Bridging the Skills Gap – Katherine Lithgow
Sydney Harbour Bridge

There’s been a lot of discussion in media and higher education about the skills, or lack of skills, our students have when they graduate from our universities. Politicians, the public, and even some of our colleagues have questioned whether universities are the best vehicles to help post-secondary students bridge the gap between high school and the working world of the 21st century.

Many of the arguments centre around what they call ‘the skills gap’ and claim that today’s graduates do not have the skills necessary to meet the needs for the 21st century work environment. For example, released results from a national survey which found that only 1 in 5 employers (19 per cent) believe academic institutions are adequately preparing students for roles needed within their organizations.

Of course, there are others who have argued that there isn’t a ‘skills gap’ to bridge. In 2013, for example, leading economist, Don Drummond, reported that he couldn’t find “a shred of evidence that Canada has a serious mismatch between skills and jobs” contradicting what Prime Minister Stephen Harper has declared as “an urgent national priority.”

Whether a skills gap exists or not, we do know two things:

  1. Students and parents have their eye on post-graduate job prospects, regardless of the degree.
  2. Employers report that they look for specific skills when hiring new graduates and these preferred skills are common across most, if not all, occupations.

A report by the Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers (2013) identified communication, teamwork, analytical, strong work ethic, and problem solving as the top 5 preferred skills that employers seek when hiring new grads. These same five skills have been consistently identified in a number of similar surveys conducted across Canada and in the United States with slight variations in the order. Employers, then, appear to be looking for, what we call Professional Skills / Essential Employability Skills/Transferable Skills regardless of the degree designation.

Now, we might ask ourselves, “What does this have to do with me? It’s not my job to get students jobs”. And that’s true. And we also might say, “Well, I teach cutting edge research and best practices in my discipline.” And that is fine, too. And we might even say, “We don’t have time to ‘cover soft skills’ – it’s not our job to teach these.” Well, that’s not entirely true. Because, in 2005, the Ontario Council of Academic Vice-Presidents (OCAV) developed a set of Undergraduate Degree Level Expectations (UDLEs) for all universities in the province. The UDLEs are a set of guidelines that “elaborate the intellectual and creative development of students and the acquisition of relevant skills that have been widely, yet implicitly, understood. At their most basic, the six UDLEs articulated by OCAV are as follows:

  1. Depth and breadth of knowledge
  2. Knowledge of methodologies
  3. Application of knowledge
  4. Communication skills
  5. Awareness of limits of knowledge
  6. Autonomy and professional capacity

The University of Waterloo has added two more UDLEs:

  1. Experiential learning
  2. Diversity

Take a look at what the undergraduate degree level expectations are for UDLE 4 and UDLE 6.

  Baccalaureate/Bachelor’s Degree Baccalaureate/Bachelor’s Degree: Honours
UDLE 4. Communication Skills … the ability to communicate accurately and reliably, orally and in writing to a range of audiences. … the ability to communicate information, arguments, and analyses accurately and reliably, orally and in writing to a range of audiences.
UDLE 6.Autonomy and Professional Capacity a) qualities and transferable skills necessary for further study, employment, community involvement and other activities requiring:·   the exercise of personal responsibility and decision-making;  ·   working effectively with others;b) the ability to identify and address their own learning needs in changing circumstances and to select an appropriate program of further study; andc) behaviour consistent with academic integrity and social responsibility.



a) qualities and transferable skills necessary for further study, employment, community involvement and other activities requiring:·    the exercise of initiative, personal responsibility and accountability in both personal and group contexts;·    working effectively with others; ·    decision-making in complex contexts;b) the ability to manage their own learning in changing circumstances, both within and outside the discipline and to select an appropriate program of further study; andc) behaviour consistent with academic integrity and social responsibility.

These expectations are the very skills that top the list of skills that employers are looking for, those Professional Skills / Essential Employability Skills/Transferable Skills, regardless of the degree designation.

