Undergraduate Vivas

Access the guide by clicking the image above

Over the last six months I have been looking in to the Undergraduate Viva. Asking questions such as what are the benefits? What makes a good undergraduate viva? and, How can students be prepared for their undergraduate viva? One of the results of this  is a guidance document  on how to conduct a viva of this type. It may be of interest to others.

The process of defining graduate attributes

I am aware others are grappling with how to define graduate attributes, so I thought it helpful to share the approach that we took. As part of a whole university curriculum review, and a strategy review, we set about trying to identify what it was that the curriculum should achieve. Essentially we asked, what was our goal?  Unless we know this any curriculum initiatives would be tinkering. So we asked a very fundamental question, what should a Harper graduate be? This goes beyond simply asking what they should be able to do, and incorporates a sense of self that is needed to deal with a fast changing external environment and this is needed to be resilient for the future. This idea is underpinned by Ron Barnett’s work on working in super complexity. It’s a huge question but one that we answered, I think, in a creative way.

Resources from the ‘build a graduate’ workshop

We gathered as many staff as were able to attend to join a room with huge pieces of card printed with a giant graduate. In course teams staff were then asked to build a graduate in their discipline. Using the card as a focus for thinking, prioritising, debate and discussion each team built their own graduate. Of course this informed course level thinking before more detailed discussions got underway about course content. Using post it notes to stick on to the graduate allowed rearrangement, re-prioritisation and change as the group discussions evolved. The views in the room were not formed in isolation since colleagues were involved in both student and industry engagement.


After each team had spent several hours identifying what they graduate would look like in a perfect world, we collated all of the words used by all of the teams. These were then collated and put in to a word cloud creator. The commonality in the lists showed itself as the larger words were repeated across different course areas. After some sorting and filtering it became clear that we did have a collective and common vision of what the graduates of the future should be. This exercise became the foundation of the new graduate attributes. The build a graduate exercise was also undertaken by course teams with students and industry contacts. The word cloud produced is shown below.

The word cloud gave students and staff a visual connection to the exercise that we had taken, and a constant reminder that the definition of ‘our’ graduateness was a collective exercise.

A first workshop output on defining graduateness


The final version of the graduate attributes 


The headline attributes helped to ground the Learning and Teaching Strategy; they provided clear direction as to what our activity should be pointing to. It provided one of the key cascading ideas for strategy and operational policy.


For the curriculum aspects, once we have the broad terms for what a graduate should be, we interpreted each attribute, skill area of understanding for each level of study. This involves some word-smithery and some external scoping to see how others level their outcomes, but it also required an eye on the future.  We ended up with was a breakdown of each of the graduate attributes, and a description of what should be achieved each level in this area. A snapshot of the attributes are offered below.


It’s one thing articulating the graduate attributes and specifying them for each level, it is quite another to deploy them as the beating heart of the real curriculum. The first thing that we did was ask course teams to develop programmes that addressed each area at the correct level. Course level engagement forced deeper conversations about ‘what does digital literacy mean in our context?’ ‘where are the opportunities for global perspectives?’ and this sparked the attributes into life. Each programme then mapped where the attributes were met, but this one way mapping was deemed insufficient, as once it is complete it can, in reality, be committed to a top drawer and dismissed as a paper exercise. So we went a step further and requested that modules were individually mapped against the graduate outcomes. This makes it much clearer to students and staff, what skills the module should address. Through validation and scrutiny each module was checked to ensure it really was enabling the development of these attributes, through its content, pedagogy, assessment or independent activities. The next step is to get student to actually consider their progress against the graduate outcomes in a meaningful, rather than tick-boxy way. I’m sure others have taken different approaches to developing graduate attributes, but this sought to be pragmatic and inclusive.

Course design think sheet

In considering how to support curriculum design for new programmes I have developed a question framework for course design teams to use to help them to deliberate and discuss the shape of new programmes. It tries to encourage a balance of looking back at what has worked before, and looking forward at how designs could be improved. It encourages discussion in the context of the discipline, but focuses on the underpinning structure of the design rather than specific content.

