Creative Education
2013. Vol.4, No.7A2, 42-49
Published Online July 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Teaching and Evaluating Graduate Attributes in
Science Based Disciplines
George Henryk Herok1, Jo-Anne Chuck2, Thomas James Millar2
1School of Medical and Molecular Biosciences, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia
2School of Science a nd Health, University of Western Sydney, Sydney , Australia
Received April 10th, 2013; revised May 10th, 2013 ; accepted May 17th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 George Henryk Herok et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative
Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium,
provided the original wo rk is properly cited.
Graduate attributes, other than professional knowledge and skills, are now important outcomes for tertiary
education. In science, anecdotal observations indicated minimal focus on: innovation; independent learn-
ing; communication; and societal involvement. Therefore, how graduate attributes were introduced, de-
veloped, taught and assessed into first and second year science units were investigated. Which graduate
attributes were contextualized into learning objectives and activities together with how outcomes were
measured and assessed were investigated. Results showed ~70% of teaching, development and assess-
ment centred on disciplinary knowledge and most of the rest on professional skills. Oral presentations,
portfolios, extended writing, and field trips comprised ~15% of assessment. Hence, a structured overview
is needed to address the full scope of graduate attributes at the course level. There is an urgent need for
the modern needs of tertiary education to be embraced by staff to ensure graduate attributes are attained
commensurate with the expectations of the wider community.
Keywords: Graduate Attributes; Curriculum Development and Change; Science; Biology; Communication;
Graduate attributes have been defined as “the qualities, skills
and understandings a university community agrees its students
will desirably develop during their time at the institution and,
consequently, shape the contribution they are able to make to
their profession and as a citizen” (Bowden, Hart, King, Trig-
well, & Watts, 2000). Often graduate attributes focus on de-
veloping lifelong learners, and given the limited recall of
knowledge of students and the rapid expansion of information,
these skills are becoming more essential for professional and
personal participation in society (Scoufis, 2000a, 2000 b). As part
of a quality control process, the Australian Government through
its Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (formerly
AUQA) has not only regarded defining graduate attributes as an
essential component of university courses, but also recognised
the need to determine that the graduates have acquired these
core outcomes and that by emphasizing graduate attributes,
there is an improvement in the graduate standard (Baird, 2006).
Over the past decade, this has led to the defining of generic
graduate attributes at the institutional level and the implementa-
tion of these at the course level. Universities have responded to
this demand by identifying generic attributes, listing them on
their websites, and encouraging faculties to introduce and im-
plement them into their academic programs (Barrie, 2005a).
When comparing descriptors of graduate attributes across
many institutions and disciplines, they commonly include pro-
fessional discipline based knowledge, practice, and commit-
ment. The employers and tertiary educators have an expectation
that graduates have obtained discipline knowledge, and in gen-
eral, this has been a prime focus in university curricula (Bridg-
stock, 2009). However, the other graduate attributes are be-
coming more important to society as measures of successful
tertiary education. This is indicated in Australian employer
surveys across all disciplines (Table 1); where the most highly
ranked attributes do not centre on professional knowledge.
These data were almost identical to those from a survey of em-
ployers conducted by a local university, University of Western
Sydney (Table 2). A surprising outcome for science disciplines
was the employer expectation for “management ability” indi-
cating that employers saw science graduates as potential leaders
(Table 2).
At the Faculty level, implementation of graduate attributes
has required translation of the generic form of graduate attrib-
utes into discipline relevant attributes, as well as a structure to
ensure that these attributes are taught and examined. For exter-
nally accredited courses (e.g. teaching and nursing qualifica-
tions), the process is relatively straightforward because they are
identified by external bodies, and accreditation relies on dem-
onstration that the graduate attributes being taught and attained
by the student or graduate. In non-accredited courses, such as
science based courses, it generally relies on the faculty to de-
termine the incorporation of graduate attributes into under-
graduate programs (Bath, Smith, Stein, & Swann, 2004).