I’d say we do a good job addressing UDLE 1, 2, 3, & perhaps 5 – those UDLEs that focus on dissemination of knowledge. Through tests, exams, essays, projects, and for some students, theses or capstones and presentations, we provide opportunities for students demonstrate gains they are making in these knowledge-related areas. We explicitly ask them to demonstrate these gains, and we give them grades for demonstrating achievement in these areas. Assigning grades lets students know that these things are valued and worth learning.

What we might not do as often, or as well, is let students know that the skills and attributes outlined under Autonomy and Professional Capacity (UDLE 6) and Communication (UDLE 4) are also valued.

  • Communication to wide audience (not just the instructor!)
  • Exercise of initiative
  • Personal responsibility and accountability to self and others
  • Decision-making
  • Effective teamwork
  • Problem-solving

These are the competencies and skills that we presuppose student have or are acquiring while they are working on what we will eventually mark. We expect students to value these things, but if we looked at what gets marked in courses, which in turn translates to what gets valued by the students, I think we’d agree that these transferable/professional skills often are not assigned marks, or if they are, they count for a small portion of the overall grade.

This doesn’t mean that students do not develop or acquire these skills. But, because we don’t explicitly draw students’ attention to the fact that they are developing these skills, they often remain invisible to our students. And yet, these invisible, often unacknowledged or undervalued skills are precisely the extra-degree skills that employers want to hear about.

To help bridge the skills gap, we need to expose these transferable skills to our students. Make them visible. Make them count.

So the question is how do we make these visible and valued to students? The first step is to make them explicit and visible to ourselves. Then we are better able to make them visible to our students.

Here are some tips that can be used to help bridge the skills gap. [If some of these sound familiar, you may have seen a presentation that Jill Tomasson Goodwin and I gave at the OND conference this past April, or you may have seen blog posts by James SkidmoreShannon Dea and Mary Power.]

  1. Make the transferable skills visible and explicit to yourself
  • Review the UDLEs – Review the bulleted list within each category, and determine if you could turn it into a learning outcome for your course or program. Pay particular attention to UDLE 4 & UDLE 6.
  • Review your existing course syllabus – Determine what UDLEs you are making visible to the students. What is it that you mark?
  • Review your existing course assignments – What communication skills, or elements listed under Professional Capacity and Autonomy are you expecting your students to use or develop in order to complete the assigned tasks, but are not making explicit to your students? What transferrable skills are students expected to use, but remain invisible and not counted?
  1. Make these professional/transferable skills explicit and visible to your students. Make them count.
  • Talk to your students about the UDLEs –show them what the undergraduate degree level expectations actually are and what that means in terms of your discipline, program or course. Review relevant UDLEs with your students and show how they map to the relevant Essential Employability Skills/Transferable Skills or Professional Skills (whatever you are calling them) that employers are looking for. Some instructors have assigned the reading ‘It takes more than a major’ to help students see the relevance these skills have in the workplace.
  • Discuss the syllabus – take some time in class, or online, to explain what the learning outcomes for your course really mean and how these outcomes fit into the bigger picture. Explain the differences between the skill being taught or acquired in the course and knowledge being imparted. Explicitly state which UDLEs your course activities are addressing, and how particular course activities will help students develop them. Throughout the course, as you review activities and assignments with your students, ask students to identify which skills they believe they will need or will be developing as they complete the course activities.
  • Add a question to an assignment or on an exam- provide students with the opportunity to reflect on what they are learning in the course, and how that connects to the bigger picture. This can be done by asking student to add an extra paragraph to an assignment where they explain how a particular assignment helped them meet a particular UDLE, or how might they transfer or apply what they’ve learned to another course or another context. Helping students see the relevance also helps them recognize that spending time learning how to articulate how they might use a skill beyond the course is important and not just ‘busy work’. If your students are working on team projects, have each student articulate how the experience has helped them develop communication skills (UDLE 4) or skills outlined under Autonomy and Professional Capacity (UDLE 6).
  • Provide opportunities for students to perform ‘authentic skills and tasks associated with their field’ and explicitly state why this skill is valued outside the classroom. In a philosophy class, students peer review each other’s articles because it is the kind of activity that philosophers do.
  • Provide opportunities for students to connect transferable skills to co-op/work and co-curricular experiences. See how Jill Tomasson Goodwin used ePortfolios in her DAC 309 course to help students make this connection
  1. Discuss with your colleagues or at department meetings how to intentionally integrate into the curriculum opportunities to help students develop and reflect upon how they might apply these professional/transferrable skills to new contexts.
  2. Utilize Existing Resources
  1. Share your ideas and strategies – How are you or a colleague bridging the gap and re making these skills valued and visible to your students? If you’re teaching a large class, and have examples to share, I’m especially interested!

