Getting students where they want to go – a personalised approach to professional development

Students have a range of reasons for studying a postgraduate qualification in a business school. However, those reasons seem to come together into one over-arching aim – to get a better job with better prospects then they feel able to get with the qualifications they have gained so far. To help students achieve that aim we clearly teach the content in their chosen degree programme, but what else can we do to help students reach their end goal?

At Aston Business School we have run a successful Professional Development Programme (PDP) for several years. This is a credit bearing part of every postgraduate taught degree, and requires students to attend a number of workshop sessions for the first six months of their degree, and then engage in one of four ‘streams’. The streams are work experience, study abroad, business simulation or setting up their own business. The PDP is definitely something that students tell us they value, but it has a weakness – all students do the same regardless of their background.

We started, therefore, to look at a way to change the PDP so that it was not ‘one size fits all’, but that it catered to the differing needs of the students. Firstly, we started by looking at the profile of students as they entered the Business School. What were their current levels of experience, and what support did they need to reach their end goal?

We soon realised that there were some difficulties with this approach. There was the practical issue of assessing previous experience, but we also started to realise a more fundamental error. We were focusing too much on what the students had done previously. What we actually needed to focus on was what they needed to achieve to get to where they wanted to be. So, we changed the approach.

We restarted the process by identifying the skills that all students need to be successful in business. To identify these we talked to businesses, and we asked them for their views. What we heard was not particularly surprising – students need skills such as team working and presentation skills. Interestingly, a common theme was the need to develop mental resilience, so we also added that in as a core skill. Through this process we identified five core workshops that we needed to run for all students (the three topics already mentioned plus business networking and inter-cultural skills). We then identified a menu of choices that students could pick from. These choices would allow students to tailor their development to their own end goal.

In our ‘tailored’ list we have a number of options, split across career skills, academic skills and professional skills. Students can choose to focus on what they need most.

Alongside this development of skills we also identified that students need to develop business experience. The skills are great to have, but employers want to know that students have applied the skills, and in an interview situation it is not sufficient to say that they have attended a workshop, an employer wants to hear specific examples of applying the skills.

We developed a number of opportunities for students to apply those skills, for example working with the Princes Trust as a mentor, being a consultant in our Business Clinic, or working on a number of business projects. To our frustration, the take up from students for these opportunities was not very high.

So, for the coming academic year we are building the opportunity to apply the skills we are teaching into the curriculum, and we are doing this through an initiative we have called module partnership.

We have asked businesses to identify a business problem that they would like students to solve. We are matching the business problem with a relevant module, and the problem will be presented to students at the start of the module. They will then be taught the module, and at the end students will present their solutions to the business. The business will choose the best solution, and the student who came up with that solution will get a placement of at least 4 weeks in the business. In reaching the solutions students will be applying the skills that they learn in the PDP.

We hope, therefore, that we will be producing students who have lots of useful knowledge, business skills that they both understand and have used, and some real business insight that they can discuss with prospective employers.

Kathy Daniels, Associate Dean: Learning and Teaching, Aston Business School, Aston University