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How can we prepare university students for the real world?

Many Australian university students are not satisfied with the quality of the education they are receiving. Image from

New students entering university this year will embark on a path that will require a great deal of emotional and financial investment. The pay-off they expect is not just the experience or entry-level skills and knowledge, but also the chance of a better future for themselves and their families.

But a recent report by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) shows that our universities are failing to deliver the higher education experience that students are demanding, especially in providing professional capabilities that will equip them for their careers.

Statistics from the 2012 Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE) show that only 37% of students in later years believed their experiences had contributed very much to their development of work-related knowledge and skills. Only 27% felt strongly that their studies have prepared them to work effectively with others. Just 24% felt their studies have contributed very much to their ability to solve complex, real-world problems.

Some results from the 2012 Graduate Course Experience Survey are just as problematic. Nearly half of all bachelor graduates felt university staff seemed more interested in testing what they had memorised than what they had understood.

In other words, the “ramp” we are giving our students may not launch them very far at all when it comes to their employment prospects. We need to do better than teaching students to memorise information if we are to give them the best chance to succeed.

What is the sector doing about it?

Universities are well aware of the work to be done here, with increasing interest in the idea of the capstone learning experience in undergraduate degrees. While there are probably as many variations of capstones as there are capstones, they are broadly defined as final-year learning experiences that require students to synthesise knowledge and skills gained over the degree.

This leaves a lot of scope to deliver more of the same. Poorly designed capstones attempt to test all the knowledge that has been delivered in the course, or micro-manage tasks to the point that students make no decisions of substance and are trapped in a lock-step process.

Both approaches, of which there are many examples in Australian higher education, simply confirm students’ dependency on us and fail to deliver the experience that students need.

A well-designed capstone can provide students with knowledge and skills relevant to the real world. shutterstock

Well-designed capstones, on the other hand, share a common toolbox of learning activities involving relevance, complexity and independence. They require students to deal with complex situations as they would in industry or research.

Students take on a challenge and plan how they are going to tackle it; figure out what they don’t know and what to do about it; set the schedule and work with others; and deal with things that go wrong by fixing them.

Great examples include those such as the graduating project in Arts at Victoria University. Students from across disciplines select a problem or issue, and then define and complete an in-depth project that extends the skills and knowledge that they have learnt throughout the degree.

Some students work with community groups, others work on projects defined by an awareness of an issue and grounded in research. Throughout the process they have to negotiate and make decisions, and take responsibility for their learning as well as the ethical dimensions of working with others.

In education these are not new concepts. They build on the inquiry-based education movement of a century and the work-based learning experiences of a millennia. These experiences build capabilities that make all the difference: intelligent responses to challenges, creativity, responsibility and resilience.

Capstones: something worth sharing

All of these things, of course, can also happen in any active learning experience at any level. Progressive school education operates on just these principles.

Capstones are different because they build on high-level knowledge and skills acquired over a degree. They can rigorously test whether students can integrate and manage all the skills, knowledge and capabilities they have acquired, and whether they can do so in context.

Great capstones can drive student aspiration and, as a result, retention. An exciting challenge in the final year can be something that students look forward to – and fight to stay for – especially if it gives them a springboard to the ambitions they hold.

Pragmatically (or cynically, depending on your point of view), great capstones also have an almost immediate effect on graduate satisfaction. The most recent experience students have makes a big difference to their perception of whether the degree was worth doing at all.

Capstones demonstrate the point of a degree. They build a bridge between the course and post-graduation. They also provide graduates with concrete examples of what they can achieve independently that can be shown to prospective employers.

The challenge facing universities is to make the most of the opportunity that great capstones provide. It takes time and money to do it right, but it is less than the cost of having students graduate feeling disappointed and unprepared. If we are doing this at all, we owe it to our students and ourselves to do it well.

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