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Professional skills of postgraduate students - enhancement for a career in business

John Wyber
Barbara de la Harpe

Curtin University of Technology
If graduates are to leave university with skills needed for work and a changing work environment, they need opportunities throughout their course of study to develop them. There is general agreement in the literature that such skills are best developed at the same time as disciplinary content and are best taught by the subject teacher. The Curtin Business School (CBS) is currently implementing a project which aims to enhance the skills of its graduates by integrating a set of skills into the 23 majors of the undergraduate program. In line with this larger project, it was decided to teach and assess skills in a post-graduate auditing unit. The skills chosen were those considered most relevant to the professional practice of auditing, namely written communication, team working and decision making.

Data on students' perceptions of their skill development were obtained at the beginning and end of the unit. Analysis of the data suggests that there were differences in student perceptions of some aspects of each of the skills. We discuss these findings, relate them to the instructional and assessment methods used and the literature on skill development, and consider what changes need to be implemented in future semesters in order to help students to leave university not only with technical expertise, but also with well developed skills.

Background - the Curtin Business School professional skills project[1]

Employers are looking for graduates who are well equipped for work and are especially wanting graduates who have, amongst others, well developed communication, team-work and problem-solving skills (ACNeilson, 1998, ASCPA & ICAA, 1996). A number of surveys of employers (e.g., ACNeilson, 2000, Harvey, 1993, O'Brien, 1997) report that graduates are often lacking in such skills as decision making, problem solving, creativity, written and oral communication, and interpersonal skills. If graduates are to leave university with such skills they need to develop them while studying at university.

Lecturers and students suggest that universities should produce graduates who possess high levels of skills. For example, Haigh & Kilmartin (1999, p. 1) report that both staff and students agree that developing skills that can be used in a "...wide variety of career-related situations" is an important outcome of study at university. Specifically, as far as future career prospects were concerned, students rated developing teamwork and public presentation skills as the most important learning outcomes of the course. In addition, students placed great value on developing communication and time management skills. Moreover, they (p. 203) suggest that helping students develop their skills is not only important for making them more employable but is also a "...fundamental part of achieving...a good education". Thus, in this study it was clear that both the students and their teachers agreed that spending time developing skills that equip graduates for their careers was worthwhile.

There is general agreement in the literature that, since each discipline has its own language and culture, skills are best developed at the same time as disciplinary content and are best taught by the subject teacher (Barrie & Jones, 1998; Hadwin & Winne, 1996; Hattie, Biggs & Purdie, 1996; Hicks & George, 1998). In fact, the literature on the teaching and assessment of skills makes it clear that if the teaching is to succeed, it must be done in the context of the discipline. A recent study at Oxford Brookes University (Haigh & Kilmartin, 1999) found that 97 percent (56 of 58) of the third year students and all of the staff surveyed in the Department of Geography agreed that skills should be integrated into subject content. The study reported that " is very difficult to teach many such skills out of context, so departments, both in Geography and other disciplines, try to incorporate the skills within their curricula" (p. 2). Similarly, Eilersten and Valdermo (2000, p. 97) conclude that feedback from "[s]tudent interviews, as well as years of participation and observation both as teachers and teacher trainers, has convinced us that teaching study techniques [skills] in a non-contextual way and with no follow-up is futile". Thus, opportunities for skill development should permeate the whole curriculum rather than be confined to ad hoc stand alone or 'bolt-on' units.

The Curtin Business School (CBS) is currently in the process of implementing a project underpinned by the current thinking on skill development outlined above. At the beginning of 1998, the Acting Executive Dean initiated the 'CBS Professional Skills Project', which aims to enhance the skills and employability of CBS graduates by integrating the teaching and assessment of key skills into the 23 majors of the Bachelor of Commerce program.

The project began with the setting up of a Task Force that identified a set of skills relevant to business graduates (CBS Professional Skills Task Force, 1999). These included: communication (divided into three components, writing, presenting, and speaking out); computer literacy; information literacy; team working; and decision making.

