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Soft Skills in the Classroom

3 August, 2023

Dr Bernardo Pereira Nunes

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Three Innovative Authentic Assessments to Encourage Soft Skill Mastery in Hard Skill-Intensive Courses

In education, grades serve as indicators of performance, enabling students to reflect on their learning journey and strategically develop skills that will be relevant to their future careers. Grades represent tangible abilities, demonstrating individual performance potential and showcasing mastery of hard skills such as technical, scientific and computer literacy. However, they often fail to represent social and emotional skills, which are important for making responsible decisions, establishing positive relationships with others, and achieving greater goals. These skills, commonly called soft skills, encompass communication, teamwork, leadership, emotional intelligence and relationship-building.

Although grades can represent an individual’s mastery, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” John Donne’s words serve as a reminder that soft skills are essential for navigating beyond the confines of one’s isolated achievements. Many teachers lament when students solely prioritise grades over genuine learning, but how can you help students understand the importance of soft skills if soft skills do not contribute to a better grade?

A study by Deloitte Access Economics found that by 2030, compared to half of all jobs in 2000, two-thirds of all jobs will require occupations that heavily rely on soft skills. They also show a concerning statistic that less than one percent of Australians report having any soft skills on their LinkedIn profiles, suggesting that individuals may feel uncomfortable claiming skills without formal credentials or that they underestimate the importance of such skills. Other studies (Dolev, Naamati-Schneider, Meirovich, 2021Guest, 2017) show that individuals trained in soft skills demonstrate increased productivity, innovation, and reduced anxiety levels.

With the rise of Generative AI shaking up the educational system, the academic landscape is expected to change, and the significance of soft skills may be as valued as traditional hard skills. We have witnessed AI tools achieving exceptional performance in passing bar exams and even medical school exams, but are they equipped with socio-emotional skills? The simple answer is no, and, as a consequence, the importance of hard skills may diminish while the need for soft skills increases.

But how can you effectively teach your students soft skills, especially in those courses that have traditionally focused on developing hard skills?

There is no single answer, but authentic assessments, successfully employed in my own classroom, show promise for opening communication channels with students. These assessments demonstrate to students the importance of both developing and providing opportunities for contextualised training in soft skills.

My experience teaching Computer Science is that most courses focus on hard-intensive skills. Our students take pride in showcasing their hard skills, especially when they list the programming languages and frameworks they know. On the other hand, I often hear from non-computer science colleagues about their difficulty in interacting and collaborating with computer science professionals. While we may be fluent in many “languages”, our difficulty to communicate effectively undermines our field. We need to develop not only our hard skills but also our ability to effectively communicate our knowledge to others. After several years of developing assessments aimed at helping students understand the importance of soft skills while applying their hard skills, I found the following three assessments yielded excellent results.

In my courses, I still use the traditional grading system to help my students improve, but, in addition to grades, I distribute “certificates/badges” that complement their grades, and recognise students’ presentation, collaboration, teamwork and communication skills. My hope is these certificates will not only grant my students greater confidence in their soft skills, but also that they will list these soft skills on their CVs and LinkedIn profiles. I have also observed that emphasizing the importance of soft skills engages those with diverse backgrounds, opening a door for their contributions, and ultimately enables them to perform well in both soft and hard skills as their confidence increases.

These assessments and certificates emphasise to the students the importance of soft skills, showcase how grades can reflect both hard and soft skills, create a more inclusive environment rewarding individuals in their entirety, and ultimately demonstrate that AI has a long way to go before it can replace us.

Grades will still exist and are important for assessing an individual’s performance. However, they do not indicate how well someone will perform in a real-world setting. To address this limitation, awarding badges or certificates that underscore the importance of soft skills can gradually help individuals understand that high grades are enhanced when accompanied by other skills.

As the previously-cited reports suggest, there is a growing need for soft skills, and aiding students to learn and practice these skills in the classroom will contribute to their success in future careers in the real world.

Bernardo Pereira Nunes Is a Senior lecturer in computer science in the ANU College of Engineering, Computing and Cybernetics.

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