Recently a set of academic standards have been proposed for
Australian science degrees which are not discipline specific and
do include some professional practice and commitment (Jones,
Table 1.
Most important sel ec ti o n criteria when recruiting graduates, by industry, 20 11 .
Selection criteria G/D/H C/M/E A/F L/PS M C/T/U All
Interpersonal and communication skills 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Passion/knowledge of industry (etc) 3 2 6 2 1 2 2
Critical reasoning and analytical sk ills (et c) 2 5 3 3 3 3 3
Calibre of academic results 5 4 2 6 3 4 4
Work experience 6 3 4 4 3 5 5
Cultural alignment/values fit 7 5 5 4 6 8 6
Teamwork skills 4 7 7 7 6 7 7
Emotional intelligence 8 8 8 7 8 6 8
Leadership skills 9 9 9 10 8 10 9
Activities 10 10 10 9 10 9 10
Note: G/D/H = Govern ment/Defence/Health, C/ M/E = Construction/Min ing/Engineering, A/F = Accounting/Fin ance, L/PS = Legal/Professional Services, M = Manufac-
turing, C/T/U = Communication/Technology/Utilities.)
Table 2.
Most important graduate attributes for employers-Extracted from 2010 employer survey
report UWS.
Area of Graduate Capability Attribute Rank
Personal abilities of graduates
A commitment to ethical practice
Willing to face and l earn fro m errors and list en openly to feedb ack
Being flexible and adaptable
Interpersonal abilities of gr aduates
Willing to listen to different points of view before coming to a decision
Ability to empathize with and work productively with people from a wide range of backgrounds
Able to develop and use networks of colleagues to help solve key workplace problems
Intellectual abilities of gr aduates
Able to set and justify priorities
Able to readjust a plan of action in the light of wh at happ ens as it is implement ed
Able to see how apparently unconnected activities are linked and make up an overall picture
Specific skills and kno wl edge
Able to co mmun ica te effe cti vel y
Able to organise work and manage time effectively
Able to use IT effectively to communicate & perform key work functions
Yates, & Kelder, 2011). Although this again defines the stan-
dards, the implementation of teaching and assessment of these
standards has not been defined with the suggestion that the
universities themselves determine how to interpret, teach and
guarantee these standards. Although these ideally would be an
integral part of the scaffolded learning of a well-structured
degree in the 21st Century, in many cases, the reality appears to
be different; the generic attributes are randomly taught, if at all.
This is also reflected in the Tertiary Education Quality and
Standards Agency audits where there is concern that claims of
successful implementation of graduate attributes occurs because
they exist in policy statements. The audits also had concern that
there was also a need to inform the students of the graduate
attributes and where they were being taught in a course. Ideally
this would involve scaffolding with clear articulation of the
progressive levels of achievement in the attribute to both stu-
dents and staff. This contrasts with the result of a staff survey
designed to determine the instructions given to students for
writing science reports; the instructions, criteria and standards
were the same irrespective of the undergraduate level (personal
With all the rhetoric, it needs to be determined whether
graduate attributes are truly being taught and acquired by
graduates, or if this idea is in reality a non-sequitur. This paper
focuses on a faculty of science in an Australian university, and
within this faculty, although the corporate knowledge about the
exact process for the implementation of the graduate attributes
has been lost, it appears that it occurred about six years ago and
was a top-down approach with superficial consultation with
staff. The result has been that the non-discipline specific gradu-
ate attributes have been embedded as a co-curriculum strand
alongside the discipline specific content. In general, the aca-
demics have been encouraged to self-determine if attributes are
being taught in their specific units1 and the accumulated map-
ping of this self-determination is used to satisfy the requirement
that the graduate attributes have been obtained in a course. This
paper addresses the current status of the implementation,
teaching and assessment of graduate attributes in this faculty
and considers staff perspectives on this important but often
1In this document a course comprises a structured group of units that upon
successful completion qualify to be awarded a degree, and a unit is one o
the topic/subject areas studied and assessed.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 43
overlooked aspect of university education.
