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.


Yesterday – November 26th 2008 – it was a joy to finally get to meet the researchers who I have facilitated for three years, but never actually met, but most of who I felt I knew. It was a very strange feeling being in a room of ‘friends’ and not knowing which one was which, some of course I recognised from their pictures, or even from pictures of their families which have been shared along the way. Every award was deserved and in chatting to people through the day it seems the hardest challenges were  balancing the work, family and study. Seeing the researchers graduate makes the last three years of my working life feel absolutely purposeful and totally rewarding. And I hope colleagues past, who built the ‘machine’ of UV,  will feel the same. It was also wonderful to put a lid on my own studies alongside the people who have largely been at the heart of my own research.

AISHE (belated)

Shirley reminded me that I never blogged the AISHE trip. Some belated thoughts then … 

AISHE was an excellent two day conference bringing together excellent practice from higher education around the world. The variety was rich, presentations included mentoring/peer support, inquiry based learning, problem based learning and internationalisation. All of these themes were relevant to HE practitioners, the blend worked well and brought together a wide range of HE and associated practitioners. 

The session I found particularly useful was by Gillian Sheil who looked at reflection and learning led approaches to work-based learning. There appeared to be many parallels between the experiences of courses at Northumbria and Anglia Ruskin. She outlined challenges in meeting the individual learning needs of eclectic individuals following highly personalised pathways. One such problem outlined in the presentation was the presence of an initial mutual trepidation emerging from the mixed professional make up of the learning group  – for example when hospital managers come together to learn on an even footing with care assistants both players experience learning anxiety. This reminded me of when I was a researcher with Intercollege in about 2001, in Anglia’s Health Business School, we tried and tried to launch a community for cross professional learning but levels of cross-professional cooperation in learning were very low. So it’s heartening to hear the work of programmes such as this researching the erosion of such barriers. 

The session that Shirley and I did went very well and as someone fairly new to presenting it was great to have some really  nice feedback .

Three things I personally learnt/derived from the experience were: 

1. Slides with pictures are easier to manage than ones which are word heavy – they allow you freedom and flow (I think Shirley got this tip from Steve Jobs :-). For me they are less restricting and easier to manage, when reading slides it distracts from the message, a picture can simply trigger the message. 

2. Never plan an opening line, if you do and it goes wrong (with a memory like mine it’s inevitable) then you are instantly feeling negative. (Shiley and I disagree here I think).

3. It is useful to encourage interjections from the audience whenever they feel the need, this allows those questions that are important to be asked, they often slip by if left until the end when the coffee cups are a clanging in the foyer! It also allows the presenter to gauge their pitch, to complex, too boring, to simple. 

Conference at The Centre for Learning and Teaching Research, Edge Hill University

On Thursday Kevin Thompson and I went to Edge Hill University in Ormskirk to present the research paper Learning to learn through real world inquiry in the virtual paradigm (extended abstract here ). 

A number of emerging themes from our presentation (emerging from dialogue with national and international peers)

* Action research is a sought after approach to undergraduate learning but there is general apprehension about implementing this vehicular approach to learning, it needs to be explored and explained in an accessible way so that it can inform practice more widely. 
* Practitioners in HE are seeking ways to enable learners to negotiate problems – the action research approach to learning was welcomed as an authentic and scalable approach.
* Learning support is rarely called upon in the facilitated personalised learning approach because learners negotiate and control their learning – they do not have to navigate barriers but have control. 
* Distributed academic teams are rare, if not unheard of. The delivery team for the online degree is still an enigma. 
* Patchwork media is widely welcomed as a successor of patchwork media but the risk and challenge to barriers and systems in permitting media patchworks is perceived as evident. 
* The concepts packed in to the BA Learning Technology Research were welcomed as influential. But they need to unpacked to promote the potential benefits, replicability and appreciation, adaption and adoption. 

I was stunned at the reception that the work received. The online action research personalised work based degree has become normalised at Anglia Ruskin, in this was it is easy to forget the ground that is broken with this, to take for granted the unusual practices associated with this approach.