The Task Force decided that it would be preferable to use the term "professional " rather than "generic" for the selected skills. This term was chosen because of the possible misconstruction of the term 'generic skills', firstly, through meaning slippage, so that, as Clanchy and Ballard (1995) point out, 'generic skills' are used interchangeably with 'attributes', 'characteristics', 'values', 'competencies' and 'qualities', and, secondly, because the word 'generic' suggests that such skills are independent of a learning context and, therefore, can be developed in a vacuum, a view not supported by current research on learning (Hattie, Biggs & Purdie, 1996; Hadwin & Winne, 1996).

The next phase of the Project involved Unit Controllers (starting with those teaching first year) integrating skills into their units. Unit Controllers were asked to decide which professional skills it was appropriate to integrate. They were asked, in line with the concept of alignment outlined by Biggs (1996), to include in their units both content and skill objectives, teaching and learning activities to help students develop the skills selected, and assessment activities which assessed both unit content and skill development. They were asked to state these clearly enough for Unit Committees of other units to know what had been covered. An icon was provided for each skill, this being placed next to the learning objective, teaching and learning activities and assessment tasks related to the skill in order to highlight the alignment between them. For coordinated integration of the skills, Schools were asked to complete a matrix, comprising units and skills, outlining how the skills would be developed in their major(s).

To help and encourage staff to integrate skills into their subjects, monitor the impact of the changes they made, and document and disseminate their experiences, they were given time release to work on their units. Moreover, support was available from a discipline specialist, an educational consultant and, more recently, a communication specialist.

Teaching and assessing professional skills in a graduate conversion degree unit - Auditing 551

The CBS Master of Accounting (M.Acc.) course equips students with a qualification for entry to the Australian accounting profession. Students come to this course from undergraduate degree and equivalent courses in various disciplines and from various universities both nationally and internationally. Auditing 551, the unit in which this research was conducted, is a mandatory unit which is studied late in the M.Acc. course offered at the Curtin campus in Australia (Bentley) and in a joint arrangement with the Open University of Hong Kong (OUHK).

Students at Bentley and OUHK are provided with the same Study Guide (a guide to the readings, with practice exercises) and PowerPoint lecture slide copies and they work the same exercises, and do the same assignments and examination. However, the OUHK students have eight three-hour sessions of class contact instead of the eleven at Bentley. Also, while the Unit Controller took all classes for the Bentley students, the OUHK students had the Unit Controller for their first four classes, over one weekend, and a local tutor for their remaining four classes over the following two months.

It was decided from Semester 2 of 1999 to integrate professional skills into the unit and to start formally teaching and assessing them. The first author of this paper, an experienced auditing lecturer, had been the convener of the Task Force and in that role had worked closely with the second author, the educational consultant to the project. He, therefore, wanted to apply in the unit some of what he had learned in the project about the teaching and assessment of skills, and in the process improve the unit.

The auditing lecturer considered that all of the seven skills selected by the Professional Skills Task Force were important to auditing students because of the nature of the discipline. However, for a number of reasons, three, writing, team working and decision making, were selected for formal teaching and assessment. The skills, the reasons for their selection, and the ways they were taught and assessed are now discussed.


The ability to express ideas clearly in writing is essential for employment across the disciplines (Cowen, 1993). Auditors of limited companies submit various reports to client management. These reports are likely to be in the form of an analysis of evidence, leading to conclusions and recommendations for action to be taken by management. The subject matter is often sensitive and may have serious legal implications and care must therefore be taken in how the message is communicated.

Although this need of auditors suggests that the exercises in the unit should be in report writing, the decision was made to use an existing project, requiring a literature search and submission of a scholarly paper in the form of an essay, as the assignment in which the writing communication skill would be taught and assessed. This decision was made because the auditing lecturer had earlier been exposed to the way essay writing has been taught in the humanities by Dawson and Grant (1995) and had concluded that this would provide excellent training for the writing of professional reports.

Experience in teaching this unit in Australia, Hong Kong and Indonesia over three years had shown that many students needed support to develop various aspects of their writing. Poor structure and expression was found to make assignments difficult and time consuming to mark. Moreover, the lecturer concluded that students whose knowledge of content was adequate but whose writing skills needed improvement were disadvantaged. Thus, it was considered that the unit could and should be modified to help students develop their writing skills.