University of Technology Sydney is a multi-campus univer-
sity founded in 1988 which “aims to produce graduates with an
appreciation of the practical, social and ethical dimensions of
their chosen professions and with the skills and knowledge to
operate effectively in culturally diverse workplaces within
changing global and social contexts” (UTS web page). The
university has ~36,000 students with 30% of domestic students
having a language background other than English. Student pro-
gress and retention rates have been reported to be above the
sector average (AUQA report, 2006).
In the Faculty of Science at the University of Technology
Sydney, there has been a deliberate attempt to embed the insti-
tution agreed graduate attributes into the courses. The approach
taken was a variation of a process referred to as constructive
alignment (Treleaven & Voola, 2008). For the most part, it
relied on individual staff members to ensure that graduate at-
tributes were incorporated into the various programs. Staff were
informed of the graduate attributes (Table 3) and asked t o map
the relevant graduate attributes against their particular unit
content. Unit outlines given to students contained this mapping.
The aim was to integrate course design to learning activities
and student assessment.
This is a common approach to invoke graduate attributes, but
it does not address the actuality of teaching and assessing
graduate attributes through the application of appropriate stan-
dards (Green, Hammer, & Star, 2009). Hence, there is a no
alignment between what universities advocate and what stu-
dents experience and learn. In reality, constructive alignment is
a mechanism of least resistance and does not address the issues
discussed above. It is, however, a mechanism whereby the in-
stitution can collect data for checking boxes associated with
quality assurance processes without any guarantee of standard
or skill attainment.
Research Question
Anecdotal observations within the Faculty of Science sup-
ported the idea that, apart from professional discipline based
knowledge and some practical skills, there was no systematic
approach to map, scaffold, teach or assess graduate attributes at
the course level, or even at a year level. Furthermore, there
appeared to be no evaluation of how successfully graduates had
acquired the graduate attributes, which was a principle of the
Australian Universities Quality Agency, i.e. to assess perform-
ance against the Universities’ disclosed objectives (Australian
Universities Quality Agency, 2002). Therefore, the aim of this
study was to systematically determine the degree to which
graduate attributes were introduced, developed, taught and
assessed into some of the first and second year science units in
the Faculty of Science. The information obtained in this study
was to form the basis for determining methodologies to im-
prove the systematic implementation of graduate attributes
within the Faculty.
The Faculty of Science has five schools: Chemistry and Fo-
rensic Science (14 academic staff); The Environment (10 aca-
demic staff); Mathematical Sciences (22 academic staff);
Medical and Molecular Biosciences (32 academic staff); Phys-
ics and Advanced Materials (13 academic staff). At various
Table 3.
Graduate attributes of the Faculty of Science, Universit y of Technology Sydney.
1) Disciplinary knowledge and its
appropriate application (A1) An understanding of the nature, practice & application of the chosen science area of study.
2) An inquiry-oriented approach (A2) An understanding of the scientific method of evidence based knowledge acquisition, deduction, inference
and induction. Encompasses problem solving, critical thinking and analysis attributes, and the ability to
discover new knowledge.
3) Professional skills and th eir appropria te
application (A3)
The ability to acquire, develop, employ and integrate a range of technical, practical and professional skills,
in appropriate and ethical ways within a professional context, autonomously and collaboratively and
across a range of disciplinary and professional areas. This includes not only subject specific skills such as
laboratory skills, computing skills or quantitative data handling skills, but also more generic skills such
time management, personal organization, teamwork and negotiation.
4) Ability and motivation for continued
intellectual development ( A4)
The capacity to engag e in r eflection and l earning beyond for mal edu cational contexts, th at is b ased on
the ability to make effectiv e judgments about one’s o wn work and to undertak e self dir ected, curiosit y
motivated, learning. The capacity to learn in, and from, new disciplines to enhance the application of
scientific kno wledg e and skills in profession al contexts.
