active learning, Biology, education, employability skills, HEA, PEDAGOGY, science, teaching, University of Sussex

“Recall, Adapt, Apply” – how to increase student’s confidence in their employability skills

My goal is to help students to develop increased confidence in their abilities to think and adapt and by doing this to enhance their employability skills.

Why do it?

The ability to apply prior knowledge to different situations is a skill that is highly valued by employers but the confidence to do this does not come naturally to some students. This will negatively impact on them in employment interviews and when faced with a new task in their first job.

An essential step to becoming an independent researcher requires a transition between simply following a fail-safe set of instructions to being able to adapt a known approach to solve a new problem. During the early days of their research career, many current scientists faced a sink-or-swim situation when they were confronted with a new problem. Although this trial-by-fire is effective at identifying those scientists most capable of making the transition independently, some talented scientists will fall by the wayside simply because they lack confidence in their abilities to adapt.

How did I do it?

I developed the “Recall, Adapt, Apply” strategy as a mid-way approach between providing fail-safe instructions and allowing students to sink-or-swim on their own.

To illustrate this approach, first imagine a detailed step-by-step guide to preparing a simple dish – for example glazed carrots. When all of the equipment is listed, all ingredients provided, and every step is described in detail – and in picture form – and probably with a youtube link – no decisions are left for the potential cooks; no recollection of prior skills or adaptation of prior experience is needed to achieve success. A uniform product is produced with no direct supervision needed. If this approach was used in a cookery school, it would provide an economic way to deliver the teaching of glazed carrots but it would miss out on helping students to develop important employability skills.

By using the principles of “Recall, Adapt, Apply” to change the instruction we can dramatically increase the employability skill set that is developed. Before re-writing the recipe we need to know the prior experience of the students. Let’s assume that in a previous session the students learnt how to peel, chop and boil potatoes. Re-writing the recipe for glazed carrots we can simplify the instructions where we expect students to recall information, adapt to the new situation and then apply it. For this example we could ask them to peel the carrots (not stating the equipment required), chop the carrots (not stating which knife or board is required), boil the chopped carrots until tender (not stating the equipment, the amount of water or the timing required), then strain (not stating the equipment required). For the next stage the students in this class have no relevant prior experience, so the amount of butter needs to be stated, as does information on which pan to use to melt it, when to add the sugar how long to heat it and when to combine with the cooked carrots. The “Recall, Adapt, Apply” approach delivers the same product of a dish of glazed carrots but it also develops the additional employability skills of problem solving, using your initiative and being self-motivated, organizational skills and an ability to learn and adept.

I trialed the “Recall, Adapt, Apply” approach for a series of practicals undertaken by second year BSc Biomedical Science students at the University of Sussex during 2012-15. I added on-the-spot calculations, analysis and presentation of complex data and required hand-drawn figures illustrating the principle of the method to be drawn during the session.

It worked. An evaluation of the marks obtained for relevant questions during the end-of-year exam were compared with the average for the module and were all higher.

Now try it!

“Recall, Adapt, Apply” is a simple but also a valuable approach. But it takes more work on the part of the teacher and more work on the part of the students so you may not find it to be immediately popular. This year, I intend to measure any difference in student’s confidence with a range of employability skills and their ability to undertake the on-the-spot calculations before and after the teaching. Showing them how their ability increases and how their confidence grows (if it does) should help to sell the value of the “Recall, Adapt, Apply” approach to them as well as boosting their confidence in their own abilities.

“Recall, Adapt, Apply” can be applied to any STEM practical or project, please let me know your experiences if you decide to try it.

This study was presented at the Higher Education Academy (HEA) conference “Inspire to succeed: Transforming teaching and learning in STEM” 28–29 January 2016


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