The importance of soft skills and their direct correlation to the success of an individual’s professional development is recognized by both educators and hiring organizations. So why do business schools struggle with the assessment and development of soft skills in their students?
One of the main problems for educators is their inability to agree on what constitutes “soft skills.” The first step to solving this problem is by analyzing the differences between assessing and developing hard skills and soft skills.
Throughout this post, we will highlight key differences in definitions and the importance of each when preparing your students for a successful career post-graduation.
Hard skills, or technical skills, are specific abilities that are assessed and developed through the teaching of well-defined sets of competencies. These competencies provide educators with a quantifiable component from which they can easily measure student proficiency in order to identify areas of developmental need.
Let’s take a closer look at assessing hard skills in a classroom setting. Imagine the foreign language department in a university is planning their curriculum for the next academic year. Their curriculum and course syllabi are likely to include sections for grammar, listening, and speaking. Each one of these sections is also likely to include learning criteria students must fulfill in order to gain proficiency in the subject matter. These criteria provide context to lesson plans and exams, and serve to measure student progress.
For example, under grammar, the department can have specific criteria for personal pronouns that guarantee every student that completes the course has the required proficiency. The criteria in this scenario serve as the well-defined set of competencies that characterize the assessment of hard skills.
Hard skills are important in preparing your students for life outside of the classroom. If you think about the majority of the curriculum that is deployed at your own school, you’ll likely find most of it is based around technical skills.
The logic behind this is hard/technical skills, like a proficiency in software programs, tend to be the main point of differentiation between job candidates who have recently graduated from college. However, proficiency in technical skills does not guarantee long-term success. Think about engineers in the private sector who are required to befriend their computer. They don’t have the opportunities to develop interpersonal skills and build meaningful relationships with their colleagues. As a result, they commonly stay in the same job for decades because promotions to a management role require soft skills like motivation, empathy, and social skills.
So how can you make sure your students not only hit the ground running after graduation, but are also able to maintain the trajectory needed for prolonged careers success? You guessed it–through the assessment and development of soft skills.
Soft skills span personal attributes that are non-technical in nature. They reflect important interpersonal and decision-making capabilities that facilitate learning and performance. Examples of soft skills include communication, organizational, and leadership skills.
Even though there are multiple methods to assess soft skills in students, it’s important to point out that some are much more effective than others. The most effective methods tend to be hands-on, experiential learning exercises where students are given an opportunity to apply knowledge, make decisions, and behaviorally demonstrate their capabilities. These include service learning opportunities, learning simulations, peer evaluations, and assessment centers.
As Dr. Robert Rubin, Professor of Management at DePaul University’s Driehaus College of Business, states in a recent interview discussing the importance of developing soft skills, “Technical skills get you noticed, but it’s interpersonal skills that get you promoted on average.”
Soft skills are important because they enable students to become better candidates for upward mobility and managerial roles within their company. Instead of only focusing on the first job out of school, soft skill development is aimed at achieving and maintaining long-term career success.
Now that we’ve clearly defined hard and soft skills, and have identified key differences in assessment and importance of such skills, you’re ready to start improving your students’ future professional development. Before you get too eager, you should first identify the biggest challenges impacting effective soft skill assessment and development today.
To get some help identifying these challenges, and to learn how hands-on, experiential learning methods directly provide solutions to each challenge, head over to our Challenges of Effective Soft Skill Assessment and Development post.