Download the course design think sheet

Conditions for employer engagement

Reflecting upon what makes a university operationally ready to engage with employers in collaborative provision, I have pulled together a list of “good conditions for employer engagement“. Its purpose is simply to provide prompts  for discussion about how institutions can prepare to engage with employers to meet the development needs of the workforce.  This list assumes that there is already a strategic level commitment in place and it is of course not exhaustive.

Professional Doctorates …

I’ve been looking at professional doctorates and asking
•    What are they?
•    What are the pros and cons?

Some thoughts then …

The professional doctorate is characterised by the requirement for the holder to demonstrate an original contribution to knowledge, this is the same for all doctorates (Huisman & Naidoo, 2006). It is distinctive by: an emphasis on practice (Dyson, 2009); the prevalence of taught components (Dyson, 2009); and, a diverse, mature and professional experienced student body. Professional doctorates embrace the mode of learning concomitant with the knowledge economy, focusing on knowledge generated from application, known as Mode 2 knowledge (Stew, 2009). Wellington and Sikes (2006) suggest the characteristic impact is on the affective and cognitive attributes of the student.

Prof docs appear to be more prevalent in the US and Australia, though they originated from 1920s America. When looking at which professions engage most with the Prof doc Education and Engineering stand out, and increasingly nursing.

The pattern is difficult to unpack with certainty as each industry or context will have its own motivations for providing or buying into prof docs. However in some way the growth of the prof doc does reflect the trend for recognition of knowledge created outside of the universities and therefore the changing role of HE.

Also, Servage (2009) suggests that expansion of the prof doc may be in part an extension of, the process of massification, and therefore a result of upward inflationary pressure on qualifications. Prof docs may also have beenin part expanded with help from the growth of international online programmes, targeting the work-based learner. Technology has played its part.

Some advantages of the professional doctorate come from its obvious relevance to practice and its breadth of focus as well as the often social dimensions to learning in a cohort; traditional PhDs have been accused of being overly focused, detached from the needs of industry and lonely. The professional doctorate may act as a stimulus for professional growth or ‘professional renewal’ (see, Wellington and Sikes, 2006).
Notably, Usher (2002, cited in Huisman and Naidoo, 2006) recognises that the professional route matches the requirements of today’s knowledge workers. Though in developing or considering prof docs it may be reasonable to question whether the prof doc takes some industries beyond where they want to be: does it ‘academicise’ and distract?, or are development of critical thinking skills and anlaytical approaches always for the good? At the lower levels of HE 4-7, these same tensions exist.

Huisman and Naidoo (2006) highlight that intended advantages may not always be realised. For example they cite research by Nueman (2005) wherein links with industry professionals were in reality rather limited.

Of course, some controversy exists around the parity of standards when the professional doctorate is compared to the ‘gold standard’ PhD (Dyson, 2009), but that is to be expected in reality.

Finally for the student, whilst personal gains are potentially high the intensity of the learning experience can have high costs – as the students, mid-life professionals often have competing demands upon their time through children, parents, financial issues and, of course, demanding professional jobs (see, Wellington ad Sikes, 2006). Of course this is the case for most forms of work based learning.

One thing that my reading has not cleared up is what constitutes a ‘professional’ for a professional doctorate: is this the attributes of the individual and how they interface with their practice (i.e. they are the professional) or is it a standard, or set of criteria for the role or context that an individual is working in (i.e. the role is a professional one), or perhaps more likely a combination.

Dyson, S. (2009). Professional doctorates – to do or not to do: That is the question. International Conference on Professional Doctorates, University of Middlesex, UK Council for Graduate Education. Retrieved May 11, 2011 from http://www.ukcge.ac.uk/OneStopCMS/Core/CrawlerResourceServer.aspx?resource=8CB173B4-C77B-42B3-A9F8-E949B5F0B557&mode=link&guid=675787ab7e6c4c89836817b8ff6c9e29

Huisman, J., & Naidoo, R. (2006). The professional doctorate: From Anglo-Saxon to European challenges. Higher Education Management and Policy, 18(2), 51–63. Retrieved May 12, 2011 from http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/53/18/42348780.pdf#page=53

Servage, L (2009) Alternative and professional doctoral programmes: what is driving the demand? Studies in Higher Education 34 (7), 765-779.

