Final grades do not prepare for the workplace

By Matt Cornock

Opinion piece, my views may change over time.

I have often wondered whether a good grade equates to good employability. I’m currently participating in an online course, with one of the topics addressing recruitment. Often, recruitment is based on attitudes and experience, as much as the qualifications of an individual. Whilst specific knowledge and technical skill are requirements for many roles, these can be developed on the job whereas attitudes, in particular, are difficult to shape.

Within educational institutions, there is a considerable amount of rhetoric around ‘employability’ and ‘employability skills’. This thread of student development is sometimes intertwined with academic content, but also provided through placement opportunities which aim to provide contextualised experience and extra-curricular activities which help students evidence transferable skills. Reviewing a candidate’s applicability for a role based on grade alone is fundamentally flawed, because of the rich picture required about their course experience. However, in some circumstances it is the grade that determines employability, and not the individual.

In the workplace, there are no final grades. Each point of assessment is ongoing, often informal, rarely (we would hope) terminal. We judge our own performance, we have feedback from managers and colleagues, we collaborate in order to improve. Workplace learning has milestones, but often with very clear objectives in mind, and that objective typically does not involve or revolve around boosting a final grade. Students, and their educators, who focus on final results may be missing out the message of ongoing development. The individuality and finality of a degree classification, one that follows you forever more afterwards, just isn’t reflective of workplace learning.

One approach that appears common now in higher education, is defining ‘graduate attributes’ that reflect the skills, knowledge and practices that students should be able to demonstrate by the end of a degree programme. In other parlance, these might be professional learning outcomes, though graduate attributes at their worst tend to be broadly defined to apply to every graduate of the institution. The final grade and piece of paper is then a proxy for how well a student reflects those graduate attributes, but again is a conflation of all the nuanced qualities an individual could bring to a role.

There are no generic roles out there that require only generic skills. Arguably, effective development of employability is discipline-specific, using and enhancing transferable skills within an applied context to gain experience. It is this experience that is often emphasised as ‘employability’, but attitudes to work are also important to develop with students. The risk is that in educational settings, attitudes to work may be overlooked if achieving grades or other objectives is prioritised. I’m not yet convinced the employability agenda has got the balance right, but I’m also not convinced of the way employability is being ‘sold’ to students.

There is a growing tension between students’ capability (time, energy, willingness) to complete courses and also their capability to do ‘more than just the course’, or to ‘develop their employability’. This is particularly true when programmes bolt on application of knowledge and development of skills, rather than embedding them within a professional context to generate evidence and experience. For some, the messages of ‘you must do more’ and ‘you need experience’ directly compete with participation and engagement in their degree courses. Some students may feel compelled to boost the CV, but neglect to see the value of the experience of their degree programme and attitudinal learning outcomes that may be incorporated within. The grade takes second priority, but is that because the employability potential of a degree is not perceived as ‘good enough’? Is this partly due to a degree programme not being seen as the start of a professional journey, and instead with emphasis on final grade being seen as an end product?

The aspirations and attitudes of ongoing development should be engendered within our students. It is dangerous to set the expectation that by the end of the course they will be fully rounded graduates, ready for the workplace because of the grade they have achieved. Obviously, for courses and programmes to function, there has to be an end point. For comparability and accountability, there have to be metrics that indicate achievement, for students, educators and the institution as a whole. However, the final grade should be seen, by both students and their future employers alike, not as the end point, but as a starting point from which to develop further.

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