Engaging with graduate attributes

ltc201196The papers in this issue of the Brookes eJournal of Learning and Teaching demonstrate how staff at Oxford Brookes are responding to the challenge set out in the Strategy for Enhancing the Student Experience to develop graduate attributes through our curricula. Three of the papers in this issue arise from presentations at the Brookes Learning and Teaching Conference 2011, which had the theme ‘Engaging learning through graduate attributes: staff and student perspectives’. These academic papers are intended to complement the presentations available from the rich media conference wiki and the case studies on the Graduate Attributes in Action site.

Oxford Brookes has defined five graduate attributes (and an amended set of five postgraduate attributes) as a way of capturing how we expect the distinctive Brookes experience to prepare students for their future careers and lives: academic literacy, research literacy, digital and information literacy, global citizenship and critical and personal self-awareness. As Bowden et al. explain in their briefing for the Australian Technology Network ‘[graduate] attributes include, but go beyond, the disciplinary expertise or technical knowledge that has traditionally formed the core of most university courses.’ (Bowden et al. 2000, Executive Summary). For Oxford Brookes, these are the desirable capabilities we expect students will need in order to translate and apply their discipline knowledge to new contexts after graduation.

Programme teams are currently engaged in a process of mapping their programmes against the graduate attributes. This task is not to be underestimated. The mapping exercise raises challenging questions. The fundamental question is ‘what does this graduate attribute look like in this subject?’ and it is here that we start to see the difference between skills and attributes. Here are Oxford Brookes we have moved from mapping transferable skills in our module and programme documentation to defining graduate attributes.  There are two things about this statement that is important: the change in the terminology from transferable skills to graduate attributes and the shift from mapping to defining.

Although some have used the terms skills, competencies and graduate attributes interchangeably (e.g. Hager & Holland 2006, p. 2), as Chris Rust and Lorna Froud have explained, the adoption of attributes allows us to tackle some of the problems associated with the skills agenda. Specifically, it led to generic definitions of skills, and consequently students found it difficult to recognize the skills they had developed and to apply them in new contexts (Rust & Froud 2011). To take advantage of our move to graduate attributes we need to define them at the level of the subject.

For some attributes we already have fairly well developed understandings of what they mean within the discipline. Most programme teams are able to explain academic literacy in the epistemology and language of their discipline. That is, they can articulate what it means to think, behave, learn and create knowledge within their subject. Fiona Gilbert’s paper opens this issue of BeJLT with a fascinating insight into the development of academic literacy through writing assignments.  Gilbert argues that part of academic literacy is being able to ‘master the academic discourse of the discipline’ and examines the range of different assignment types in which students need to become proficient.

Other attributes might need to be further expanded as we make sense of them, such as the taxonomy provided for digital and information literacy (word doc).  Although such a taxonomy or guide might be a useful starting point, ultimately the clarification and description of what each graduate attribute looks like within each subject must come from those who teach and research that subject. For example, for Laura Novo d Azevedo and Tobias Fett in this issue, digital and information literacy for their urban design students is being able to choose which media to use to convey their message, whereas Dominic Corrywright and Tom Cosgrove want their students to develop ‘the ability to use IT to access and manage information’.

Next, we must take each of the five attributes and ask ‘how is this graduate attribute taught, practiced and assessed?’. Corrywright and Cosgrove, in their article on the Yatra project, explain that it is important for their Religion and Theology students to be ‘gaining global perspectives on religions, cultures, ethics and the environment, in a holistic manner will be better placed to retain these insights and carry them into their wider communities and future employment’. They describe how they are using a combination of study visits and online resources, to develop both global citizenship and digital and information literacy. Laura Novo d Azevedo and Tobias Fett also emphasize the importance of providing students with experiences outside of the classroom in their development of mobile lectures.

Hazel Dawe’s paper reports on an institutional audit of education for sustainable development. Our commitment to developing students who actively engage with sustainability issues is incorporated in the global citizenship attribute. For staff thinking through how to embed this into their programmes, Dawe presents a host of examples of how sustainability has been embedded into a variety of programmes in different ways. We anticipate that such local, contextualized, definitions of the graduate attributes will be more meaningful to students than the generic transferable skills we used previously.

Programme teams are also asking how each graduate attribute is developed progressively over time, so that they can help students to recognize how they are developing.  We are finding that different explanations are needed for programme teams, quality assurance documents and students. Course planning and redesign requires precision in writing learning outcomes, programme handbooks might require coherent narratives of how we expect learners to develop. Fiona Gilbert reminds us that students will engage with these graduate attributes not only through course documentation but also through the tasks that they are set and encourages us to make our intentions explicit in preparing assignment briefs.

The papers in this issue confirm the creativity and professionalism of our staff in continuing to devise curricula that are distinctive to Brookes and engaging and relevant to our students. I look forward to the 2012 Learning and Teaching Conference  and am confident that it will again be a place where ‘innovation, creativity and alternative perspectives on teaching are openly exchanged’.


  • Bowden, J., Hart, G., King, B., Trigwell, K. & Watts, O. (2000) Generic capabilities of ATN university graduates. Canberra: Australian Government Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs. Available from http://www.clt.uts.edu.au/TheProject.htm (accessed 21 January 2011)
  • Hager, P. & Holland, S. (2006) Introduction. In P. Hager & S. Holland (Eds) Graduate attributes, learning and employability, pp. 1-15. Springer: Dordrecht, The Netherlands.
  • Rust, C. & Froud, L. (2011) ‘Personal literacy’: the vital, yet often overlooked, graduate attribute. Journal of Teaching and Learning for Graduate Employability, Vol 2, No 1. Available from http://jtlge.curtin.edu.au/index.php/jtlge/article/view/29 (accessed 21 January 2012)

Rhona Sharpe

Rhona Sharpe

Professor Rhona Sharpe is Head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development at Oxford Brookes University. Her interests are around developing and tutoring online courses, developing learners for a digital age, and  pedagogic research. Rhona is one of the co-founders of ELESIG (Evaluation of Learners' Experiences of e-learning Special Interest Group), a Senior Fellow of the Staff and Educational Development Association, a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a National Teaching Fellow. She is Editor of the Brookes eJournal for Learning and Teaching.

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