Providing Authentic Learning Experiences – Katherine Lithgow

ideas start hereThis past May, I had the great pleasure of presenting at Laurier’s Integrated and Engaged Learning Conference with Jill Tomasson Goodwin (Associate Professor -Faculty of Arts teaching in the Digital Arts Communication (DAC) specialization program; Scott O’Neill (Associate Director, Marketing and Communications within the Marketing and Undergraduate Recruitment (MUR)department and  Madhulika Saxena (a student in the W2014 DAC 300 course and a recent graduate from uWaterloo’s Arts & Business program).

We wanted to explore how we might bring high quality high impact practices (HQ HIPs) into the classroom.  Our presentation focused on DAC 300’s collaborative project that provided students with an authentic experiential learning opportunity where the students worked in teams to address an on-campus community partner’s real world need.  Our goal was to highlight how a course might embody the characteristics of HQ HIPs and what can be done in terms of course design and course delivery to make a course a high quality high impact practice. Using DAC 300 as an example, throughout the presentation, we provided ‘tips’ which we hope will help others incorporate high quality high impact learning opportunities into their classrooms.  

Experiential education has always been important in education, and it is of particular importance at uWaterloo.   We say it is in our DNA. We’re known for our co-op program; experiential learning is one of our Undergraduate Degree Level Expectations and our strategic plan promises ‘Experiential Education for All’.  We know that when done well, that is, where learning is “as much social as cognitive, as much concrete as abstract,” and emphasizes both judgment and exploration, experiential education helps students better absorb, retain and transfer knowledge (Lombardi, 2007)

So… what are the characteristics of a high quality high impact practice?

  1. Performance expectations set at appropriately high levels
  2. Significant investment of time and effort by students over an extended period of time
  3. Interactions with faculty and peers about substantive matters
  4. Experiences with diversity
  5. Frequent,timely and constructive feedback
  6. Periodic, structured opportunities to reflect and integrate learning
  7. Opportunities to discover relevance of learning through real-world applications
  8. Public demonstration of competence

(Kuh, G. D., O’Donnell, K., & Reed, S., 2013)

You can view our presentation here to see how these characteristics came to life in DAC 300.

A lot of things came together to make the DAC 300 course a great learning experience.  A couple that I want to highlight centre around 1) collaboration and 2) the impact on the instructor and students.

Experiential learning opportunities often bring students into meaningful contact with future employers, customers, clients, and colleagues. What struck me about the DAC 300 project was the extent to which Jill collaborated with an on-campus ‘community partner’ (Scott O’Neill and the MUR department) to provide her students with this real-world, relevant learning opportunity. In turn, Jill’s students collaborated together to provide MUR with a solution to address their real-world need. If we want to make more of these high impact practices available to our students, we will likely have to collaborate with campus partners -campus partners from writing centres, student affairs, living learning communities, residence life and librarians are just a few examples of who these campus partners might be. More important, the collaboration has to benefit all parties.

The role of the instructor often changes when you provide authentic learning experiences to your students. Prepare to learn along with your students.  Incorporating authentic learning experiences into your course can be disorienting and uncomfortable for you AND your students.  Your role shifts from ‘instructor’ to ‘coach’.  Students will come up with solutions or approaches that you have never thought of.  That can be a good thing, but it also means relinquishing a certain amount of control, being flexible, and adapting to circumstances- just as we do in the real world.

Jill Tomasson Goodwin has kindly created and shared these 6-Tips-and-10-Tricks-to-Facilitate-Classroom-based-Experiential-Learning. Jill encourages you to adapt them to your needs and invites you to email her (   to chat with her further about how these choices worked in practice.

