Graduate Competencies, Employability and Educational Taxonomies: Critique of Intended Learning Outcomes

July 18, 2015

We hear much about the changing world of work and how slow higher and professional education is to respond. So in an increasingly competitive global market of Higher Apprenticeships and work-based learning provision I began to take a particular interest in students’ ‘graduateness’. What had begun as an exploratory look for examples of intended learning outcomes (ILO) with ’employability’ in mind ended up as this critical review published in an article entitled ‘Graduate Competencies, Employability and Educational Taxonomies: Critique of Intended Learning Outcomes’ in the journal called  Practice and Evidence of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

I randomly identified 20 UK institutions, 80 undergraduate modules and examined their ILOs. This resulted in 435 individual ILOs being taken by students in current modules (academic year 2014-2015) across different stages of their undergraduate journey (ordinarily in the UK this takes place over three years through Levels 4,5 and 6). This research reveals the lack of specificity of ILOs in terms of skills, literacies and graduates attributes that employers consistently say they want from graduates

The data in the table below from the full paper which describes the post-analysis attribution of ILOs to domains of educational objectives (see paper for methodology) which I found rather surprising. The first surprise was the significant percentage of ILOs which are poorly structured, given the weight of existing practice guidance and encouragement for learning designers and validators (notably from the UK Higher Education Academy and the UK Quality Assurance Agency). Some 94 individual ILOs (21.6%) had no discernible active verbs in their construction.  64 ILOs (14.7%) did not contain any meaningful verbs so could not be mapped to any educational domain. This included the infamous ‘to understand’ and ‘to be aware of’. So as a result only 276 ILOs (64%) were deemed ‘well-structured’ and were then mapped against four domains of educational objectives.

Table 8.          Post-analysis attribution of ILOs to Domains of Educational Objectives

  Level 4 Level 5 Level 6 Total
Knowledge(Subject Knowledge) 14 5 11 30
Cognitive (Intellectual Skills) 46 91 61 198
Affective(Professional Skills) 1 4 1 6
Psychomotor(Practical/Transferable Skills) 12 18 13 43
No Verbs 35 32 27 94
Not classifiable 23 30 11 64
Totals 131 180 125 435

Remember what I had been originally looking for were examples of ILOs that represented skills that the literature on employability and capabilities suggested should be there. These could have been anticipated to be those in the affective or psychomotor domains.

So it was rather surprising to see that of the 64% of the full sample that was codeable,  sizeable percentage were cognitive (45.4%), a relatively small percentage fell into the psychomotor domain (9.8%), even less into the knowledge domain (6.8%) and a remarkably small number could be deemed affective (1.4%).

I say remarkable because the affective domain, sometimes detailed as personal and professional skills, are very much the skills that employers (and most graduates) prize above all else. These refer to the development of values and the perception of values, including professionalism, inter-personal awareness, timeliness, ethics, inter-cultural sensitivity, and diversity and inclusivity issues.

Apparently despite all the sterling work going on in our libraries and career services, employment-ready priorities within programmes and modules in higher education, are not integrated with teaching and learning practices. I suggest that as a consequence, this makes it difficult for students to extract, from their learning experience within modules, the tangible skill development required of them as future employees.

There is an evident reliance by module designers on the cognitive domain most commonly associated at a lower level with ‘knowing and understanding’ and at a higher level as ‘thinking and intellectual skills’. The old favourite ‘to critically evaluate’ and ‘to critically analyse’ are perennial favourites.

There is much more to the picture than this single study attempts to represent but I think it is remarkable not more attention is being paid to the affective and psychomotor domains in module creation.

More analysis, and further data collection will be done, to explore the issue at programme level and stage outcomes (is it plausible that module ILOs are simply not mapped and unrelated and all is well at programme level). I would also be interested to explore the mapping of module and programme ILOs to specified graduate attributes that many institutions make public.

I go on in the full paper about the relative balance of different ILOs in each of the domains depending on the nature of the learning, whether it is a clinical laboratory module or a fieldwork module or a literature-based module.

The reason I think this is important, and I have written here before, that this important (it is about semantics!), is that students are increasingly demanding control over their choices, their options, the shape of their portfolios, their ‘graduateness’, and they need to be able to identify their own strengths and weaknesses and make meaningful modules choices to modify the balance of the skills acquired in a ’practical’ module compared with those in a ‘cerebral’ one. I conclude that the ability to consciously build a ‘skills profile’ is a useful graduate attribute in itself…. which incidentally would be an affective ILO.

You can download the full paper here LINK.

Also available on ResearchGate and

Full citation:
Atkinson, S. 2015 Jul 9. Graduate Competencies, Employability and Educational Taxonomies: Critique of Intended Learning Outcomes. Practice and Evidence of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education [Online] 10:2. Available:

%d bloggers like this: