UW Today

January 5, 2016

Study: College graduates often challenged with life skills, motivation for ongoing learning

News and Information

Today’s college graduates tend to be highly trained and employable but often lack a key skill needed for post-college life: how to identify and ask their own questions, according to a new study.

The finding comes from a report by Project Information Literacy, an ongoing research group based in the University of Washington Information School and led by principal research scientist Alison Head.

The team’s report — its eighth — is titled “Staying Smart: How Today’s Graduates Continue to Learn Once They Complete College,”​ and was published today on the project’s website.

Over a two-year period, the Project Information Literacy team interviewed 1,651 people who graduated from 10 colleges and universities in the United States — including the UW itself — between 2007 and 2012. They asked the graduates about the information-seeking strategies they used and the challenges they faced transitioning to their new professional lives.

Three-fourths said they looked for how-to tips — quick fixes they could use to solve urgent problems in their lives. And more than half said they sought information to improve their communication with older co-workers, or to keep sharp the technical skills they learned in college just a few years before.

The recent graduates use Google a lot, of course, and get information from social media sites and even TED talks — though online courses were used less often. They also said they consulted friends and co-workers almost as much as the Internet. Many had trouble staying motivated or finding the time to continue learning to stay current in the workplace.

But while three-quarters of those surveyed believed college had sharpened their skills at finding and evaluating information, only about one-quarter thought their college experience had taught them how to frame their own questions.

“Clearly, a wide gap exists between the life skills graduates have and the ones they still need to learn,” said Head. “Most of the grads we studied scrambled to learn such essential new skills as money management, household repairs, and how to advance in their careers and communicate better on the job.”

Head said the study also revealed the failure of higher education to prepare lifelong learners able to identify and ask their own questions — perhaps the skill they most need in their post-college lives.

“As more and more college students are specializing in their majors so they are more employable, they are taking fewer courses in liberal arts, where general inquiry and problem-solving are part of the curriculum,” Head said. “Our study reveals some of the shortcomings of an education that is solely focused on financial rewards at graduation.”

The lifelong learning research study was supported with a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

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This story was adapted from a Project Information Literacy release. For more information, contact Head at 707-800-7590 or alison@projectinfolit.org.

Grant number: LG-06-13-0186-13

Watch a short video with an overview of study findings, below.

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