ALTF Student Success Series | Why higher education and employABILITY thinking go hand in hand

12th March 2018

Student success blog

Professor Dawn Bennett

Employability is a hot topic across higher education, and perhaps it is time to look at it another way. In reality, employability is far more related to student success than to graduate success; the latter is simply the destination.

To change the dominant thinking, I propose that we adopt the term ‘employability thinking’. Employability thinking engages students in their cognitive and social development as capable and informed individuals, professionals and social citizens. Employability thinking prompts students to understand why they think the way they think, how to critique and learn the unfamiliar, and how their values, beliefs and assumptions can inform and be informed by their learning, lives and careers.

Our aim should be to engage every student in employability thinking. This can be achieved through careful scaffolding of WIL, through reflective and assessment tasks that include a future-oriented dimension, and through pedagogical approaches that develop students’ metacognition.

A crucial consideration is that students need to know they are developing their employability when they are developing their employability! Employability thinking isn’t something that is done to students; it needs to be explicit, and it needs to create cognitive links. This is where the thinking comes in.

Employability thinking involves students as partners in their development. As a cognitive approach, employability thinking aligns employability with both the purpose of higher education and the future of work.

Teachers are by far the most important and influential people in students’ higher education experience and we have to overcome the constraints of time, expertise and resources to get employability thinking in front of students.

The following ten tips are proposed. These will be adopted by a community of practice (CoP) embedding employABILITY into their classes in 2018.

  1. Put a link to self-help tools on every unit or module LMS (download this here).
  1. Make one required reading an employability thinking task rather than a reading. For example, require students to create a personalised career profile using the tool here.
  1. Look at the curriculum to identify each unit or module that interacts with employability thinking: for example, a careers panel, community project, guest speaker or placement. I call these ‘employability touchpoints’.
  1. Create a single-page program or module map in which these units or courses are highlighted, so that students and staff can see them as an integrated approach.
  1. Enlist careers services professionals to scaffold each touchpoint, creating partnerships between careers professionals and academic staff.
  1. Demonstrate to students that employability thinking is valued. Do this by mentioning it in all unit outlines, and align it with their success as students and graduates.
  1. Review assessment tasks to see where a future focus might be included. Use simple additional questions such as these, and add them whenever possible:
    1. Where might you use this in industry?
    2. What do you never want to do again?
    3. What would you do differently next time?
    4. What were your strengths, and how could you demonstrate in your CV?
  1. Ensure that every reflection is a critical reflection so that it looks to the future and from multiple perspectives. The templates for this are here.
  1. Communicate employability thinking as metacognitive rather than merely functional.
  1. Terms such as job, employer and skills are increasingly outdated. Replace them with work, ‘employers and clients’, and capacities.
  1. Emphasise that employability thinking and development is a lifelong engagement, and as such students’ success depends on them learning how to learn for themselves.

For more information and resources, visit the website and join the Semester 1 employABILITY community. You may also like to attend one of Dawn’s upcoming workshops as part of her HERDSA national roadshow in April 2018. Please see the event page for more information.

Do you have something to contribute or would like to ask Dawn a question? Join the conversation over on our LinkedIn page.


Dawn Bennett is John Curtin Distinguished Professor of Higher Education and Director of the EmployABILITY and Creative Workforce Initiatives with Curtin University in Australia. Her current grants relate to the characteristics of work in music (ARC Linkage), embedding employability development (OLT Senior National Fellowship) and employability in a global context (Graduate Careers Australia funding). Publications appear at Researchgate.