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.

Validated: Professional Studies Framework featuring an online cohort of individuals

Last week Harper Adams University College validated ‘The Professional Studies Framework’. The framework will facilitate the negotiation of employer sponsored cohorts of work based learners from levels 4-7 and enable individual’s to study online towards an MSc in Professional Studies.

The framework

Harper Adams is currently engaged with employers through the REEDNet project. The decision to develop a credit framework was made to support developments in employer responsive provision. The framework seeks to offer awards in the range of a Foundation Certificate through to MSc in Professional Studies. The achievement of awards within this range would be formed through different module combinations. This is made possible by broadly designed award outcomes that emphasize learning processes and learning levels, rather than subject content or specific contexts. The framework seeks to offer awards which meet the needs of employers and which support learners to develop and demonstrate knowledge and understanding, skills and also other attributes which are beneficial to an individual’s employing organisation and to the individual’s personal and professional development.  

The framework has been designed for cohorts who either:

  • Already have credit from different sources and who wish to bring that credit together, along with some new Harper Adams credit, to form a named Harper Adams award.
  • Seek an award through unique combinations of modules. 
  • Have existing training already occurring in-house which may be recognised through flexible modules from The framework’s own suite of modules.

 How does it work?

The framework is underpinned by four key mechanisms:

1. Modules (reusable curriculum).

A number of modules have been formed which can be contextualised in a range of workplace settings. Modules can be seen as wrappers or shells. Titles include Analysing the work setting, Leadership and organisational improvement, Advancing professional skills, Learning through work, Action research and professional development. The modules can be used and adapted to fit with the needs of different employers. 

Wrapper modules accredit existing training whilst extending the learning from that training through a range of processes that include systematic reflection, connecting the development of competencies in practice to bodies of literature and to analysing the impact of knew knowledge.  A number of wrapper modules were successfully validated in March 2010 at Harper Adams. 

Shell modules are modules that require application in a specific context; they may be contextualised by either individual learners or by employer cohorts so as to address particularly relevant themes. Typically, although not exclusively, shell modules are inquiry-based. 

2. Parameters

A number of parameters have been set for the operation of the framework. All credit must be work related and the volume of credit brought from other sources must comply with existing regulations.

3. Processes 

The framework is underpinned by a number of processes to provide scrutiny of new modules combinations and devise definitive documentation. Harper Adams (specifically through Aspire and REEDNet) has an established employer engagement validation committee that meets almost monthly. The experience of this group, coupled with the regularity of meetings makes it well placed to provide scrutiny (e.g. ensuring modules are combined appropriately). 

The framework is also underpinned by the processes of working with employers; REEDNet has a team comprising of developers, business development managers and academics who together with departmental staff can act as translators – turning the framework in to a tangible employer engagement arrangement, with all that entails.

4. Conventions (naming awards). 

The framework contains mechanisms to add award suffixes so as to enable context and/or content reflective of the modules undertaken to achieve the award.  

The framework offers the opportunity for truly responsive provision, whether this through bespoke combinations, or through the application of shell or wrapper modules. Undoubtedly the success for the framework will depend upon the skill of the team who need operationalise it. 

The cohort of individuals  

 The Framework is firmly aimed at facilitating employer engagement for groups of learners. However there are learners located in rural sector organisations, which do not engage with higher education directly, for a whole host of reasons (size being a significant reason).  To open up work-based learning to such individuals, an individual route through the framework at level 7 was simultaneously validated.    

For individual entrants the modules will be presented as a set sequence and credit size to enable efficiency and intra-group support to be offered. This is not the negotiation of individual routes through The Framework but rather is a cohort of individuals from differing professional backgrounds learning through a common curriculum, and benefiting from the cross-fertilization of learning from their respective inquiries.  

msc diagram
Modules serving the cohort of individuals 

The MSc will be rolled out over a staged period of development. The resourcing for the creation of the online modules and the subsequent facilitation has been compiled with a capacity building goal; that is to draw in a range of staff to encourage engagement with online learning. 

The individual route through the framework is intended to feedback into the framework infrastructure since the creation of online resources, spaces and the expansion of learning about providing online support will enhance the support available for employer engagement.    

The dual validation


Validation is seen as the first step to bring a truly flexible but robust award system to reality.   

Thank you to all external colleagues for providing support to this project at its various stages of development.