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Published: 19 April 2016

Enhancing employability through group work

M Josie Lategan

Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Science
Faculty of Science and Engineering
Building F7B
Macquarie University
Macquarie Park
NSW 2091, Australia
Tel: +61 2 9850 9684
Email: maria.lategan@mq.edu.au

Graduates are expected to demonstrate a wide set of soft skills in order to compete successfully in the current job market. Evidence of effective skills in teamwork, organisation, time management and interpersonal relationships are ultimately very important in determining levels of success as they show how one leads, relates and works along with other people. Experiencing leadership roles in the microbiology laboratory classes encouraged the development of soft skills and provided examples to support job applications.

Employers often seek to hire staff that will work well in a team and be able to communicate effectively with colleagues and customers. It is important therefore to create opportunities to develop strong and effective interpersonal skills alongside scientific skills. For example, ‘I completed all my assignments on time’. Would this statement serve as evidence of effective organisation and time management skills? Or would ‘I worked in a group’ infer that teamwork had been effective and active listening, decision-making, emotional intelligence, social awareness, leadership – the varied components that make up interpersonal skills – had been developed? Guides on addressing selection criteria in job applications1,2 would suggest otherwise.

Herein is a case study where principles of Process Orientated Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL)3,4, implemented in the microbiology laboratory learning environment encouraged the development of soft skills. Students groups (3/group chosen at random) were empowered to work in a self-directed, cooperative exploration, instilling a sense of ownership, accountability and responsibility for the work that enhanced critical thinking and problem-solving skills5. The core element that leads to development of soft skills however was in the allocation of main and auxiliary roles6,7 (Table 1) to the group. The roles, managed by the group are rotated weekly over a 5-week period, providing each student the opportunity to experience all leadership roles (with one role at least twice) over the lifetime of the project. The roles enforce active and effective interactions between the team members leading to substantial gain in social skills3,8 likely to maximise employability.

Table 1. Components of Main and Auxiliary roles designed to encourage development of soft skills.
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A fast-paced learning environment is implemented to keep the groups focused and tutors meet immediately after each laboratory session to discuss and moderate all aspects of group/student performance including whether aspects of interpersonal skills (for example decision-making, organisation, differences of opinion, etc.) influenced the delivery of expected project outcomes for the session. Feedback was constructed to identify both strong and weak points of each group, including its individual members and to recommend areas for improvement. See an excerpt of feedback relevant to developing soft skills:

The Manager must revise his facilitation skills as tutors observed that the Recorder for the group was left out of the group’s discussion. Recorder, the onus is also on you to signal that your opinion should be considered. You had some very good ideas but these were lost to the other members of the group.

The group-specific feedback therefore provided each member with the opportunity to identify and target personal soft skill areas requiring further development. For example, a group achieving only part of the expected weekly outcome could reflect a Manager, which might have delegated an inappropriate time frame for completion of a task i.e. the team member’s capabilities in relation to the complexity and time required to complete the task were not considered effectively. Therefore, this manager needs to develop aspects of his/her organisation/time management skills further; a Recorder submitting a progress report that is dissimilar or contradicts the content delivered by the Presenter reflects poor communication links between the team members, inferring the lack of cohesiveness and transparency within the group; natural discord due to differences in opinion/personality will force the group to reflect in unity and the ability of the group to develop and implement interpersonal strategies that allow them to work in harmony, or at least in agreement, becomes a measure of the success of the group in progressively delivering project outcomes. Consequently, each group progressed steadily, with each member becoming increasingly aware of the importance of investing in effective interpersonal skills that form the mainstay of successful work/social life interactions.

Whilst Learner Experience of the Unit surveys revealed an overwhelming preference for empowered self-directed group work in learning, interpersonal interactions, as lifelong learning outcomes are difficult to measure9,10. Therefore we sought comments from our microbiology graduates to determine whether their experience of group work in our laboratory classes influenced both their personal development and the outcome of job applications.

I enjoyed being a manager, presenter and recorder. I had to take charge of the group but I worked hard to concede that leadership to better work as a team and allow another’s ideas to drive the direction of the group.

The projects allowed us to explore and understand cultural differences and effectively communicate with one another. This has allowed me to work well in a team environment, both socially and through my work life. When attending interviews I now have firm examples of when I have applied these skills.

When going for the job, I spoke about how we worked in groups to solve a case study or task in a certain time frame; how these exercises have enhanced my understanding of working in a team where everyone has different ideas and personalities and how to adjust to those differences. I got the job!

When applying for both my current and most recent jobs, I used the microbiology projects as examples of how I met the selection criteria. Both jobs demanded demonstrated ability to work as a part of a multidisciplinary team, and the ability to organise and prioritise workload. Completing these projects enhanced both of these skills, and I was particularly grateful that I could use specific examples of my university experience to meet the job criteria. I was successfully employed in both of these positions, and I believe the knowledge gained was invaluable.

The view of an industry representative commenting on the soft skill capability of our graduates is also included:

The microbiology students from Macquarie University have shown good aptitude for the work. They are able to communicate with referring practitioners, patients and staff at all levels and adapt quickly to most situations. I feel confident that that we will be able to offer more students employment in the future now that we are confident of the caliber of students.

The above comments would suggest that implementing components to encourage the development of soft skills at undergraduate level could be as important in maximising employability as achieving the scientific skills required to do the job.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to past students and the industry representative for the permission to include their comments in this article.



Biography

Dr M Josie Lategan is currently an honorary academic at Macquarie University having lectured Microbiology at this university from 2009 to 2015. Her research interests are in both the medical and environmental fields of microbiology. She also holds a special interest in microbiology education, particularly in developing active learning techniques.

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