Stephenson, J., Malloch, M., Cairns, L. and Costley, C. (2004) Towards a third generation of professional doctorates managed by the learners themselves? Retrieved 12 May, 2011 from http://www.johnstephenson.net/jsdeakin.pdf

Stew, G. (2009). What is a doctorate for? International Conference on Professional Doctorates, University of Middlesex, UK Council for Graduate Education. Retrieved May 12, 2011 from http://www.ukcge.ac.uk/Resources/UKCGE/Documents/ICPD%20FP%20Graham%20stew.pdf

Wellington, J. and Sikes, P. (2006) A doctorate in a tight compartment’: why do students choose a professional doctorate and what impact does it have on their personal and professional lives? Studies in Higher Education 31(6), 723-734.

Professional development on professional development

I usefully spent today at Liverpool John Moores University in a workshop run by Janet Strivens and Rob Ward from the Centre for Recording Achievement, around PDP and eportfolios.

Key points from the session:

PDP is a culture that can be embedded and not an output

The use of constructive alignment can be stifling and at odds with the irregularity and risk taking nature of PD

There is a degree of confusion in practice about PD as output and PD as process.

PD incorporates meta learning, decision making and critical self review. It is an intense activity and should not be reduced only to blocks but should be valued and embedded.

PD helps learners assume responsibility for learning; the knock on effect is that staff are freed to teach and enable and not to micromanage. (there is then a potential efficiency).

PD and e-portfolios are complementary (enhanced reflection, asynchronisity) but can also be the source of tension when the technology is the design driver.

Good PD is intensive to establish.it demands upfront design.

Whilst staff and students may resist and in some cases resent PD, once normalised in to systems staff and students can see huge value in developing mutual understanding of learning styles, skills in managing uncertain knowledge and information, skills for the changing world and personal realisations.

Confusion between employment skills and employability skills may be evident in some systems.

PD in a competitive HE Market is hugely important for adding value to an individual; the evidence base is growing to help articulate this case (see CRA).

The language of PD can be interpreted to focus on practice, practise, application, planning and reviewing. It need nit be abstract.

Students showcasing their attributes through portfolios and cvs etc. is only a tiny part of the PD journey, the real value for the student is in the journey of self understanding that ultimately informs such outputs.

Questions remain around what to assess: quality of evidence, ‘academic-ness’ of reflection or individual progress.

Excellent examples of embedded PD are brave and bold!

For more information http://www.recordingachievement.org/

Patchwork discussions

Really interesting to catch up with Kevin Brace earlier in the week. Kevin, based at Aston, and I met up to explore ideas about patchwork text (or, more accurately patchwork media) on the back of some ALT mail list exchanges.

Thoughts arising and articulated through our discussions ….

·      Patchwork media is about process and not just product (a focus on the produce dis-aggregates the learning).

·      Patchwork approaches are inseparable from the belief that learning is a journey constructed and are inseparable from social processes and dialogue.

·      Curriculum design and assessment design are inseparably interwoven for maximum impact.

·      Grading reflective portfolios is a messy business but can be made more simple by focusing on the meta-level attributes.

·      Buy-in to patchwork needs to be [sometimes, heavily] facilitated and does not just happen.

·      Templates for patchwork can be practical and solve a whole range of potential issues around logistics, hand-ins, learner scaffolding and perceived parity; however templating approaches may be as stifling as they are enabling.

·      Do not get consumed by the media! Encourage patch creators to think critically about their media choices and critically review choices in the light of experience. (How does this stack up with some marking ruberics?)

·      Attempting to create or re-create patchwork approaches from other study programmes may be extremely difficult as the nature of patchwork is that it is very much shaped by the subtleties of implementation (e.g. strategies for peer review, the place of technology, the immersiveness of facilitators, the use of structured vs. open patches). Perhaps better is to create a context relevant and practically achievable version of the approach.

·      Despite very many worthy efforts the use of rather cumbersome e-portfolio tools can perhaps, sometimes, act as a barrier to plain old discussion and sharing – simplicity in tools may be under-rated.

patchwork elephant