5) Engagement with the needs of Society
An awareness of the role of science within a global culture and willingness to contribute to the shaping of
community views on complex issues wh ere the methods and findings of s cience are r elevant. This includes
an understanding of how science underpins society, the applications of science in different cultures and
identifying and engaging with current and future challenges.
6) Communication skills (A6) An understanding of, and ability with the different forms of communication - writing, reading, speaking,
listening-including visual and graphical, within science and beyond and the ability to apply these
appropriately and effectively for different audiences.
7) Initiative and innovative abilit y (A7) An ability to think and work creatively, including the capacity for self-starting, and the ability to apply
science skills to unf amiliar app lications. It encompasses ski lls su ch as understanding risk management and
risk taking, “thinking outside the box”, questioning the norm to suggest new solutions for old problems.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
times, usually at staff meetings and new staff induction, staff
were informed of the Faculty of Science graduate attributes
(Table 3), but were not informed how to implement them.
Data Collection
In an initial study, nine academics across these schools were
interviewed on their perception, teaching and assessment of
graduate attributes. The interviews centred on five main points:
the importance of disciplinary knowledge; scaffolding of gra-
duate attributes; the importance of communication; and imple-
mentation of graduate attributes. The responses were qualita-
tively assessed on the basis of the number of respondents that
had similar responses or highlighted a particular aspect, and
based on these findings; a questionnaire was developed as the
main instrument for the larger study.
Interviews were conducted in isolation by a third year Com-
munications student from the University of Technology Sydney.
This separated the academic investigators from the process to
eliminate perceived intimidation or bias. The science academics,
representing all schools except School of Environment, volun-
teered their time to fill in the questionnaire. The questionnaire
was used to evaluate how members of the faculty were involved
in teaching and assessment of graduate attributes. The ques-
tionnaire was completed by all 34 academics (including those
who participated in the initial study) who volunteered to par-
ticipate. Each academic was the co-ordinator of a unit (subject),
and represented different disciplines taught at first and second
years of three year degree programmes. Though the units were
from biology, mathematics and chemistry disciplinary areas,
quantitative results were analysed with biology units compared
with all three discipline areas combined because of the disci-
pline interests of the authors. Student numbers in specific units
ranged from 50 - 650.
The questionnaire focussed on how graduate attributes were
contextualized into learning objectives and activities, how the
outcomes were measured and assessed, and the proportion of
activities and assessment devoted to specific graduate attributes.
Both qualitative and semi-quantitative data were collected. The
qualitative data arose from interview transcripts where aca-
demics were asked about their understanding of graduate at-
tributes and how they supported their teaching. Semi-quantita-
tive data covered: general background which included the unit
and numbers of students taught, whether specific graduate at-
tributes were identified in the unit outline and assessment proc-
esses; and beliefs or evidence about understanding of graduate
attributes as they apply to the unit and the degree. The quantita-
tive questionnaires investigated the percentage of time spent on
teaching or developing a particular graduate attribute in a unit,
the percentage of time devoted to different teaching modalities
and the percentage of the total assessment in a unit devoted to
different assessment tools in teaching and developing particular
graduate attributes. These data were also presented as a weigh-
ted score where the number of units was multiplied by the av-
erage percentage of time devoted to a particular attribute, e.g. if
5 units were in the 31% - 50% category of time spent on that
attribute, then it would be 5 × 40 = 200 weighted units.
The preliminary interviews indicated that faculty members
had been made aware of graduate attributes. Staff recognized
the importance of graduate attributes, particularly in the area of
communication, and indicated the need to have them scaffold
through the courses. However, for most members of faculty,
their teaching focused on professional discipline based knowl-
edge. Most graduate attributes were not specifically identified
or highlighted to the students. In almost all cases, a written
hand out (unit outline) at the beginning of semester was used to
inform students of the graduate attributes to be addressed in the
unit. These were not further emphasized or explained. This was
exemplified in some representative interview comments listed
below (Table 4). Other comments reflected a need for assis-
tance in dealing with graduate attributes (Table 4).
