Institute of Teaching and Learning

Professional Development for Teaching and Learning

Developing graduate attributes

Embedding graduate attributes in the curriculum

Once the list of appropriate graduate attributes has been agreed upon, there is a need to consider where in the program/curriculum the various attributes will be addressed. This is because; a) no single element of a program could hope to be responsible for more than a small part of the total graduate attribution formation; and b) each attribute will, typically, involve staged development across the program, increasing in depth and sophistication as the student progresses through their studies (Hager, Holland & Beckett, 2002). Implementing graduate attributes in a program of study is a complex process, and there must be coordination in curriculum design to ensure adequate coverage of the required attributes (Jolly, 2001). The common, core units in a program of study carry a particular burden in the coverage of graduate attributes, and the use of elective or optional units for sole exposure to particular attributes should be avoided (Yeo, 2004).

The University of Queensland Value Added Career Start (VACS) program provides one model for thinking about the implementation of graduate attributes:


figure 2 - Jolly

From (Jolly, 2001)

The general process is one of contextualising general graduate attributes into meaningful, discipline-based learning objectives, which inform teaching and learning activities and assessment design, and for which student assessment against objective criteria documents the attainment of specific attributes. This top-down design/implementation process can occur in its ideal form as part of a 'green fields' development of a new program, where all or most aspects of the program are open to variation. The same source (Jolly, 2001), using engineering as a basis, provides some examples of this approach to implementing the graduate attributes specified by the professional body, Engineers Australia. Engineering encompasses a range of discipline specialisms with different requirements under the broad umbrella of 'communication skills' - electronic engineers need to be proficient in reading and preparing electronic circuit diagrams; mechanical engineers need to be skilled in reading and preparing workshop drawings for metal fabrication. The generic requirement for communication skills needs to be expanded into more specific learning objectives that are relevant to the specialism, and that can be concretely observed and assessed:


figure 3 - jolly

From (Jolly, 2001)

From a specification of learning objectives for a program we must progress to pedagogy - the learning processes/activities employed to achieve the objectives. In the example below, it can be seen that, although the learning activities must, across the program as a whole, address the desired learning objectives and graduate attributes, there need not be a strict one-to-one correspondence between attributes, learning objectives and learning activities:


figure 4 - jolly

From (Jolly, 2001)

In practice, many programs already exist, and the opportunities to vary the program design may be comparatively limited, due to the pre-existing structures of prerequisites, unit streams, assessment types, etc. An alternative approach is conduct an audit of how an existing program addresses the development and assessment of graduate attributes. This is a bottom-up approach that requires each unit in the program to assess it's contribution to the program's identified graduate attributes. A typical audit approach requires each unit to report the level/depth of development of each attribute on a rating scale (for example, 0 = not a focus, 1 = a minor focus and 2 = a major focus). Some approaches to auditing differentiate between how a unit addresses a particular graduate attribute - i.e., is the unit coverage theoretical only?, does the unit require the student to exercise the attribute? and, is student competence with the attribute tested? - an audit schema of taught and/or practised and/or assessed may be used for each attribute. The individual contributions of all units in a program can be summed up to give an indication of the depth of coverage of graduate attributes across the duration of the program. Like all post-facto audits, the accuracy of the information obtained will depend on the skill of the assessor(s). Rather than an end in itself, the audit process is perhaps most useful as an element of a program improvement process that compares an existing program to a desired ideal design, identifying the graduate attribute 'gaps' to be addressed in program revisions.

Normally, we would expect graduate attributes to be developed in more than one place in a program curriculum, such that the students' understanding of, and ability to use, an attribute grows in sophistication as their studies progress. A commencing student requires foundation skills to get started in tertiary study, but a final-year student should be developing attributes at a level commensurate with the fact that they will shortly be completing their undergraduate studies and expecting to be equipped to start the practice of their chosen career or profession. In the process of embedding attributes into the curriculum, when thinking about program and unit learning objectives and the appropriate pedagogies to achieve these, we should consider the staged development of attributes across the program. The following example from the University of New England, based on the graduate attributes from the Bachelor of Natural Resources, Bachelor of Rural Science and Bachelor of Agriculture programs, shows how one attribute, oral communications skills, is defined for the programs as a whole, and then how it is envisaged that development of this attribute could be staged in different levels of attainment, perhaps, but not necessarily, related to the year level of the program:

Oral communication skills
Utilization of oral and aural skills within a two way process both between individuals and in groups, in order to inform, educate, persuade, and to influence behaviour. Oral communication skills should be demonstrated in a wide variety of contexts, and should display progressively increasing complexity and challenge, throughout the degree program.

Level and Description
1. Students should be competent in giving a short oral presentation using appropriate structure and technologies in a range of classroom contexts.
2. Debate: students should competently present arguments, evidence and counter arguments in a mildly adversarial environment.
3. Group facilitation (homogeneous group): Students should be able to utilize dialogue and active listening skills to facilitate a group through some form of problem solving, strategic planning, evaluation, learning etc. exercise.
3+. Group facilitation (heterogeneous group): as for 3 but with a higher level of conflict resolution, discourse, divergent and convergent thinking skills evidenced in communication, group management and information flow. (Chapman, 2004)

An important opportunity for the development of graduate attributes is offered by a period(s) of work placement (work experience, cooperative education programs, practicums, clinical practice, etc.) during undergraduate studies - such placements are valued by both students and employers, and can provide the additional benefit of authentic exposure to the expectations and unstructured nature of the typical workplace (Crebert, Bates, Bell, Patrick & Cragnolini, 2004b; Hart & Stone, 2002). The value of such periods of 'work experience' is maximised when they are considered as 'work integrated learning', and made part of the students' formal learning programme through being:

  • embedded into the curriculum;
  • complemented with central support services;
  • embedded in a discipline context; (Hart & Stone, 2002);
  • brought back into the classroom through associated critical reflection exercises;
  • included in stated program/unit learning objectives;
  • formally assessed; and
  • supported by both academic and workplace supervisors (Crebert, Bates, Bell, Patrick & Cragnolini, 2004a).

Activity icon Activity

If your School has a documented mapping of graduate attributes onto the curriculum, and/or an audit of coverage of graduate attributes within the curriculum, for the program(s) you contribute to, please locate and familiarise yourself with this/these curriculum documents. Select one of the graduate attribute from the program(s) that you contribute to, and consider how the level of sophistication of development/attainment of that attribute could be staged across successive years of the program.

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6th December 2010