Institute of Teaching and Learning

Professional Development for Teaching and Learning

Graduate attributes - what are they?


Arising from the push in higher education for quality assurance, accountability for outcomes and capability of graduates (Leathwood & Phillips, 2000), specifying a list of qualities or capabilities that graduates will attain provides a benchmark against which the performance of a higher education institution can be measured. Required by DEST since 1998, most higher education institutions, including Deakin (Deakin University, 2010), identify a list of expected graduate attributes or outcomes. In addition, many program accrediting professional bodies also specify a list of graduate attributes that accredited undergraduate programs must incorporate. An inventory of desired/intended graduate attributes may be expressed in a range of forms, including:

  • a simple list;
  • in terms of generic attributes that are common to all or most graduates, and discipline specific attributes that relate to the particular program(s) the student is studying;
  • knowledge or understandings,attitudes or qualities, and skills or abilities, representing theoretical knowledge, beliefs and practical abilities (and related to Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives, including the cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains) developed during the program; or
  • some combination of these categories.

Currently, Deakin has structured its statement of graduate attributes using the categories of 'knowledge and understanding' and 'skills'.

As an example of a professional body's required curriculum specification that incorporates both discipline-specific content and generic attributes, consider the CPA Australia (accounting) curriculum requirements:

Core curriculum in accounting and business areas

  1. Accounting Systems and Processes
  2. Financial Accounting
  3. Professional and Regulatory Processes
  4. Accounting Theory
  5. Management Accounting
  6. Finance
  7. Auditing
  8. Commercial and Corporations Law
  9. Taxation
  10. Organisational Functioning
  11. Information Systems Design and Development
  12. Economics
  13. Quantitative Methods

Ethics across the curriculum - Ethics is an important element in the development of new accounting and business professionals. It is expected that universities will refer to ethical decision-making models, principles and values across the curriculum of accredited courses and, where possible, encourage debate on ethical issues based on practical cases.

Generic skills in the core curriculum

Cognitive skills

Routine skills

  • report writing;
  • computer literacy.

Analytic/design skills
Particularly the ability to:

  • identify, find, evaluate, organise and manage information and evidence;
  • initiate and conduct research;
  • analyse, reason logically, conceptualise issues;
  • solve problems and construct arguments;
  • interpret data and reports;
  • engage in ethical reasoning.

Appreciative skills
Particularly the ability to:

  • receive, evaluate and react to new ideas;
  • adapt and respond positively to challenges;
  • make judgements derived from one's own value framework;
  • think and act critically;
  • know what questions to ask;
  • engage in lifelong learning;
  • recognise own strengths and limitations;
  • appreciate ethical dimensions of situations;
  • apply disciplinary and multi-disciplinary perspectives;
  • appreciate processes of professional adaptation and behaviour.

Behavioural skills

Personal skills
Particularly the ability to:

  • be flexible in new/different situations;
  • act strategically;
  • think and act independently;
  • be focused on outcomes;
  • tolerate ambiguity;
  • think creatively.

Interpersonal skills
Particularly the ability to:

  • listen effectively;
  • present, discuss and defend views;
  • transfer and receive knowledge;
  • negotiate with people from different backgrounds and with different value systems;
  • understand group dynamics;
  • collaborate with colleagues (CPA Australia & The Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia, 2005).

It has been suggested that it is the generic attributes that are the most important (Hager, Holland & Beckett, 2002), perhaps because the discipline specific body of knowledge is prone to obsolescence and will require continual renewal, and, in the longer term, as graduates progress in their careers, they may become less involved in the details of their discipline, and more reliant on their generic skills. A large consultation project with Australian industry and business in 2001 identified the following generic 'employability' skills that enterprises sought in their staff, in addition to job-specific and/or relevant technical skills:

  • Communication that contributes to productive and harmonious relations between employees and customers;
  • Teamwork that contributes to productive working relationships and outcomes;
  • Problem-solving that contributes to productive outcomes;
  • Initiative and enterprise that contribute to innovative outcomes;
  • Planning and organizing that contribute to long-term and short-term strategic planning;
  • Self-management that contributes to employee satisfaction and growth;
  • Learning that contributes to ongoing improvement and expansion in employee and company operations and outcomes;
  • Technology that contributes to effective execution of tasks; and a list of
  • Personal attributes that contribute to overall employability (e.g. loyalty, honesty & integrity, adaptability) (Department of Education Science & Training, 2002).

In the discussion surrounding graduate attributes, it is important to make the (perhaps subtle) distinction between a program of study that has been designed to provide opportunities for students to be exposed to activities intended to develop, exercise and assess certain graduate attributes, and those attributes that students have actually developed by the time they graduate from their program of study. It is the former 'certification of programs' that is still most commonly required in internal and external program accreditation exercises; while it is the latter that really determines the competency/capacity of the graduate. I can imagine the possibility of a 'pass student' carefully negotiating through their accredited program curriculum and assessment, to the point of graduation, having consciously avoided one or more desirable attributes that they are uncomfortable with.

In the literature related to graduate attributes, there can be observed varying levels of 'sophistication' in approach. The range includes:

  • identifying and prioritising desirable graduate attributes (Scott & Yates, 2002);
  • identifying where and at what level in the curriculum attributes will be covered (Atrens, Truss, Dahl, Schaffer & St John, 2004; Teaching and Learning Centre, 2005);
  • designing assessment to explicitly measure graduate attributes (Yeo, 2004);
  • evaluation of the effectiveness of delivery of graduate attributes (Bullen, Waters, Bullen & de la Barra, 2004); and
  • evidence-based certification of attainment of graduate attributes (Williams & Sher, 2004).

Though the topic of graduate attributes has been around for some time, for some universities, statements of graduate attributes have historically been more rhetorical than real (Lister & Nouwens, 2004). Having a list of graduate attributes published on a web site or in a program handbook does not automatically mean that:

  • their existence and importance has been well communicated to students, staff and other stakeholders;
  • students appreciate the importance and relevance of the various attributes in their studies; and
  • exposure to the theory, practise and assessment of attributes has been coherently integrated across the program curriculum.

It is important to acknowledge that the concept of graduate attributes in higher education is not uncontested or universally accepted. I have had colleagues suggest that specifying required graduate attributes is just another step in the vocationalisation of higher education, or just another mechanism for the administrators of higher education to micro-manage the activities of staff and students. Though, perhaps begrudgingly, one of these colleagues acknowledged that it might be a good thing if the engineers and others who designed and built the plane she was to fly on actually knew certain basic things about aircraft design and construction, and the other colleague did agree that they would like to be confident that the surgeon operating on them was at least minimally competent and knowledgeable in certain matters relating to human anatomy! There are probably some things that most graduates need to know and be able to do, and the conception of a profession is premised on the acquisition of a specialised body of knowledge and the practice of particular skills.

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Does the program accrediting professional/discipline body for the program(s) that you contribute to specify a desired/mandatory list of graduate attributes? If yes, what are they, and why do you think they are important for graduates in your area? If no, what are some graduate attributes that you think are important/relevant to the program(s) that you contribute to?

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6th December 2010