Career Readiness: How to Teach Skills, Not Just Courses

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Career SkillsStudent Success
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Beth Ryan is an Associate Professor of Instruction for Columbia College Chicago in the Business and Entrepreneurship department


Human Development During College Years

Human development is about the “whole person” learning and growing, not just cognitive learning. According to Psychology Today, adolescence should extend into the mid-20s. The periodical claims that 25 could be the new 18 as human brains are still rapidly developing in early adulthood. The medical reviewers at Very Well Family agree—emotional, social, and cognitive development are key areas of importance in adult learning. Why then does academic learning focus so heavily on intellectual achievement? When students arrive on our campuses, they may be technically proficient, but they are socially and emotionally unsure.

I have been in higher education for over 20 years and in my experience the perceptions of students, parents, and employers have changed over time in what they expect from higher education. Cultural norms have changed, and employers expect applicants with a college degree to have career readiness competencies. The National Association of College and Employers (NACE) recently published a Job Outlook 2022 survey that reveals gaps between employers’ perception and students’ preparedness in these competency areas.

Bridging the Gap Between College and Career Readiness

Instead of expecting career readiness competencies to be outsourced to career center professionals or employer onboarding programs, educators can help bridge the gap between classroom and career. As educators, we develop relationships with students during the 8- to 15-week semesters we have them in our classrooms. Whatever subject we teach, we can help students simultaneously develop intellectual skills and life skills. The pursuit of knowledge is important, but not without the application of the knowledge. We hear employers who come into our academic classrooms as guest speakers tout the importance of teamwork, communication, professionalism, technology, and leadership—all skills that employers are looking for. Yet we often continue to default to subject matter teaching. The reality is, most students can’t “pick up” critical thinking skills in a course that focuses solely on content.

Treating the Classroom as a Learning Laboratory

Lifelong learning is not limited to the classroom or the multi-year period that earning a formal degree requires. Humans have a natural desire to explore, learn, and grow, and the reality is that all of life is a learning laboratory. I approach my class time with students as a learning laboratory and tell them we will explore and experiment.

Consider modeling the time in the classroom as time on the job. I let students create group operating guidelines to define professionalism and how we will work together. By doing this, students begin to feel a sense of control for their actions and consequences. This empowers them to determine how we handle students that show up late—or exhibit other disruptive behaviors.

Experiment More

  • Create a series of synchronous and asynchronous activities throughout the semester. By doing so, students are encouraged to learn and participate in various ways, not just during class time. Have you ever had an “off” day and just couldn’t focus during a meeting? Our work isn’t evaluated only by our performance in a single time period. It is assessed over time by meeting various outcomes.
  • Allow time and space for students to reflect on class discussions by creating discussion forums in the LMS to continue the dialogue. Include a discussion forum rubric or netiquette guidelines that help students develop thoughtful, respectful communication skills.
  • Give students more agency when possible. For example, I provide students options in submitting either a paper, a visual presentation, or a video presentation for a mid-term assignment, thus providing more creative latitude when possible.
  • Engage students in group projects which increases student-to-student learning. Critical thinking isn’t developed when students are cramming material to pass a test. Engaging students in group activities helps develop critical thinking, problem-solving, and teamwork skills that employers want. Yep, they get to practice dealing with those difficult team members which is great preparation for the workplace.
  • Use technology in the classroom for students to learn and build proficiencies on different platforms. There are various cloud-based collaboration, group, and project management tools built into our Learning Management Systems (LMS) that we can leverage in the classroom, not just in online courses. I use Bongo for group projects where students set milestones, divide responsibilities, share files, and collaborate to complete outcomes. During class time, I help troubleshoot technology when necessary and they can complete work asynchronously.
  • Get students talking more. Let’s face it, given the chance, many students will hide in the back of the classroom and not comment. I use story cards and often begin a class with 5 minutes of activity. I ask students to stand and pair with someone on the opposite side of the room. Each pair selects a story card with a discussion prompt that gives them 5 minutes to talk to each other. It is amazing how this opens them up to discuss course concepts!

Whatever we call it, work readiness, professionalism, soft skills, or career skills, adult behavior is learned over time and reinforced through practice. Whatever subject we are teaching, we can incorporate some of these life skills which provide important tools for development, such as independent thinking, how to socialize and make new friends, and how to take action in situations that require acceptance of adult responsibilities. We learn from life’s situations every day, so let’s use our classrooms to prepare students for the world that lies beyond the classroom. Please don’t rely on everyone learning these skills at home or work. It takes a village to raise a child, and we educators play an important part in that village.


To uncover graduates’ feelings about entering the workforce, read Cengage Group’s 2022 Graduate Employability Report.