the sources used in informing the presentation; a full bibliography of all sources used in the project; a reading exercise; and an individual time-management exercise (detailing of objectives and a weekly planner). The second group project in contrast, was a simulation exercise in the context of news-stand magazine production and financing intended to give students practice in using spreadsheet skills specifically for business forecasting, and thereby to provide practical insights into real world business decisions and hence promote commercial awareness.

The experience

Given the large size of the group and their mixed backgrounds and varying degrees of prior exposure to the material (for example, some students have studied Key Skills at school), it is perhaps unsurprising that student reaction to the ICT and study skills components on the module was somewhat mixed. A number of students commented very favourably on the former, reporting that they found the material useful in making the transition to the more independent learning required in HE and recognised its value in providing the opportunity to develop further (or in the case of mature students, refresh) their skills. On the ICT component, even among those who claimed to have good prior skills several commented that even though they thought for example that they knew a piece of software well, they nonetheless learned important new tools and tips from the ICT lectures. A significant minority however, articulated the view that the material was "too basic" and "common sense" and/or complained that they did not see the point in studying material that was not examined; attendance suffered as a result. In contrast, feedback on the PDP/LEAP/careers component of the module was almost universally positive, with several students commenting along the lines that "I also found the module content extremely beneficial in enhancing my awareness of careers and gave me an incentive to develop my skills."

Student attainment on the module was generally good, and there were one or two exceptional group portfolios submitted by groups where a positive dynamic was established early on. Other groups clearly experienced more problems both in terms of formation and operation, and there are plans to address this in the 2006-7 session (see below). One interesting exercise conducted for the small number of students who failed the module was to set them, as part of their supplementary coursework, the writing of a short reflective essay concerning why they failed the module. Some of the accounts were exceptionally candid (note 5), and it is hoped such self-knowledge will result in modifications in behaviour in the future. Students were also charged with preparing a PowerPoint presentation on how they would redesign the module for the coming session so as to make it more useful and/or engaging. This provided some interesting and potentially useful insights as to potential modifications that might help connect with those students whom the module clearly most needs to reach. While desirable, some of the suggestions such as small group teaching are unrealisable given current resources, but others, and in particular the suggestion made by several for more interactive lectures, are clearly feasible and will be taken on board.

The future

Given that none of the staff teaching the study skills and ICT material are educationalists, but instead have an Economics or Business background (with varying degrees of interest in pedagogical issues), it was inevitable that there would be a steep learning curve for those charged with delivering the module. The criticisms noted above have accordingly been considered carefully during module review and various reforms enacted for the coming session. In relation to the "basic" nature of some of the material, the issue is perhaps as much one of perception as of substance: while some students are genuinely very well-prepared for university, the evidence cited earlier and elsewhere indicates that many are not (note 6), and would undoubtedly benefit from assimilating the more basic material covered in the module. The conclusion must be that in many cases there is a gap between what students perceive they are (or need to be) able to do and what they actually can do (note 7). One suspects that were students allowed to self-select into the module, or delivered via smaller workshops which could be tailored to the needs of individuals, such complaint would likely disappear. Since neither of these is an option, the alternative is to make changes to module design and delivery, both in terms of content/level, and this is the approach to be followed, with less time devoted to more basic concepts, and greater emphasis given to pedagogical devices such as exploring Bloom's taxonomy, metacognition, and so on and practical discussions for example of (what constitutes and how to avoid) plagiarism, etc.

In relation to the second criticism noted previously, this reflects what appears to be a relatively ubiquitous phenomenon in HE, with students increasingly focusing their efforts only on directly assessed material and tasks, much to the vexation of academics; it is certainly not unique to this group of students or institution. In the present context however, it reveals that some students actually rather missed the point of the module, suggesting further work is required in conveying the aims and learning outcomes of the module at its outset in future sessions (note 8). Given the very positive student feedback on the PDP/LEAP section, it was evident that students saw clear value in such material, indicating a potential for packaging the other parts of the module more obviously in this context so as to enhance their perceived relevance/usefulness (see below).

In fact this last approach has been pursued in the form of a successful application to the Economics Network under the auspices of their Mini Project scheme in order to support the embedding of a generic PDP/ePortfolio tool within the module. The main aim of doing this is to stimulate and encourage Economics and Business students more fully than under the previously deployed paper-based system to adopt a reflective approach to their learning, and to take greater responsibility for and engage with their personal development. In addition however, it also affords opportunities to facilitate new and more varied methods of assessment (such as the use of group weblogs in tracking progress on the team-based assignments, effectively as a group research journal, which will hopefully promote social learning activity), and to improve and enhance the value to students of those forms currently deployed. The experience from both teacher and student perspectives will be the subject of (inter alia) a follow-up case study at the project's conclusion, thereby offering insights that may be of value for others in Economics/Business considering such an approach. Watch this space!

Notes

1. See inter alia the Nuffield Review Higher Education Focus Groups Preliminary Report published in February 2006.

2. See the 2002 Chartered Management Institute survey or the more recent and larger 2005 Forum of Private Business survey of some 4000 employers.

3. This last arises as part of the Progress File recommendation in the 1997 report of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (the 'Dearing Report'), that UK HEIs should introduce "a means by which students can monitor, build and reflect upon their personal development".

4. Students are pointed to examples at http://www.gnn.gov.uk/environment/dti/.

5. These revealed a number of common themes such as poor attendance ("The main reason for failing EBG102 was poor attendance at lectures, which... arose from my own arrogance and impatience..."), poor time management/organisation ("I had wrongly assumed that this element of my work [which was not submitted] accounted for a small percentage of my examination mark and not the 40% I later found it to be...") and poor teamwork ("I have been greatly penalised for not having submitted the... group project... this was my fault due to lack of communication and organisation...")

6. In Chapter 2 of the Royal Literary Fund's Writing Matters report, Murray and Kirton (2006, p.7) conclude that "Large numbers of contemporary British undergraduates lack the basic ability to express themselves adequately in writing. Many students are simply not ready for the demands that higher education is making - or should be making - of them."

7. This is an example of the psychological phenomenon manifested in the tendency for individuals to rate themselves as 'above average' (see the references cited in Babcock and Loewenstein, 1997, who apply the related self-serving bias concept to negotiation failure).

8. It is also intended to deploy a short 'diagnostic test' in the first lecture in the hope that this will convince students of areas where their skills might be enhanced and thus of the value of the material covered subsequently (in the context of n.6 this might be thought of in part as an attempt at 'debiasing').