Teaching and assessment of the skill

The learning experiences provided were guidance on what was wanted both in the Study Guide and in the lectures (with PowerPoint slide copies handed out), reference to Dawson & Grant (1995), which was made available in the libraries for more detailed information, and a class exercise in which the students planned an essay on a topic they were given and discussed a model structure. For assessment, the assignment marking guide, which showed the mark allocation for professional skills, was handed out at the beginning of the semester and explained; students returned a copy of it with their assignment.

Team working

Surveys of employers (ACNeilson, 1998, 2000) show that they want graduates who are able to work in teams. Auditing is a discipline in which the work is almost always performed in teams, of various sizes, often in several offices in different countries.

In previous semesters a few students had complained about their experiences of working in teams. There, therefore, seemed to be no doubt that an attempt should be made to help students develop their team working skills.

Teaching and assessment of the skill

Assistance in development of this skill was provided primarily in the form of explanation of the working of teams generally and in auditing, and a group discussion in class. In addition, students did self-assessments of the contributions of each member of the team and in the marking guide provided at the beginning of the semester marking criteria were given. Assessment of the team working was done through these student self-assessments.

Decision making

Auditors are often required to make professional judgements (Bamber et al., 1995). Judgements are made particularly as an essential part of the auditor's investigative process. To help students develop their skills, it was decided to introduce the use of a decision making framework for the last of the judgements in the investigative process, namely the type of opinion to issue on the company's financial report. The framework used in Semester 2 of 1999 was the simple one below:
  1. Identify material financial reporting disagreements with the directors. These are necessarily given in the auditing assignment question, but some discussion is needed as to whether each disagreement is individually "material".
  2. Apply relevant accounting and auditing standards and/or theory. Here the accounting and auditing standards are applied to each finding, or disagreement, individually, and alternative treatments are discussed.
  3. Derive conclusions for discussion with the directors.
Here a tentative audit position is formulated for negotiation with the directors.

Teaching and assessment of the skill

The learning experiences provided were an explanation of the framework and its use in the Study Guide and the lectures, discussion of the assignment marking guide in class, and provision of practice in applying the framework early in the semester and again later in the semester as preparation for the fourth assignment, where its use was assessed. Further practice was provided in the middle of the semester when students worked through standard audit working papers. A marking guide, which included the framework, was given to the students at the beginning of the semester.

The research study

Data on changes in students' perceptions of their skill development were obtained by asking students to complete a self-assessment survey at the beginning and end of the unit. The survey was developed by the instructor with input from the educational consultant and was a self-report survey comprising 27 items (9 for writing, 8 for team working and 10 for decision making). The items were selected from other instruments used at Curtin and elsewhere.

Students responded to each item on a five-point Likert scale at the beginning (N = 49) and end (N = 57) of the unit. The proportion of the students answering was quite high at the beginning of the unit (49 out of 63) and very high at the end (57 out of 61).

Responses were matched so that only data from students who had completed both questionnaires were used in the analysis. Matching resulted in 21 pairs (8 female and 13 male) with 9 from Bentley and 12 from OUHK. Data from the matched pairs were used to calculate effect sizes following Carver (1996) who believes that standard errors and effect sizes should be used in place of tests of statistical significance. Effect sizes between 0.2 and 0.5 were deemed small but educationally significant.

The limited number of pairs available for matching was due to students not providing their student numbers. In the beginning of the semester instrument, no place was provided for student numbers but students were asked to give their number and were assured that they would be kept confidential and would only be used to allow beginning and end of semester comparisons. In the end of semester instrument a place was provided for student numbers. More students gave their number on the end of semester instrument.


Student responses to the survey administered at the beginning and end of the semester are presented in Table 1.