From the interviews, it was clear that the bulk of focus was
A1 (disciplinary knowledge), A2 (an inquiry oriented approach)
and A3 (professional skills) and these were being taught. A2
and A3 relied heavily on practical classes for the teaching, and
the actual skills learnt were decided at the unit level. There was
no apparent consideration of necessary skills at the course level.
There was no apparent mastery required for particular skills. A2
relied heavily upon students being given questions to answer
(tutorials and assignments) and by the process of following a
set of instructions in practical classes, although in some classes,
students were made to design their own experiments. There was
no structure at the course level to ensure that students had the
opportunity to design their own experiments, and therefore only
the students taking the particular units having this self experi-
mental design were exposed to this attribute.
Of interest were some comments from different units that in-
dicated that while there were recognitions of the attribute, for-
mal teaching and structured assessment did not exist, but instead
Table 4.
Faculty members’ comments on graduate attributes in initial study.
Focal point Comments
Disciplinary knowledge “acquisition of disciplinary knowledge would be the most important attribute taught in my unit”;
“between 70% - 80% of the time is spent on teaching acquisition of disciplinary knowledge”;
“acquisition of disciplinary knowledge should be scaffolded from first year”
Scaffolding of graduate attribut es “attributes should be scaffolded throughout the course”; “there should be scaffolding with knowledge
and skills”
Highlighting graduate attributes to students “they aren’t specifically outlined”; “students are not informed or aware of graduate attributes”; “not a
very high percentage of stud ents are aware of g raduate attr ibutes”; “stud ents should b e able to d evelop
professional skills by the end of their degree”
Importance of communication “no mark dedicated to communication skills”; “believe it is critical to leave with communication
skills”; “there is a need to develop communication skills required in the professional world”.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 45
there was a reliance on students to just obtain this attribute: Of
concern were graduate attributes that apparently were not being
addressed, or only being addressed by happenstance by indi-
vidual students.
For A5 (Engagement with the needs of Society) a typical
response was:
“Only if students decide to pick a topic that relates to the
needs of society”
For A7 (Initiative and innovative ability) there was an os-
mosis type of approach that relied on some hope that the
students would acquire this attribute and a particular diffi-
culty was finding a mechanism of assessment (including
standards and criteria).
“Students who are more competent in inquiring should be
“They gain initiative with the effort they put into their as-
sessment. This attribute is subjective and therefore a mark
cannot be placed on it. This attribute is developed and
encouraged by the unit rather than assessed”
“You can say they are “exposed” to such things, but you
can’t say they were good at it.”
Graduate attribute A4 (ability and motivation for continued
intellectual development) was not addressed at all, perhaps
reflecting its impossible subjective and temporal nature.
Quantitative data were obtained around these observations
using the administered questionnaire specifically collecting data
on the University of Technology Sydney graduate attributes
listed in Table 3. Analysis of the data showed trends predicted
from anecdotal observations about the teaching and developing
of graduate attributes. Irrespective of the specific science disci-
pline, nearly all teaching and assessment activities, centred on
discipline knowledge (Figure 1). This was particularly evident
when the weighted score was used. The higher percentage spent
in Biology for A3 (professional skills and their application;
11%) and the combined disciplines (8%) most likely reflected
the large practical component in biological units. Although
graduate attribute A6 (communication) appeared to be reasona-
bly well addressed, when put in the context of a weighted score,
it had only a minor role in the teaching programs. Most of the
time dedicated to this attribute was not involved with teaching,
but involved assigning the students communication tasks. Ty-
pical responses of staff included:
“Students would demonstrate they have communication
skills in specific assignments through the mark they re-
“Communication was assessed by short answer question
in exams”.
Examination of teaching modalities showed that the tradi-
tional teaching activities (lectures, tutorials, laboratory practical
classes), which lend themselves to teaching discipline knowl-
edge, still dominate in science (Figure 2). Indeed, for some
units, lecture modality formed 90% - 100% of teaching time.
Although specific group tasks were widely used, they accounted
W eighted Sc or es
W eighted Sc or es
Unit s
Graduate Attributes
Combined dis ciplines91100%
Graduate Attributes
91‐ 100%
71‐ 90%
51‐ 70%
31‐ 50%
11‐ 30%
0‐ 10%
Figure 1.
Percentage of time spent on teaching or developing University of Technology, Faculty of Sci-
ence graduate attributes. Column graphs indicate number of units reporting teaching and/or as-
sessing each graduate attribute, with the percentage of time devoted to each attribute in each unit
indicated. Pie graphs represent the percentage of time an attribute was taught/assessed in all units.
The top graphs show results for biology units only whereas the bottom graphs show results for
all disciplines (biology, mathematics and chemistry) where data were collected. Number of aca-
demics filling out the questionnaire was 34.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Weighted Scores
Relati ve%ofTimeinaUnit
GiventoaTeachingMod ality
91‐ 100%
71‐ 90%
51‐ 70%
31‐ 50%
11‐ 30%
0‐ 10%
Figure 2.
Cumulative data for percentage of time and weighted scores for time spent on different teaching
modalities. L-lectures; LP-laboratory practicals; T-tutorials; SGT-specific group tasks; PP-poster
presentation; OP-oral presentation; CS-computer simulations; PRBS-peer review by students;
I-internet; FT-field trips. Number of academics filling out the questionnaire was 34.
for only ~14% of the teaching time and were typically task
orientated such as group essays, poster presentation, problem
solving and practical reports. There were also claims that
communication and group work was developed in practical
sessions and discussions in tutorials. In no instance was there
evidence that the skills of communication or group work were
formally taught. The general expectation was that the students
would learn by doing. Typical staff responses indicating this
“They learn this in tutorial classes by discussions, reading,
speaking and listening”;
“Communication skills are developed through scientific
reports, presentations in this course”
“There is no mark dedicated to this attribute in assess-
ments. Students develop these attributes by taking part in
“There isn’t an explicit mark for this attribute, but these
assignments would help develop the graduate attribute”.
In reality, how to work as a group was not taught and the as-
sessment was focused on the outcome of the task and not on
how the group functioned, nor on developing strategies to pro-
gress through group work difficulties. A surprise, given the
computer age and the high computer literacy level and interest
of most students, was that computer simulations were all but
absent as a teaching modality.
The mode of assessment was also examined and again re-
flected professional knowledge being mainly tested. A variety
of assessment tools were used within the Faculty of Science
(Figure 3). However, as predicted by anecdotal observations,
multiple choice questions (MCQs) and written exams (WE)
constituted the greatest percentage of the total assessment mark
for most units, and there was some emphasis in laboratory re-
ports and assignments (Figure 3). Self-reflective journals, port-
folios, and field trips, which may be mechanisms to assess
some of the other graduate attributes, are either not used or very
poorly represented. There is no doubt, based on typical staff
responses that the traditional tools of assessment are used to
minimize resources and turnaround times:
“In terms of communication, the problem is class sizes-
maybe they do it in tutorial classes? The assessments are:
quiz 20%; mid-semester exam 20%; final exam 60%”;
“The problem is that there is a large cohort in first year
and it is hard to develop attributes”;
“In terms of communication, you have to have some form
of assessment, but the problem of measuring these skills
is that there are too many students”.
