How Higher Education Can Help Students Develop Soft Skills

The term “soft skills” seems to be the buzz word today.

Jim Link, DHRO of Randstad North America, a leading staffing company in Atlanta, recently discussed the need for soft skills in the workplace through a multi-series of publications through the Society of Human Resource Managers (SHRM). Link describes his son’s inability to maneuver the workplace due to his lack of adaptability, persuasion, influence, and negotiation. Link states that college graduates are entering the workforce without adaptability, problem-solving, creativity, influence, drive, empathy, and collaboration.

How can this be? Higher education institutions design courses to include team projects, presentations, and problem-solving opportunities. It seems measuring these soft skills is a piece of the puzzle. However, most assessments are designed to measure competencies in hard skills and knowledge.

If we step back and take a lesson from the human resource world, we find universities are attempting to solve a similar problem that HR experts have been trying to solve for many years. 360-degree feedback assessments have been used in industry for over 30 years with varying degrees of success. Could the academic world take this same tool and adjust it to measure the soft skills they develop through their programs?

The answer is yes.

Peregrine Global Services began as a leadership development company in 2004. With over ten years of experience in providing 360-degree feedback assessments for leadership development, Peregrine set forth to adapt the 360-degree assessment process to address the needs of higher education and help solve the skills gap present in our current workforce. The online assessment, EvaluSkills, is highly flexible as it includes specific, behavior-based rubrics for more than 250 different competencies in character, leadership skills, and general workplace competencies.

As part of the assessment, students gather feedback from faculty, peers, mentors, or employers. Those evaluating the student utilize a 5-point Likert scale rubric that helps the evaluator focus on the behavior instead of the person. This process increases the objectivity of the assessment and reduces bias.

EvaluSkills can be aligned to measure intended student learning outcomes. Program directors can select the assessment items that best match their learning goals. Furthermore, every accreditor sets forth standards for learning outcomes that are relevant to soft skills.

Colleges and universities can use EvaluSkills to achieve a variety of objectives. For example, higher education professionals can test graduate-level students at the beginning and conclusion of a program to understand how students’ soft skills have changed over time. In undergraduate programs, the assessment may be completed at the end of the program providing a tool that students can use to continue to grow and develop as individuals after graduation.

Higher education institutions can also use the results and action plan provided by EvaluSkills to promote student development. For example, Angieszka, a student in a DBA program in Gdansk, Poland, identified the need to improve her workplace communications. In her action plan, she wrote. “This area is really important to improve. I see my weakness as I do not listen with proper attention. It means when someone wants to talk with me in my office, I should focus only on the person I am talking with. Usually, I am writing something on the computer and listen – so I am not focused on the speaker. Secondly, I don’t organize one-to-one meetings with team members. This is important to them and an area I can improve. Third, also an important challenge; Learn how to solve the problems using group thinking, not the self-decision-making.” The action plan created a platform for Angieszka to participate in critical self-reflect and an opportunity to become more self-aware.

The robust group and individual participant reports drive program improvement. If the higher education institution finds that a cohort of students struggles with communication, they could enhance their instruction to foster that skill. For instance, the program could incorporate instruction and activities that teach students effective listening techniques into the existing activities. Faculty could also identify learners strong in the listening skill and ask them, as a group, to teach listening skills to the remainder of the class.

By focusing on soft skills, higher education institutions can fully understand the gaps of their student population and ensure that the students have the skills needed for success in the workplace and life.