The quality of university education is generally determined by three measures: the content of the course, the development of generic skills and the employability of the graduate.
Universities are currently in a phase of focusing on generic skills. The recent DEEWR (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations) discussion paper reflects this and considers how universities can further develop generic skills to increase the employment outcomes of our graduates.
But, in this focus, I think we are neglecting a critical role of higher education. Universities should not only produce graduates who are successful in the workplace - we should develop individuals who are successful in life. Success in the workplace is not simply determined by the generic skills we possess. It is also strongly influenced by our levels of self esteem, personal awareness, resilience and emotional intelligence.
The role universities play in students' personal development is absent from the DEEWR paper. But higher education is transformative and should contribute to the well-being of our students, which also determines their employability.
In his recent book Flourish, psychologist Dr Martin Seligman argues well-being has five measurable elements that count towards it: positive emotion (including happiness and life satisfaction), engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement. The importance of well-being in contributing to success lies at the heart of Swinburne's Academic Personal Best (APB) program.
The program uses individual goal-setting techniques to improve student engagement and sense of achievement. By focusing on individual improvement and 'personal bests', students achieve success in smaller steps along their learning path. With success comes self-belief and students become increasingly motivated to achieve their larger goals.
The APB program is based on research undertaken by Professor Andrew Martin from the University of Sydney. His approach has been used successfully with school students, but Swinburne is the first university to use his approach in a higher education setting. We use group mentoring to utilise the psychological benefits and support gained from relationships.
We ran a very successful APB pilot with first year undergraduates last year. More than 50 first year students and 12 postgraduate psychology mentors took part. About 10 participants were international students. Student responses to the pilot program evaluation have been overwhelming positive - students absolutely love the program. Every student said they would do the program again.
Students reported a shifted focus from competing with others to focusing on personal learning and goals. They reported "motivation now comes from within me - I speak up, I'm more confident with study and with others." Students said they were planning and organising more - using time more effectively - and had a greater sense of control, balance and independence. They reported "study feels productive now, rather than a chore." Students had a refreshed awareness and recognition of patterns that lead to anxiety and disappointment: "I have freedom to be - less self-sabotage - I go easier on myself."
If we consider these results in the context of Dr Seligman's research, the APB increases student's well-being by building the five elements that count towards it. The APB program does more than enhance study and workplace skills - it is life affirming. In fact, students reported the program had "changed my life".
This year we are expanding the program to both first and second year students. We are also looking at developing an online version of the program. I want higher education at Swinburne to positively transform both the personal and professional lives of our students, not just provide them with generic skills.
Professor Shirley Leitch
Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic)
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