Of interest was that tasks involving written communication
formed ~56% of the assessments (WE + A + LR + E), but there
was no indication that writing/literacy skills were specifically
The Current Status of the Sector
Graduate attributes, though seemingly a new phenomenon,
have been espoused by University proponents for decades. In
1862, in his opening address at Sydney University, Cardinal
Wooley stated the importance of graduates attaining generic
attributes imparted by the University (Barrie, 2004; Barrie
2005b). Recently the importance of developing graduate attrib-
utes to students has become a hot issue, as the universities are
having an increasingly vocational role due to increased pressure
from external stakeholders, including government and business
(Green et al., 20 09 ).
In order to fulfil this demand, universities have invoked poli-
cies and projects aimed at fulfilling this role. At the sector level
there has been little consistency or transparency to describe
methods of implementation and assessment. From the investi-
gation of many university web sites, it appears that there is a
tendency to describe proposals for embedding graduate attrib-
utes into courses, but no information on how this is being done
or monitored. It is assumed that most courses have graduate
attributes embedded into disciplinary knowledge and learning
(Green et al., 2009). For example Sydney University put in
place strategies designed to interweave graduate attributes into
disciplinary knowledge rather than have them taught as parallel
learning outcomes (Barrie, 2004) however there is little infor-
mation available on the effectiveness of these strategies.
The Current Status of Academics and Their Teaching
There is clearly confusion among academics about their un-
derstanding of graduate attributes and desired outcomes high-
lighted by the varied responses by academics interviewed in
this current study. The confusion centres on staff being able to
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 47
Relati ve%ofAssessment
Modalitie sforEachUnit
AssessmentMod alities
91‐ 100%
71‐ 90%
51‐ 70%
31‐ 50%
11‐ 30%
0‐ 10%
Por tfolio
0% E
W eighted S c or e
Figure 3.
Cumulative data and weighted score for percentage of the total assessment mark for each as-
sessment tool. MCQ-Multiple Choice Questions; WE-written exam; A-assignment; P-poster;
LR-laboratory report; PE-practical exam; OP-oral presentation; OLQ-on line quizzes; FTR-f ield
trip reports; E-essay. Number of academics filling out the questionnaire was 34.
interpret and transpose generic graduate attribute statements
written by the university into discipline relevant outcomes.
Furthermore, there does not appear to be a link back to the
needs of industry. For instance, it was interesting in this study
that neither the members of faculty, nor the list of graduate
attributes from the Faculty of Science recognized the need for
“management” and “potential for leadership” as graduate at-
tributes, despite this being an expectation from employer sur-
veys. In addition there is no guide to the required standards.
Despite staff being aware of graduate attributes, quantitative
data from this study indicated that 70% of all teaching, devel-
opment and assessment centred on disciplinary knowledge and
most of the rest centred on professional skills. This focus ap-
pears to be wide spread. For instance, at Griffith University
(2012) an investigation of many courses (not just science)
found professional knowledge and critical thinking were the
main graduate attributes being addressed.
Matters raised by staff regarding the difficulties preventing
them from addressing the broad range of graduate attributes
included time limitations. Large class sizes limit teaching to
disciplinary knowledge and time had to be taken to address the
students’ lack of basic literacy and numeracy. Another diffi-
culty was being able to adequately assess graduate attributes
other than disciplinary knowledge. In general, the comments in
this regard centred on assessment being too subjective. It was
also clear that faculty members did not understand the differ-
ence between teaching a graduate attribute and assigning a task
involving a graduate attribute and thus claiming that it had been
taught. For example, giving an oral presentation as an assess-
ment task without initially informing and demonstrating how to
prepare and deliver an oral presentation.
The Way Forward
This study highlights that there is a need for change and pro-
vides some tangible evidence that could be presented to the
senior levels of Universities to gain support for this change.