DAC 300 is a 12-week reflexive theoretically-informed, practice-based course in User Experience Design (the art of understanding, designing, and creating an ‘end-to-end’ experience of technology for users).  The course design choices are based on a very real-world application of knowledge — facilitated inside, and tested outside, the classroom, for an actual client, with a pressing need.

During the W2014 offering, Professor Jill Tomasson Goodwin and her third-year Digital Arts Communication class consulted with UWaterloo’s MUR department to design an augmented reality version of a tour brochure. To complete the project, teams of undergraduate students drew upon their knowledge of user experience design, interviewed high school students, and then iteratively prototyped a range of augmented reality experiences, all designed to engage and inform students as they visit and explore the campus. The project and technology have been so successful that UW will use augmented reality to enhance other recruitment publications.


Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are. Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter.  Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Kuh, G. D. (2008). Excerpt from “High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter”. Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Kuh, G. D., O’Donnell, K., & Reed, S. (2013). Ensuring quality and taking high-impact practices to scale . Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Lombardi, M. M. (2007). Authentic learning for the 21st century: An overview. Educause learning initiative,1(2007), 1-12.

Integrative and Applied Learning Value Rubric (AAC&U)

The Challenge: Experiential Education for All – Katherine Lithgow

csl“Experiential education for all” is one of the goals set out in our strategic plan and stems from our recognition “that learning is stronger when knowledge is tried and tested”. It is the ‘for all’ part that sounds a bit overwhelming, doesn’t it? I mean, how can we provide this opportunity in a meaningful way for all of our students? Continue reading The Challenge: Experiential Education for All – Katherine Lithgow

Engineering Integrative Learning Community

id_26_680When our students make connections between their learning experiences within a whole program of study, between courses during a term or between their academic knowledge and co-op experience they are integrating their learning. Designing learning experiences with the intentional goal of helping students integrate their knowledge can help our students apply skills and knowledge learned in one situation to problems encountered in another. For more information about this topic and examples on its use on campus please visit the Integrative Learning section in the CTE webpage.
In the faculty of Engineering, our different programs have very coherent curricula that are very well structured with the aligned lab components, design projects and pre-requisite courses. In addition to our well-structured program a group of Engineering instructors took a step ahead by re-designing their courses to intentionally help their students make connections in their learning. In May 2013 we formed a group called Engineering Integrative Learning community. We have decided to meet twice a term. At these meetings a different instructor will share his/her experience in designing and delivering a course or a course component that focuses on integrative learning, followed by an informal discussion.
This group has met three times so far and we have had very useful and fruitful discussions.

I would like to invite all Engineering instructors to join this group if they would like to know more about specific experiences that others have had, contribute to the discussion, or share their own experience. “Anyone who would like to know more about this initiative can contact me at

Using “Transit Questions” in place-based pedagogy – Trevor Holmes

I love being in the classroom, whether it’s large or small, whether I’m officially the teacher or the learner. But I also love getting out of the classroom. Some of the most powerful experiences in my own learning and my own teaching have been observing, interacting, and reflecting in spaces other than lecture halls and seminar rooms. Some time ago, I wrote about place-based pedagogy (with some suggested reading) and gave the example of a workshop for the Educational Developers Caucus (EDC) conference at Thompson Rivers University. Since then, I have continued to use what previously I hadn’t a name for in my own cultural studies course — the field observations and intellectual response papers, the spontaneous “field trips” out into parts of campus to apply concepts, the incorporation of people’s experiences into the framework of the course.

Today’s post is about a small piece of the place-based learning experience I had at the EDC conference, a piece that I’m considering using with my own learners when they do their field observations. To date, I’ve supplied them with reflection questions and notetaking guides for the site visits. I’ve used the online quiz tool in the learning management system to ask “prime the pump” journal questions. But I’ve never yet tried the “transit question” approach. Transit questions were thought-triggering questions handed out just before traveling to the field sites in Kamloops. There were, to my recollection, four different cue cards and each pair of people received one or two cue cards. The idea was that the question on the front (and maybe there was one on the back) would ready us for what we were about to see by asking us about related prior experience with X, or what we expect to find when we get to X, or how is X usually structured. The idea was to talk to our partners about the questions and answer them informally as we made our way to the sites (which took 10-20 minutes to get to).

