Is there a need to boost the generic skills of undergraduate students?

Is there a need to boost the generic skills of undergraduate students?

‘Climate change is not caused by humans, and it does not pose any threat to humans or the environment.’

Although there is widespread agreement among scientists that global climate change is real, and is caused by human activity, we often see and hear assertions of this kind. How can we differentiate between what is true and what is not, in an age when we are surrounded by real-time news and “fake news” distributed by traditional and new media?

This is where generic skills come into play. The list of generic skills is long, ranging from interaction skills to intercultural skills, and from leadership skills to emotional skills (Barrie, 2012; Tuononen et al., 2019; Virtanen & Tynjälä, 2018). In higher education, generic skills typically refer to higher-order cognitive skills such as critical thinking, and the ability to solve complex problems (Halpern, 2014). However, generic skills are important in all domains of life. Together with subject knowledge, generic skills help people to navigate daily life (Arum & Roksa, 2011; Hyytinen et al., 2019). They are also a means for continuous learning, and ultimately, for becoming informed global citizens.

Educational choices and growth environments matter

Photographer: University of Jyväskylä’

Our study on generic skills among Finnish undergraduate students (Ursin, Hyytinen & Silvennoinen, 2021) found that students showed substantial variation in the mastery of generic skills. Some undergraduate students displayed high levels of generic skills, and others had only a limited command of them. The differences seemed to be explained by factors in the students’ educational and socioeconomic background: undergraduate students with general upper secondary education, and whose childhood environment had encouraged reading, seemed to have the highest command of generic skills. Conversely, students with a vocational upper secondary qualification and whose early environment had supported less reading tended to have weaker generic skills. The findings highlight the benefits of a growth environment which foregrounds a culture of learning and reading.

To reach every citizen, generic skills should be taught from a very early age, and in various learning environments, but the improvement of generic skills should continue into undergraduate studies and beyond.

Enhancing generic skills in higher education

Photographer: University of Jyväskylä’

The life that one has lived does matter. Yet much can be done during higher education to enhance generic skills (e.g., Heijtjes et al., 2014; Hyytinen et al., 2019; Virtanen & Tynjälä, 2018). They do not differ from any other skills: generic skills can be learned if they are actively practiced, comprehensively built into undergraduate programmes, and vigorously supported in teaching and learning.

It is important to bear in mind that there is no easy, one-size-fits-all solution or detailed step-by-step guidelines on how to improve generic skills in undergraduate studies. Conversely, the entire teaching-learning environment needs to be rethought and redesigned so that it better contributes to the development of generic skills. The learning of generic skills requires support, continuous feedback to students, and a combination of theory and practice in multiple course contexts (Virtanen & Tynjälä, 2018). Learning occurs when the teaching of generic skills is explicitly embedded in several courses throughout the curriculum, along with feedback to students on how to improve and build their skills. Otherwise, the topic runs the risk of remaining incidental or isolated (e.g. Hyytinen at al., 2019; Jääskelä, Nykänen & Tynjälä, 2018).

Unfortunately, higher education teachers are not necessarily well prepared to teach and assess generic skills or not in a way that best supports the development of the skills (Barrie, 2012; Mah & Ifenthaler, 2017). Teachers need a clear understanding of what generic skills are and why they are essential. In order to develop generic skills in their students, teachers need support in gaining pedagogical competencies that will enable them to integrate the elements of generic skills in their teaching and assessment practices (Hyytinen et al., 2019; Jenert, 2014).

Implementation of generic skills in higher education is a joint effort

Successful implementation of generic skills in study programmes requires an active interplay between leaders, teachers, and students in higher education:

  • Leaders of higher education institutions must recognize the importance of generic skills in study programmes and provide support for teachers and students.
  • Teachers in higher education institutions must see generic skills as equally important as the subject they teach; hence, they must be willing to include generic skills in their teaching and assessment (Hyytinen et al., 2019; Virtanen & Tynjälä, 2018).
  • Students need to take responsibility for their own learning; hence, they must be willing to invest time and effort in the development of generic skills (Arum & Roksa, 2011; Evens et al., 2013).
Featured Image: Photographer: University of Jyväskylä’

Other blog posts on similar topics:

References and Further Reading

Arum, R., & Roksa, J. 2011. Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Barrie, S. C. (2012) A research-based approach to generic graduate attributes policy, Higher Education Research & Development, 31:1, 79-92, doi:10.1080/07294360.2012.