Table 1: Effect sizes for students' (n=21) writing, team working and decision making skills

1I can write a brief introduction that will prepare the readers well for the main thesis of my paper3.333.360.03
2I can adjust my style of writing to suit the needs of my audience, including the lecturer3.103.07-0.03
3I can rewrite my wordy or confusing sentences easily3.053.120.08
4I can explain abstract ideas clearly in writing2.952.93-0.03
5I can locate and use appropriate reference sources3.333.310.02
6When I want to persuade a reader about a point, I can come up with a convincing quote from an authority2.622.810.28*
7I can revise a first draft of my paper so that it is shorter and better organised3.523.570.05
8When I edit my paper, I can find and correct my grammatical errors3.863.69-0.25*
9I can find people who will give critical feedback on early drafts of my paper2.903.050.13
Writing Skills (average items: 1 - 9)
10I can communicate my ideas clearly to others in a group3.673.670.00
11I can co-operate with other members of a group to get tasks done3.954.000.07
12I can handle other people's opinions without getting upset even if they differ from mine3.573.860.38*
13I can convince other members of a group that my ideas are worthwhile3.483.520.06
14I can work in a group without getting easily side-tracked from the task3.623.620.00
15When given a task to do, I make sure that I get it done on time3.903.83-0.10
16I can learn a lot from other members of a group3.863.81-0.06
17I enjoy working as part of a group3.673.810.17
Team-Working Skills (average items: 10 - 17)3.713.760.07
18When faced with a problem I am able to take into consideration a range of factors which might impact on it3.623.52-0.15
19When faced with a problem with a wide range of complex elements I can usually establish key relationships3.383.450.12
20When faced with a large amount of data I am able to identify trends and patterns3.293.430.17
21I tend to see the connections between issues and activities and can therefore combine them successfully3.243.430.25*
22When faced with a problem I am able to make a decision about it3.573.640.11
23I often find myself questioning things I hear or read to decide if I find them convincing3.433.500.10
24When a theory, interpretation, or conclusion is presented I try to decide if there is good supporting evidence3.433.520.14
25I treat the unit materials as a starting point and try to develop my own ideas about it3.003.190.23*
26I try to play around with ideas of my own related to what I am learning3.333.31-0.03
27Whenever I read or hear an assertion or conclusion I think about possible alternatives3.293.310.03
Decision Making Skills (average items: 18 - 27)3.363.430.10
Note. Small Effect size =*

Based on the findings presented in Table 1, it appears that students did not rate their skill levels highly. Pre-scores ranged from 2.62 to 3.95 out of 5, with an average of 3.79. With regard to changes, the overall effect sizes for each of the skills, while positive, show no educationally significant changes in students' perceptions of their skill levels. On the other hand, there are educationally significant changes in some aspects of each of the skills.

For the writing skill, effect sizes suggest that at the end of the semester students believed that they were better able to find and use a quote from an authority to support their argument than at the beginning of the semester. However, they also believed that they were less able to find and correct their grammatical errors. For the team working skill, effect sizes suggest that students believed that they were more able to handle other people's opinions. For the decision making skill, effect sizes suggest that students believed that they were more able to combine issues and activities successfully and to develop their own ideas using the unit materials as a starting point.

In addition, positive effect sizes (while not educationally significant), suggest that students enjoyed working as part of a team and that they believed that they were more able to identify trends and patterns in large amounts of data. However, negative effect sizes (not educationally significant) suggest that they believed that when faced with a problem they were less able to take into account the range of factors impacting on it.

Discussion and further directions

The finding that students did not rate their skill levels highly at the beginning of the unit, despite being graduates, suggests that students themselves did not believe they had well developed skills, a finding supported by the literature. For example, in Australia data from the Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ), which all new university graduates are asked to complete, show that of the almost 58,000 responses only 67%, 68% and 46% agreed or strongly agreed that their problem solving, writing and teamwork skills respectively were developed in their undergraduate studies (Johnson, 1998). Fortunately, based on the student responses, it appears that participating in the auditing unit was associated with changes in some aspects of their writing, team working and decision making skills. These are discussed below.

Writing skill

The perception that students felt more able to use material (especially quotes from an authority) to support their arguments is in line with the view formed by the auditing lecturer when marking the essays. The finding that they were less able to correct grammatical errors may be due to some loss of confidence in their ability, given the emphasis placed by the lecturer on the writing skill. However, it had not been an objective of the unit to assist students to improve their skills with English grammar; the focus was on the construction of the essay (the writing of an argument using evidence and reasoning) and the paragraph (the topic sentence and its expansion), rather than on the grammar and the sentence.