Photograph of two people in Iceland
Photo of two people in Iceland. Source: Karlbark’s Fotothing stream (shared under CC license)

I can imagine transit questions for pairs that would be suitable for my course too. However, we don’t always have pairs (sometimes small groups, sometimes solitary learners going to a space in their hometown, and so on). I can easily adapt the idea for solo use, though clearly I wouldn’t want someone to be taking notes in response to the prompt while, say, driving!

If we do the field trip to Laurel Creek Conservation area again to test ideas found in Jody Baker’s article about Algonquin Park and the Canadian imaginary, I’ll be using transit questions for the bus ride for sure. With other observations I will have to think about how to adapt the idea. Choosing the right question or questions seems to be important, and offering space to jot notes for those who don’t want to start talking immediately. I’d strongly encourage this approach when you know people will be traveling somewhere for the course by bus, or by foot/assistive device. I can imagine that there are lots of opportunities to do this (and it’s likely already done) in disciplines as varied as geography, planning, fine art, architecture, biology, geosciences, accounting, anthropology, and many others. I’m thinking it would be great if they could pull questions from a question bank to their phones or other devices en route as well… the possibilities!

Transit questions on the way to field sites helped to ready me and my partner for what we’d be looking at, to reflect on the implications of our mini-field trip, and to connect our histories to the present task. I recommend them wholeheartedly.

Introducing ePortfolios – Six Things to Help You Get Started- Katherine Lithgow

graphic by Carey, Penny Light and Kirker
ePortfolios and Integration

Our new learning management system, LEARN, includes an integrated ePortfolio.  EPortfolios can be used to help students make connections to learning experiences regardless of where those experiences occur. They can help students document their learning, see how they are developing over time, and make plans for future growth.  EPortfolios provide a space for students to reflect upon what they have learned in the classroom, in the workplace or in community and social environments, and provide evidence of how they have been able to apply skills and knowledge learned in one setting to another setting.

Since we’ve adopted LEARN this past year, there has been a significant increase in the number of instructors (and students) interested in using ePortfolios. Once instructors have decided they would like to use ePortfolios, the next question is often “So how do I go about incorporating the use of ePortfolios into my course or program?  What do I do next?”

Here are six things you can do which will go a long way to help ensure the best learning experience for both instructors and students using ePortfolios in a course or program. (Based upon presentation by Lithgow, K. and Penny Light, T. (2012). Six Degrees (or so) of Integration: What Students Have to Say about ePortfolios. Presented at the Association for Authentic, Experiential and Evidence-Based Learning (AAEEBL) Conference – “ePortfolios as a Catalyst for Connections: Celebrating the Curious, Creative and Capable Learner.”, Boston, MA.)*

  1. Introduce ePortfolios and Expectations Early
  2. Give ‘em Grades
  3. Provide Feedback (Early and Often)
  4. Respect disciplinary context
  5. Encourage meaning making
  6. Acknowledge that ePortfolios are a different way of providing evidence of learning


Unpacking the Process

  1. Introduce ePortfolios and Expectations Early– Let your students know as early as possible in the course that they will be using ePortfolios.       Outline what they will be expected to do and how the ePortfolios activities      will help them achieve goals and outcomes for the course or the program.  This can be done in a number of ways.  Show an example or examples of previous students’ work (with permission, of course!).  Show them an example of an ePortfolio  presentation that you’ve created which models your expectations.  Provide a rubric or statement of  expectations.
  2. Give ‘em Grades – Although we  would like our students to be intrinsically motivated, the reality  is the  majority of our students are motivated by marks.  The ePortfolio activities should be an   integral part of your course or program, not an add-on.  The mark assigned should reflect that this is a worthwhile activity.   ePortfolio activities which are most successful in terms of student buy-in and student learning are those where the time and effort expected  of the students is reflected in the weighting of the activity in the final  course mark.  The least successful and the least valued ePortfolio activities are those that are voluntary or are assigned minimal or bonus marks.
  3. Provide Feedback (Early and Often):      Incorporating reflective activities into the ePortfolio is an integral part of creating an ePortfolio presentation. Reflection is a learned  activity; receiving constructive feedback from classmates, instructors,  TA’s and mentors helps the student develop the capacity to reflect critically.   You can create opportunities for students to get feedback by having them submit their work in progress midway through the term.  Divide the students into small groups and have them peer-review      each other’s work-in- progress using a rubric or guideline of expectations      which you’ve provided.  This gives students the opportunity to see other examples and exposes them to  different perspectives. When students provide constructive feedback to others, they can consider ways to improve their own work prior to the  final submission.
  4. Respect disciplinary context- Students will see value in the ePortfolio activity when they can see how it will help them develop within the discipline.  The activity has to allow them to use the language, skills and knowledge of the discipline.  They have to understand how the activity will help them achieve program goals and outcomes.
  5. Encourage meaning making (making connections-reflection) – Give your students permission to make connections to other courses, other disciplines, to their work experience, volunteer experiences, and social and community environments.  Ask the students to explain what they’ve      learned and how that learning is personally meaningful to them. Create a      learning environment which provides them with a ‘safe place’ to share this      with classmates, mentors and instructors. Encourage them to examine what they’ve learned in their academic and non-academic environments and how that impacts their learning as a whole.  Ask them to reflect on past experiences-   what have they learned? How will this affect future actions?
  6. Acknowledge ePortfolios as a threshold – Asking students to explain what they’ve learned, provide evidence to support what they’ve learned, and demonstrate how they have achieved learning outcomes and goals you’ve set is not something students are accustomed to doing. Incorporating multimedia to  demonstrate this is very different than asking students to write an essay      or answer a multiple choice test.  Students are accustomed to getting things ‘right’, rather than being rewarded for focusing on the process of learning- part of which ncludes making mistakes. Providing early and often feedback helps them reassure them that they are on the right track or gives them the opportunity to get back on track.  Providing examples  of ePortfolios from previous students (with permission!), or showing how you, the instructor, have completed a particular section of the ePortfolio, provides guidance and structure that students will need when hey are first introduced to ePortfolios.  Provide a template or some sort of  structure in the early years- decrease this over time.  Take some time in class to review the  ePortfolio functionality to address technology related concerns.

Trent Batson has proposed the following definition – “ePortfolio technology enables learners to manage the complexity and variability of learning designs and opportunities in formal and informal settings in order to gather evidence of their resultant deep learning.” T. Batson. (2012, Sept.18).  Definition of “ePortfolio”. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from

Interested in learning more?  Don’t hesitate to contact me

*Influences on our work include:

Cambridge, D., B. Cambridge and K. Yancey (eds.), Electronic Portfolios 2.0: Emergent Research on Implementation and Impact, Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2009.

Cambridge, Darren, Eportfolios for Lifelong Learning and Assessment, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Chen, H.L, and T. Penny Light, Electronic Portfolios and Student Success: Effectiveness, Efficiency, and Learning, Washington: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2010

Huber, M., and P. Hutchings, Integrative Learning: Mapping the Terrain, Washington D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2004.

Rodgers, Carol, “Defining Reflection: Another Look at John Dewey and Reflective Thinking,” Teachers College Record, 104, 4 (June, 2002): 842-866.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake, Reflection in the Writing Classroom, Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1998.


“Fail often to succeed sooner”- IDEO

By Katherine Lithgow

I noticed these words on the door as I entered an instructor’s office, and commented on how appropriate they were, particularly in light of the fact that we were meeting to discuss how eportfolios could be used to help her students. She wanted to incorporate their use into a project her students would begin in the winter 2010 term and complete the following winter 2011 term with different aspects of the project being addressed in a number of different courses. Continue reading “Fail often to succeed sooner”- IDEO