Evens, M., Verburgh, A. & Elen, J. 2013. Critical thinking in college freshmen: The impact of secondary and higher education. International Journal of Higher Education 2(3), 139-151.

Halpern, D. F. 2014. Thought and knowledge: An introduction to critical thinking. New York, London: Psychology Press.

Heijtjes, A., van Gog, T., Leppink, J. & F., Paas, F. 2014. Improving critical thinking: Effects of dispositions and instructions on economics students’ reasoning skills. Learning and Instruction 29, 31-42.

Hyytinen, H., Toom, A., & Shavelson, R. J. (2019). Enhancing scientific thinking through the development of critical thinking in higher education. In M. Murtonen, & K. Balloo (Eds.), Redefining Scientific Thinking for Higher Education: Higher-Order Thinking, Evidence-Based Reasoning and Research Skills (pp. 59-78). Palgrave Macmillan.

Jenert, T. (2014). Implementing-oriented study programmes at university: The challenge of academic culture. Zeitschrift für Hochschulentwicklung, 9(2), 1–12. Retrieved from

Jääskelä, P., Nykänen, S. & Tynjälä, P. 2018. Models for the development of generic skills in Finnish higher education. Journal of Further and Higher Education 42(1), 130-142.

Mah, D-K. & Ifenthaler, D. (2017). Academic staff perspectives on first-year students’ academic competencies. Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education, 9 (4), 630-640. doi: 10.1108/JARHE-03-2017-0023.

Tuononen, T., Parpala, A. & Lindblom-Ylänne, S. (2019). Graduates’ evaluations of usefulness of university education, and early career success – a longitudinal study of the transition to working life. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 44(4), 581-595.

Ursin, J., Hyytinen, H. & Silvennoinen, K (eds.). 2021. Assessment of undergraduate students’ generic skills in Finland: Findings of the Kappas! project. Publications of the Ministry of Education and Culture, Finland 2021:31.

Virtanen, A. & Tynjälä, P. 2018. Factors explaining the learning of generic skills: a study of university students’ experiences. Teaching in Higher Education, 24 (7), 880–894.


Dr Jani Ursin

Dr Jani Ursin

Senior Researcher at the Finnish Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä, Finland

Dr Jani Ursin is a senior researcher at the Finnish Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä, Finland. His research has focused on academic work, the assessment of higher education learning outcomes, mergers of higher education institutions, and quality assurance in higher education. He is a former Link Convenor of EERA Network 22 (Research in Higher Education), after which he represented all the networks on the EERA Council. His profile is at:

Dr Heidi Hyytinen

Dr Heidi Hyytinen

Senior Lecturer in University Pedagogy at the Centre for University Teaching and Learning, University of Helsinki, Finland

Dr Heidi Hyytinen is a senior lecturer in university pedagogy at the Centre for University Teaching and Learning, University of Helsinki, Finland. Her research interests include performance-based assessment, generic skills, critical thinking, self-regulation, and pedagogy in higher education. Her profile is at:

Making Connections in Higher Education

Making Connections in Higher Education

Relational Pedagogies

What does it mean to teach and learn in higher education today? And more importantly, what should, and could, it mean? These are fundamental questions that speak to the values that underpin our practice, and that shape the cultures we foster and work within and the experiences our students have as they transition into and through university. In recent work, we have suggested that despite the dominant discourses that focus on student satisfaction, that depict higher education as a product, and construct students as consumers, meaningful interpersonal relationships remain of paramount importance to both students and staff. Meaningful connections enable learning, and situating connections as fundamental to higher education can offer openings to reorientate the way we experience our work as educators.

This is a theme we have explored in our recent work. For example, using a creative story-completion method, we examined how relationships impact upon students’ experiences of higher education and surfaced the importance of relational pedagogies, where meaningful relationships are positioned as critical to effective learning and teaching. In this article, we drew upon data from a longitudinal study, in which students were invited to complete stories that enabled them to surface experiences and discourses surrounding relationships at university. Our data suggest that meaningful connections are crucial to accessing support. Most notable within the data were a number of key themes that recurred within the students’ stories and interviews.

