CAE is a small non-profit organisation based in New York City. One of our missions is to improve students’ generic skills – specifically critical thinking and written communication.

These are skills that are applicable to an array of academic domains and can be measured and improved upon through teaching and learning. These are also the same skills that employers have deemed as very important for success in the workplace and in today’s knowledge economy.

One of my research interests is critical thinking and students’ post-university outcomes. We surveyed approximately 100 Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA)+ students’ managers and graduate advisers and found that around 90 per cent of them consider critical thinking (as measured by analysis and problem solving on our assessment, the CLA+) to be important or very important for successful performance in the workplace or graduate school. In fact, none of the respondents felt that analysis and problem solving were unimportant or of little importance. A similar pattern was seen for written communication skills.

Employers and advisors think critical-thinking and written-communication skills are important or very important for successful performance in the workplace and/or graduate school.
Employers and advisers think critical thinking and written communication skills are important or very important for successful performance in the workplace and graduate school.

Given this, consider the following thought exercise. You are asked to write an email to a colleague summarising the results of a project that you are working on. Does it matter what field you are in, in order to successfully accomplish this task? Would you use similar skills (removing the context of what you are reporting) to report the effect of an invasive species in the Caribbean Sea as you would on the results of the first quarter returns for a financial institution?

I use this exercise as an illustration of what we mean by generic skills, which we at CAE argue are transferable and applicable across multiple domains. Although the content of what is being reported is different, the skills one would use to write these reports are very similar – analysis and written communication.

And this is where I see the intersection between the learning gain conference and my own research interests. Throughout the day, our colleagues presented on measuring and improving student learning outcomes. Whether it was in the international context, as my esteemed colleagues Dr. Robert Wagenaar and Dr. Christiane Kuhn reported on, or during the breakout sessions, the presentations and discussions focused on what we, as educators, can do to improve students’ learning experiences so that when they graduate from university, they are prepared for their future.

The HEFCE-funded learning gain projects place England as a leader in this space internationally. The 13 pilot projects alone are a huge undertaking. Add to that the additional learning gain strands, and the data seem endless.

From my corner of the world, trying to take a wide perspective while looking through a narrow lens, we know that two of the many variables that will contribute to students’ gains in learning, both inside and outside of the classroom, and ultimately to their post-university success, is their ability to think critically and communicate well and effectively.

Yes, content and domain knowledge is essential. Yes, soft skills such as teamwork and grit are important. Yes, overall satisfaction and happiness are significant. But today, generic skills are increasingly valued because people need more than just domain knowledge in order to effectively contribute to society. The next generation of students must improve their ability to access, structure, analyse, and communicate information. It is essential for the future.

Doris Zahner is Vice President of Assessment for the Council for Aid to Education (CAE), New York.

Read more about HEFCE’s work on learning gain