Sociology professors tackle student skills gap

What’s a York University sociology professor to do if he discovers an ongoing deficit in writing and language skills among his students? If he’s John Paul Grayson or Robert Kenedy, he applies for an Academic Innovation Fund (AIF) grant and creates an online course, Skills for Success in Sociology, to teach these much-needed basics.

“Last year, we did a survey of 1,000 students in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS),” said Grayson. It confirmed our worst fears. Only half of the students had the skills required for academic success. Next, we enlisted our colleagues at the University of Toronto, the University of Waterloo and Western University to do their own surveys and the results were the same. It’s a phenomenal problem.

“Post-secondary education is premised on students acquiring certain skills before they arrive here. As far as we’re concerned the secondary school system has great goals for its students, but the means of evaluation don’t capture the mastery of specific skills. It’s easier to push students through the system than teach the skills. At the post-secondary level, the skills deficit is so pervasive, there’s no incentive for faculty to take action.”

Kenedy says it’s an international problem, not one confined to Canada.

“We find similar problems with students across the globe,” he said. “In very few places have they taken the bull by the horns.”

Both professors have been aware of the skills gap for a number of years and have addressed it in their individual classes. Now, however, they’ve decided to tackle the issue head-on with Skills for Success in Sociology, an online, four-credit course designed specifically to teach the writing, literacy and numeracy skills essential for career – and life – success. The course, once approved, is slated to be taught as a pilot in Fall 2019. Each faculty member will teach a class open to 50 students.

“We’re really content people, but we do want our students to be successful,” Kenedy said. “We want them to graduate with literacy, numeracy and communications skills. We want to get them to the point where they have the appropriate skills to go on to graduate school or to jobs.”

Grayson said it would be easy to simply lower their standards, “but we do the students a disservice. We realize that if we drop the ball, the problem just keeps on going through the system.”

Grayson and Kenedy created the course content and put it online with the assistance of a team of York colleagues.

“It’s far more interactive than your usual online course,” Grayson said. “We’re not translating a lecture we would give in class to an online platform. You have to go where the students are most comfortable. That’s the way they’ll learn.”

Using the online Moodle and Zoom platforms, students will work in virtual teams on a variety of writing assignments on topics such as note-taking, grammar, paragraph construction and referencing source material. They’ll also learn about skills specific to sociology, such as using inductive and deductive reasoning and calculating necessary statistical measures. Other topics the course will cover include time management, studying for tests and presentation skills. Each group will submit a report to the professor weekly and he’ll assign a grade. The group members will decide the marks of each member based on their contributions.

“We’re setting it up so that everyone who works hard benefits and the group regulates the grades,” Grayson said.

Although the focus is on sociology students and the skills they need for success, the two men see the course as the start of a bank of online modules available for any of their colleagues to use. They are hoping faculty who teach other subjects will add their own modules.

“Pedagogy should be for sharing,” Kenedy noted.

The two professors plan to evaluate the success of the pilot and will continue to follow the careers of students who took the course, comparing them to students who did not.

“There’s a critical skills crisis now and, as academics, we want empirical evidence that the course works,” Grayson said. “If not, it’s back to the drawing board.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus