Transferable skills education in the biosciences: preparing our graduates for life outside university

Transferable skills education in the biosciences: preparing our graduates for life outside university

What are transferable skills and why are they important?

In the UK, only about a fifth of biology graduates go on to a scientific occupation. The other 80% embark on varied career paths, including teaching, accountancy, sales and marketing. We must train our undergraduates to be prepared for many different types of work, not only to follow in their tutors’ footsteps and one day run their own labs. There is something very encouraging about the idea that bioscience graduates work in, and contribute to, all areas of society, and we need to make sure they are trained to use their knowledge and skills to the greatest effect, and are advocates of our subject. They also must be able to understand their own skillsets, so that they can communicate this during recruitment, and be aware of areas they need to develop throughout their studies and careers.

Transferable skills are skills that we can carry from one context to another, sometimes subtly changing the way we use them between settings. Examples include communication, research skills, time management, organisation, critical thinking, teamwork, reflection, resilience, problem solving, empathy and many others. But they overlap; for example, to be good at teamwork, one must master communication, time management, empathy and so on. Despite the importance of transferable skills in all work, much of education is focused on delivery and assessment of subject-specific knowledge.

When we ask students what they have learned during a particular course, they usually mention the knowledge gained and the subject-specific skills developed. For example, a final-year undergraduate might tell you that during their practical work they’d learned to purify a specific membrane protein. But when you ask, ‘did you solve any problems?’, ‘did you ask for help?’, ‘did you communicate your project to others?’ then of course they realise they have learned a lot more! Often educators assume that transferable skills will just be ‘picked up’ as students go through their courses. They are generally not an explicit part of programmes, and almost never assessed to the same extent as subject-specific knowledge. This approach may well lead students to think transferable skills aren’t important, and that their success or failure depends only on knowledge.

Barriers to transferable skills education

It is clear that higher education needs to do more to teach and assess transferable skills. But this is challenging. Our education systems are rooted in a knowledge-based approach. Exams test what students can remember, and it has ever been thus. But this approach was forged in days long before the internet and the instant availability of almost any information. Many of us now are shifting towards the idea that skills education should move to the fore, and this is slowly starting to happen through our curricula. The activation energy required for this shift is considerable though, as we ask educators and students to think differently about higher education.

Another barrier is the competitive nature of higher education. Students are scored against criteria and someone always has to come last. When we ask students to work together on a joint piece of work, for example to develop teamwork, this can create dissonance as we ask them essentially to help each other score better grades.

Educators themselves may not feel completely able to deliver high-quality transferable skills education; we must train our teachers too. University academics are generally appointed because of their research track records, rather than their understanding of transferable skills education. Institutions, accreditors and learned societies must help academics to deliver skills education, as well as research-led subject knowledge.

Another barrier to transferable skills education is the idea that assessment drives learning –  that is that students will focus on areas that are assessed the most. Transferable skills are difficult to assess, because they are often somewhat intangible and hard to measure. Most assessments in most universities are focused on the knowledge, so that is what students prioritise.

Good practice in transferable skills education

There are already some solutions though, and more continue to emerge from the literature as educators strive to provide better transferable skills education. It is clear that making transferable skills relevant to students is key. They have chosen to study our subject because it interests them, so we need to show them why these skills are important in the context of bioscience. We also need to embed the skills in the teaching of the subject content, rather than detaching them and teaching them as a ‘bolt-on’ extra. Experiences like placements can be useful here, to allow students to see first-hand how transferable skills are vital in various contexts.

Another thing we must do is to make it clear to students that they are learning these skills. As with the example above of a final-year undergraduate, we must make students aware of the skills they will develop at different points. Encouraging them to reflect on their skills training and to discuss and consider areas they can improve will also help raise awareness of their own skillsets.

Assessment is key to transferable skills training. As discussed, it is difficult and currently doesn’t account for much of the assessment done in higher education. But this needs to change. Transferable skills assessment needs to carry weight, and this allows us to send a message to students and employers that we care that they are competent in these vital skills. The assessments must be fair, rigorous and authentic, again embedded in the subject and in genuine experiences. Assessment criteria must be clear, and educators should spend time ensuring students (and other teachers) understand these criteria.

Transferable skills are complex and difficult to master, and they cannot be learned in one single module or session. To help our students develop, we must spiral the mastery of these skills year-on-year, and be explicit about this, explaining when in their programme they will encounter each skill and encouraging them to take ownership of their own development as they go through the course.

Final thoughts

Transferable skills education is gaining traction and slowly becoming more prominent in higher education across the world, but we need to do more. It is difficult to teach and assess these skills, and it is also bold to rest high stakes assessments on skills as well as knowledge. But we need to do this. Hardly any of our graduates will end up being academics, so we need to start preparing them for a much bigger world of work.

Further reading

Prospects (2021/22) ‘What do graduates do? https://luminate.prospects.ac.uk/what-do-science-graduates-do
• Watson, H.R. and Burr, S. (2018) Twelve tips for teaching twelve transferable skills. MedEdPublish, 7, 177. https://doi.org/10.15694/mep.2018.0000177.1
• Mello, L.V., Varga-Atkins, T. and Edwards, S.W. (2021) A structured reflective process supports student awareness of employability skills development in a science placement module. FEBS Open Bio 11, 1524–1536.  https://doi.org/10.1002/2211-5463.13158
Watson, H.R. et al. (2022) ‘Everyone is trying to outcompete each other’: A qualitative study of medical student attitudes to a novel peer-assessed undergraduate teamwork module. FEBS Open Bio. https://doi.org/10.1002/2211-5463.13395


Top image of post: by Javier Allegue Barros  on Unsplash