Many leaders agree that colleges need to focus on skills. The question is how.

Emory University believes teaching students how to analyze evidence is a crucial skill across disciplines

Bucking the traditional notions of a core curriculum, more colleges and universities are embracing skills-based education, Dan Berrett reports for the Chronicle of Higher Education.  

In recent years, leaders and stakeholders in higher education have come to agree that institutions should focus on instilling in students a range of transferrable skills.            

Colleges still emphasize certain areas of knowledge, with most applying learning outcomes for science, math, and humanities, according to the Association of American Colleges & Universities. However, many institutions have also outlined learning outcomes for skills such as writing, critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and quantitative reasoning.

Such skills are widespread, but colleges have struggled to successfully implement them into the conventional curriculum.

America's colleges are getting a bad rap on the skills gap

In a recent essay for the Chronicle Review, Nicholas Lemann, dean emeritus of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, called for "a canon of methods," such as the interpretation of meaning, numeracy, and logic. Because most courses cannot sufficiently teach such methods, Lemann advocated for "developing courses that are specifically aimed at creating those capabilities, rather than declaring that existing courses that are notionally about something else will confer them."

Emory takes an evidence-based approach

Emory University has adopted skills-based education in an initiative focused on using and evaluating evidence.

Emory had to create a quality-enhancement plan for reaccreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Art historian Bonna Daix Wescoat proposed emphasizing "primary and original thought," arguing that evidence is essential to all disciplines.

The campus-wide skills-teaching effort, "Nature of Evidence," includes 27 freshman seminars across 22 departments. First-year students can choose an evidence-themed course as their required freshman seminar, with each one exploring how a discipline defines, uses, and evaluates evidence.

Instructors receive a $3,000 stipend to:

  • Redesign a course;
  • Participate in workshops; and
  • Submit graded assignments for assessment.

"We constantly ask students, 'How would you evaluate this evidence? What would you need to support this interpretation—and how can it be wrong?'" says Anthony Martin, a professor of practice in the environmental sciences. His seminar, "How to Interpret Behavior You Did Not See," focuses on ichnology, the study of animal traces. 

Some instructors say that focusing on evidence has helped them better explain course material and realize gaps in the material. For example, professor Robert Goddard realized that his students did not have a strong grasp on understanding symbolic evidence grounded in cultural criticism, which spurred him to reframe his teaching methods.

Still, he has concerns about Emory's new approach.  

"I wonder if we are doing a disservice to the students by not having a more coherent, uniform body of content to deliver," he says. "One of the things we're doing is losing common cultural reference points" (Berrett, Chronicle of Higher Education, 4/3). 

Learn more about focusing on skills

Define, teach, and assess baseline skills

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