For the following semester, the lecturer plans to provide more complete guidance on essay writing, and to improve the class essay practice exercise. He also plans to introduce a peer editing exercise to help students develop their skills in finding and correcting their grammatical errors. In addition, he will restructure the marking guide and clarify the writing component criteria on it. He plans to use some of the techniques suggested in de la Harpe & Radloff (2000), including "selling" to students the merits of better writing skills and providing more rewards for enhanced performance.

Team working skill

The finding that students were more able to handle other people's opinions and that they enjoyed working in teams after completion of the three team-worked assignments indicates that the team working exercises had achieved important objectives.

However, feedback from students indicated that the assignments done in teams were taking longer than had been anticipated. Two of the three assignments were, therefore, reduced in length for the next semester. Also, the possibility of integrating time management support into the unit is being considered given that even postgraduate students have difficulty managing their time. In fact, time management is the area reported as causing students the most trouble despite it being one of the most important aspects of being a successful student and one of the hallmarks of academic self-regulation (Corno, 1994; Kaldeway & Korthagen, 1995; Zimmerman, 1994).

The lecturer believes that the learning experiences and assessment methods provided could be improved. In retrospect, methods could both have made use of more of the techniques explained in the educational literature on team working (see for example Gibbs, 1994). The lecturer finds the teaching and assessment of team working fascinating and is planning to use new techniques in future semesters. Gibbs (1994) continues to provide help in improving the teaching and assessment of students' team working skills.

Decision making skill

Analysis of the data indicates that this skill is associated with the greatest degree of change in students' perceptions of their skill levels. Students apparently felt more confident in their ability to connect, combine and develop their own ideas after study of the material provided.

The making of judgements from evidence and criteria is an important skill in auditing and is a skill employers say they want (ACNielsen, 1998, 2000). Thus, it is intended to continue trying to teach decision making, modifying the model used and providing more information on its use. For example, in subsequent semesters, a four stage framework, essentially splitting stage two of the framework into two, will be used. The marking guide will also be modified. In addition, more attention will be given to helping students take into consideration the range of factors which might impact on the decision making process.

Overall, the lecturer has found that developing a useable decision making framework for auditing a challenging task and assessing the skill difficult, and that both need further study - a conclusion supported by Haigh & Kilmartin (1999). However, because of his commitment to helping students develop this skill, he will continue to teach and assess this skill, while also exploring the literature in the area.


This paper has suggested that skill development is an important part of undergraduate education and that the teaching of skills is most effective when done by the lecturer in the context of the subject. This, in turn, means that lecturers will need to introduce the teaching and assessing of skills into their units. This will require lecturers to accept the need for change, to undertake professional development and to be accountable for changes to teaching and learning, and to spend more time explaining to learners what skills are being taught and why.

The introduction of teaching and assessment of professional skills has proved to be challenging for the lecturer. So far, the gains, in terms of changes in student perceptions of their skill levels, are small. However, it is believed that the remaining development work involved will not be a burden, that it will bring clearer indications of success, and that the unit, Auditing 551, will be a better unit as a result of it. For those reasons, development of better ways to teach and assess all three of the skills will continue. It is more firmly accepted that, as Haigh and Kilmartin (1999, p.205) put it, "...more attention should be given to providing instruction and feedback in support of the development of learning skills, such as spoken communication and problem solving, that are best acquired through apprenticeship and practice". Only then will students leave university well equipped for careers in their chosen fields.


  1. Parts of this section are adapted from the CBS Professional Skills Task Force Report (1999) prepared by Wyber and de la Harpe.


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Authors: John Wyber and Barbara de la Harpe, Curtin University of Technology
Phone (08) 9266 2857 and (08) 9266 4564 Fax (08) 9266 7196
Email and

Please cite as: Wyber, J. and de la Harpe, B. (2001). Professional skills of postgraduate students - enhancement for a career in business. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 732-741. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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