Essential for producing graduates with defined attributes is the
need to identify those attributes that align with the needs of the
employers. For example, if the employer surveys indicate a
high priority for competency in group work, or for good time
management, then these need to be identified as specific attrib-
utes rather than being buried under generic headings. For in-
stance, the attribute “Professional skills and their appropriate
application” might be better subdivided into “Technical and
practical skills”, “Time management” and “Group work”. Cur-
rently, in terms of compliance, the grouping of all these attrib-
utes under one heading means that a graduate attribute can be
satisfied by only teaching one component of what is intended
by the umbrella descriptor. For example, “Professional skills
and their appropriate application” could be satisfied by only
teaching practical skills but by default giving the impression
that group work and time management had also been taught and
assessed. In addition, it may be that some of the attributes such
as “Engagement with needs of Society”, and “Initiative and
Innovation” would be more suitable to teach at a postgraduate
In moving forward, the content of student transcripts needs to
be addressed to properly represent their abilities across the
range of graduate attributes so that this can be communicated to
employers. Currently transcripts reflect professional knowledge
and little else. For instance, high achieving students well
equipped with disciplinary knowledge, and disciplinary practi-
cal skills are easy to identify but there is little indication of their
attainment of graduate attributes. On the other hand, we are not
rewarding or valuing those graduates who, for example, are
excellent communicators and thus may be the ones who pro-
mote wide spread change by convincing society to embrace
new scientific developments. Generally, employers attempt to
overcome the limited information in transcripts by using psy-
chological profiling of potential employees. A mechanism for
communicating these outcomes could be to provide additional
documentation outlining attained graduate attributes or a port-
folio that gives an assessment of the entire graduate attributes
and level of competency.
There is an obvious need for academics to embrace change
and begin to implement different strategies in graduate attribute
development. The qualitative data in this study indicate that
there are staff who want to embrace change and incorporate
graduate attributes into courses. However, managing this proc-
ess needs clear indications to the academic staff as to what is
required. Rogan and Anderson (2011) stress that acceptance by
academic staff is mandatory to change but requires staff to see
value in the change from a personal and academic perspective.
It is apparent from this study and the literature, there is a need
for a champion to drive and manage the change, rather than
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
allow the change to be interpreted by individuals and taken in
the directions of their whims. This would give academics per-
mission to change teaching and assessment styles without fear
that the removal of discipline content will question their ade-
quacy as a teacher. Deliberate managed change directed at the
course level would overcome this fear. For instance, this may
involve convincing all faculty members involved with a course
that some units will focus on specific graduate attributes with a
reduction in disciplinary knowledge and that these units would
be just as important as those focused on disciplinary knowledge.
Within this same context, the increasing need to use more cas-
ual staff by Universities (Green et al., 2009), means that these
tutors and demonstrators need to be informed of the importance
of graduate attributes other than disciplinary knowledge and
trained in their teaching and assessment.
Assessment was identified as a problem by all staff inter-
viewed. Given that “from a students” point of view, assessment
always defines the actual curriculum’ (Ramsden, 2003), there is
a need for resources to be set aside to develop teaching tools
and valid assessment methods for attributes. Ideally, the as-
sessment tools would show a direct link between teaching of
graduate attributes, and determining that the learning outcomes
have been achieved (real constructive alignment; Jolly, 2001).
Some attributes lend themselves to subjective assessment and
hence it may be more appropriate to use mastery as a mecha-
nism for evaluation.
This project provides objective information about the teach-
ing of graduate attributes and indicates the need to invoke
change at the institutional level and across the sector. Ideally
each discipline should be responsible for designing, imple-
menting and assessing graduate attributes so as to produce
marketable graduates. This study also indicates that for this to
happen, graduate attributes have to be realistic in terms of their
ability to be taught and assessed. They cannot be idealistic
whims such as “demonstrates a willingness to be a ‘lifelong
learner’”, which cannot be validated until the end of a gradu-
ate’s working life. It also demonstrates an urgent need to refo-
cus the purpose of tertiary education in the minds of academics.
This will enable mechanisms to be developed that emphasise
and ensure attainment of graduate attributes that are commen-
surate with the expectations of the university and the wider
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