Evaluating Soft Skills in Students

Soft skills seem to be the buzzword today. How do universities demonstrate that they are developing soft skills that prepare their students for the workplace?

Peregrine lead

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

How can this be? Universities specifically design courses to include team projects, presentations, and problem-solving opportunities. Many of them also try to evaluate students’ mastery of soft skills—but 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 problem similar to one that HR experts have been working on for decades. For more than 30 years, industry has used 360-degree feedback assessments with varying degrees of success. Could academics take this same tool and adjust it to measure the soft skills they are developing through their programs?

The answer is yes. Peregrine Global Services began as a leadership development company in 2004. Having provided 360-degree feedback assessment for leadership over the past ten years, the company began to focus on how to adapt this method to fit the academic world and meet the needs of client universities. Our answer was to create specific, behavior-based rubrics for more than 250 different competencies in character, leadership skills, and general workplace abilities.

EvaluSkills is an online soft skills assessment that can be administered in the final courses of a program. Students gather feedback from faculty, peers, internship supervisors, or part-time employers; this feedback identifies their strengths and what they are bringing into the workplace. By utilizing a structured development action plan, they determine how to demonstrate these skills when they are interviewing. They also understand what type of culture and environment they will be successful in, thus aiding them in their job search. Most important, students can be confident as they interview and begin working in their respective fields, setting themselves up for success.

Because EvaluSkills has more than 250 item choices available, program directors can customize their assessment instruments by selecting the items that best match their learning goals. Schools pursuing AACSB accreditation know that Standard 9 sets goals for curriculum content and general skill areas, which include written and oral communication, ethical understanding and reasoning, interpersonal relations, teamwork, multicultural work environments, and reflective thinking. As deans evaluate a class of graduating students, they can review group and individual results to ensure that their graduates are mastering skills needed in the workplace.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has worked with a task force of human resource staffing professionals and college career service staff to define eight competencies college graduates need for a successful transition into the workplace. EvaluSkills features a NACE competency assessment instrument, with four-part questions that address each of the eight competencies: critical thinking/problem solving, oral/written communications, teamwork/collaboration, digital technology, leadership, professionalism/work ethic, career management, and global/intercultural fluency. Peregrine is partnering with undergraduate and graduate business schools to test the instrument and help programs address any deficiencies to ensure career-ready graduates. By understanding where their students’ perceived strengths and areas for improvement lie, program directors can complement their curricula to develop skills and mitigate any weaknesses.

Universities are testing this in a variety of different scenarios—for instance, some are assessing students at the beginning of a program and then again at the end. This gives administrators a direct measure of how the school has increased the soft skills of the learners. This method is more applicable in MBA and DBA programs where the learners can get assessments from workplace evaluators. In undergraduate programs, it might be more difficult to find adequate evaluators as learners enter the program. In this case, it’s more practical for schools to use the assessment at the end of the program.

Universities are using the EvaluSkills assessment to identify common workplace skills to incorporate into their programs. Graduate students in the U.S. and Europe who take undergo these 360 feedback assessments uncover specific behaviors that impact their ability to manage workplace relationships.

For example, Angieszka, a student in a DBA program in Gdansk, Poland, realized she needed to improve her workplace communications. In her action plan she wrote: “This area is really important to improve. My weakness is that 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 as I am listening—so I am not focused on the speaker. Second, I don't organize one-to-one meetings with team members. This is important to them and an area where I can improve. Third, I need to learn how to solve problems using group thinking, not self-decision-making.” For this one competency, Angieszka has created an action plan that is rich with information about how she will develop herself into a collaborative team member and leader.

But the assessments also can be used at the university level so administrators know how they can enhance students’ soft skills. When students undergo 360-degree assessments, the university receives an aggregate report of the strengths and weaknesses of its students. Let’s assume that the Angieszka’s university discovered that listening was a common weakness of the group. The school could incorporate a small instruction on active listening into existing activities within the program; this would help all learners build those skills. Administrators also could identify students strong at active listening and ask them to teach those skills to the remainder of the class. These and similar options can easily be integrated into most programs without a major change in the focus.

The goal of business schools is to prepare their students to be successful in the workplace. When students understand which soft skills they need to improve, they will be better equipped to be leaders in the business world.