Firstly, students reported that they desired the individuality of their experiences to be recognised. This resonates with other recent work examining how students experience belonging in higher education and highlighting the situated, granularity, and diversity of students’ experiences. Such work indicates a need to move away from understanding students’ experiences as universal and uniform. Second, our article surfaced the importance of achieving connections with others, and the experience of alienation when interactions are not genuine, or when communication breaks down. For students, feeling that they are understood and that they matter can be a fundamental part of their learning experience. In a broader sense, we can understand learning as situated within a wider web of relations, in which students do not exist independently and in isolation, but intra-act (Barad 2007). This leads us to ask new questions about how we want to engage with both our students, with one another, and encourages us to look again at the broader networks in which learning occurs.

From Metrics to Mattering

However, relational pedagogies, and the need for students to experience a sense of mattering, are situated against a backdrop of tensions within higher education learning environments that mean that such relationships cannot always develop. The higher education landscape has shifted dramatically towards a predominant focus on accountability and student satisfaction. At the same time, a wider era of global economic and health uncertainty means that students and staff often work and learn in contexts that are challenging for engagement. Within the neoliberal university, the student is positioned as a self-governing agent, as a consumer. Staff are under increasing pressures and experiencing high levels of workload and burnout. Our findings suggest that a greater understanding of the need to interact care-fully with our students is essential. In particular, we suggest that students need to be understood as more than customers, with diverse experiences, and that adopting such an understanding may enable more generative pedagogic relationships to develop. However, we also advocate the need to prioritise relational pedagogies, to find spaces for new conversations around relational learning to take place, and, crucially, for staff to be recognised and supported in their work developing learning.

Future Directions

There is further work to be done to understand more about what meaningful connections for students look like. This is an evolving area, generating key questions such as how we might foster connections when learning and teaching, as well as what broader sociomaterial actors might be involved in learning interactions, and how might we trace these practices and relations. Future work on relational pedagogies, connections, and mattering, to be published in 2022, will examine further the role of the relational within higher education and will argue that such a perspective offers an enriched understanding of higher education pedagogies that can be potentially transformative in creating the higher education pedagogies and practices we might want to be a part of. For now, we suggest that asking who and what matters within higher education, as well as acknowledging the importance of the relational, may be the first steps in moving towards creating opportunities for supporting staff to prioritise their connections with students. This might be in terms of increasing time for student-staff interactions, prioritising the value of teaching within institutions (and providing further resourcing), attending to the diverse day-to-day practices of learning interactions, or even just creating spaces for conversations regarding relational pedagogies to take place.

References and Further Reading

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press. 

Gravett, K. and Winstone, N. E. (2020). Making Connections: Authenticity and Alienation Within Students’ Relationships in Higher Education. Higher Education Research and Development.

Gravett, K., Kinchin, I. M. and Winstone, N. E. (2020) ‘More than Customers’: Conceptions of Students as Partners Held by Students, Staff, and Institutional Leaders. Studies in Higher Education, 45 (12), 2574-2587. 

Gravett, K. and Ajjawi, R. (2021) Belonging as Situated Practice. Studies in Higher Education.

Gravett, K. (due 2022) Connections and Mattering in Higher Education: Reimagining Relational Pedagogy, Practice and Research.  London: Bloomsbury.


Dr Karen Gravett

Dr Karen Gravett

Lecturer in Higher Education

Dr Karen Gravett is a Lecturer in Higher Education at the Surrey Institute of Education, at the University of Surrey, UK. Her research focuses on staff and students’ experiences of learning and teaching in higher education. In particular, she explores the role of connections in learning, and the impact of discourses and narratives in higher education. Her work also considers how theoretically informed approaches (posthumanism; poststructuralism; sociomaterial studies) can help us to understand how we learn. Karen is co-convenor of the SRHE Learning, Teaching and Assessment network, a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, Associate Editor of the Higher Education Research and Development journal, and a member of the editorial board for Teaching in Higher Education.
Dr Naomi Winstone

Dr Naomi Winstone

Reader in Higher Education, Director of the Surrey Institute of Education

Dr Naomi Winstone is a Reader in Higher Education and Director of the Surrey Institute of Education at the University of Surrey, UK. Her research focuses on the processing and impact of instructional feedback and the influence of dominant discourses of assessment and feedback in policy and practice on the positioning of educators and students in feedback processes. She is also an Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning (CRADLE) at Deakin University, Australia. Naomi is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a UK National Teaching Fellow.