Denise Villate/The Varsity

In the coming weeks students at universities across the country will gear up for final exams. Many will invariably consume huge amounts of coffee, cram late into the night, and hopefully walk away without being too emotionally damaged, and with grades they are proud of.

There are certainly some students who find this type of testing useful for preparing for the future. Yet, there is also a growing sentiment among both students and employers that educational institutions are failing to equip graduates for life after school.

A report released last year by McKinsey & Company on the state of Canadian youth transitioning from education to employment found contradictory evaluations of the quality of recent graduates. While 83 per cent of education providers believe youth are adequately prepared for the workforce, upon graduation only 34 per cent of employers agree; only 44 per cent of youth believe they are properly prepared.

The reason for this disparity is rooted in the different prespectives on the skills graduates should acquire over the course of their education. Employers ranked work ethic, English proficiency, and teamwork as the most important skills. In contrast, institutions place more importance on practical skills, computer skills, and academic theory. Most tellingly, both employers and students considered ‘on the job’ experience to be the most effective method of preparing youth for employment — yet, it was the least-used method for universities.

Evidently, the way post-secondary institutions prepare students for employment needs to change. We should thus look beyond standardized examinations and rote learning to prepare students for life after academia.

Universities were initially established as centres to advance academic discourse and the skills of those entering the workforce. A feedback loop developed in the form of higher rates of post-secondary education and increasing demand for a more skilled workforce. Having post-secondary qualifications has become a necessity for those seeking entry into the skilled workforce. Today, over 50 per cent of Canada’s workforce-eligible population has a post-secondary qualification.

Given the importance of a post-secondary degree when looking for a job, institutions must provide students with the skills necessary to actually succeed in the workplace. Standardized examinations are not the way to do so. Having students learn, memorize, reiterate (and then promptly forget what they just spent hours studying) rarely encourages the deep, critical thought necessary for confronting challenges on the job.

Another questionable facet of current evaluation standards is the grading method itself. The notion that a grade of 50 per cent is the benchmark necessary for progression has long been taken for granted, without any apparent questioning as to why.

In this way, education is an anomalous institution that does not consider mastery a requirement for progression. This does not bode well for the quality of our graduates. Imagine if all one needed to obtain a driver’s license was 50 per cent of the knowledge needed to drive — our roads would be exponentially more dangerous. As Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, pointed out: “the traditional model… penalizes you for experimentation and failure, but… does not expect mastery.” 

Institutions should design assessment methods that evaluate the constant development and retention of the skills necessary to succeed in the workforce. High quality professors and a high level of academic discourse are vital in this regard. The essential skills one needs nowadays, such as how to critically analyze and form critical arguments, and perform complex calculations, cannot all be learned from the Internet.

U of T has made some strides in providing students with such opportunities. Capstone programs in engineering and senior thesis programs in arts & science allow students to develop innovative ideas in collaboration with other students. The university is also starting to ensure assessment isn’t wholly based on exams. Doing so allows students to explore subjects of personal academic interest. Exploration fosters engagement, which boosts work ethic and academic performance.

In the face of a rapidly changing economy, it is imperative we begin to make these seemingly peripheral, ‘extra’ opportunities more central to the learning experience in university. Only then can post-secondary education retain its status as a worthwhile investment and serve its purpose in preparing students for tackling challenges in the workforce and future.

Jonathan Wilkinson is a fourth-year student at University College studying international relations.

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