Life Skills: How Can We Fill in the Gaps Before Graduation?

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Life Skills: How Can We Fill in the Gaps Before Graduation?

Marisa Vernon
Tonisha Glover
Cuyahoga Community College

Identifying the Skill Gaps

Engage any faculty member or administrator several weeks into the semester and you’re likely to hear about the skills students have somehow failed to pick up during their prior educational experiences. Even the most compassionate educators have vented to a colleague or two about the basic “life” skills today’s college students seem to be missing. If they only knew how to manage their time, we say; if they could only critically think about problems; if they only would just ask for help.  In conversation among academics and student affairs professionals alike, we discuss these gaps often, but struggle to find ways to help students actually develop in these areas. The academic calendar is full, the syllabus already exploding with necessary content. We are confident students are going to develop these skills before they walk across the stage, but we are rarely intentional about helping this process along.

Hiring managers, parents of students, and perhaps even students themselves are concerned about the impact these gaps in communication skills, resiliency, motivation, and problem-solving can have on long-term personal success. These skills, it seems, provide the foundation for handling whatever life throws at a college graduate.

For the community college student, and specifically those pursuing career and technical pathways, the timeline to develop strong “life” skills is relatively short, though critical. I recently worked with a young student who had completed several levels of a medical program and begun working within the field while obtaining his next credential. Experiencing his first major trauma on the job, the student seemingly lost his ability to put the incident in perspective, respond with resiliency, and balance his first high stress work environment with his role as a student. Like many students, education and training had prepared him for the work. However, the incident brought some gaps in preparedness to the surface.

Through a recent conversation with an area employer, as well as a faculty and staff survey, a member of our team highlighted three major skills areas on which we hope to focus student development efforts over the next few years. While the specific terminology came as a result of anecdotes and conversation, Communication, Problem-Solving, and Motivation were identified as the key areas in which many college students (and graduates) are lacking. One could argue that many of the desirable skills identified by employers fall within or are synonymous with these three areas as well.

Before addressing these skills gaps through intentional student development programming, co-curricular support, or within the traditional classroom setting, it is important to understand the areas themselves. Since motivation, communication, and problem-solving serve as factors directly contributing to success in a variety of endeavors, a quick literature review focused on these topics produces an extensive backdrop to the story.

Fear not, busy faculty member, overworked administrator, or dedicated staff member; a member of my team and I have completed the arduous literature review component for you.

How to Use This Article

This edition is slightly different from other articles published in my column, as I wanted to highlight the work of a graduate practicum student who worked alongside me in a recent semester. During the practicum experience, she was tasked with creating three online modules to address the skills gaps identified by our Student Life team detailed above. To begin this process and brainstorm ideas for delivering this student development content, she engaged in a review of the literature associated with the areas of motivation, communication, and problem-solving. By taking the time to learn more about these skills and how students internalize them, a foundation had been built from which intentional student development programming could be built.

It is my hope that the literature review below will generate discussion among your teams, inform the development of new initiatives to support student learning in these areas, and transform your teaching practices to help prepare our students for future success outside of the college environment.

Motivation and Resiliency

Many professors at various colleges and universities have complained about the lack of motivation from their students in the classroom; students seem more interested in social activities with peers in comparison to their academic responsibilities (Crone & MacKay, 2002). However, the literature states that professors must become familiar with the current generation of traditional college aged students and observe their personal academic goals and interests in order to learn what motivates them (Crone & MacKay, 2002) In a 2014 study, a total of 286 undergraduate students majoring in English, Physics, and Finance were given a series of questionnaires and surveys to test students’ perception of instructor’s teaching styles (Myers & Goodboy, 2014). Results demonstrated that student learning was positively influenced when students perceive their instructor to be using both lecture based and discussion-based teaching strategies (Myers & Goodboy, 2014). Additionally, students were most motivated when they felt their instructor listened to and expressed interest in their own thoughts and opinions (Myers & Goodboy, 2014). This may be because most traditional-aged college students are used to constant interaction and retaining strong bonds with family and peers and expect the same from their college community (Crone & MacKay, 2002).

In a qualitative study conducted by Alexakos, Jones, & Rodriguez (2011), 16 junior and senior high school students taking a Physics course at a local college were studied. Data was collected through observation notes, informal and formal interviews, and grades (Alexakos, Jones, & Rodriguez, 2011). During this study the researchers noticed that students empathized with one another when discussing the intensity and struggle of the course. These discussions promoted resiliency in one another as they relied on each other for motivation to get through and complete the course. Close friendships between students promoted motivation and healthy competition, creating a supportive atmosphere amongst students.  Students demonstrated emotional and academic support when classmates solved problems out loud (Alexakos, Jones, & Rodriguez, 2011). Sociable rivalry among the peers was influential since most students can be motivated by peer input and constructive criticism (Crone & MacKay, 2002).  Students served as mentors to one another as they provided information to peers who were lacking certain techniques and skills learned earlier in the course in an effort to keep one another on track for successful completion (Alexakos, Jones, & Rodriguez, 2011).

Similar to the high school students, the online learners in Baxter’s (2012) study yearned for peer interaction and remained motivated to study for online courses when connected to family and peers outside of class. During this qualitative research study data was collected through 16 interviews from students taking an online course in efforts to receive feedback on progression and retention (Baxter, 2012). Baxter found that students adored their online tutor and viewed her as a role model for them when courses began to become difficult, and like the students in Alexakos, Jones, and Rodriguez’ (2011) case study, the tutor’s words of encouragement motivated students to excel in and complete the course (Baxter, 2012). Most students craved social interaction with their peers at the university and suggested “open days” for when students could meet up on campus (Baxter, 2012). Interaction with classmates outside of the classroom seems to be a natural desire for students and can produce motivation and accountability amongst one another (Alexakos, Jones, & Rodriguez, 2011). This soft skill of social collaboration is crucial for college students since most careers involves some type of collaboration and requires individuals to feel comfortable when working well with others in order to produce successful results (Holmes, 2014).

Problem Solving

Students and professionals face several unexpected challenges during their career for which they are responsible to make decisions in efforts to create a positive resolution (Holmes, 2014). Students who lack problem-solving skills will find it difficult to succeed in college and most professions (Holmes, 2014). Instructors and staff should advise students in a way that will challenge them to create their own resolution to a problem by asking prompting questions instead of providing an answer for the student (Crone & MacKay, 2002). When students are prompt to reflect, it can positively influence and increase their problem-solving abilities (Kauffman, Ge, Xie & Chen, 2008).

In a 2008 study, 54 undergraduate junior students majoring in Education interacted in an online module in which their problem-solving capability in an online environment was measured (Kauffman et al., 2008). Half of the students were given problem-solving prompts and half were given a reflection prompt (Kauffman et al., 2008). Students who were prompted to problem solve displayed a better understanding of the assignment and were more likely to problem solve in real life situations compared to students without a problem solving prompt (Kauffman et al., 2008). In addition to encouraging students to problem solve, Alexakos, Jones, and Rodriguez (2011) found that problem solving with peers in the classroom stimulated their interests and resulted in students exercising their problem solving techniques with peers outside of the classroom in authentic challenges. Conversing and expressing their feelings of pressure with peers encouraged students in their college level Physics course to problem solve (Alexakos, Jones, & Rodriguez, 2011).

A review of accounting educators revealed that instructors fail to promote problem solving skills to their students when their dominant teaching strategy involved conceptual modules (Kern, 2002). In this study, researchers created a hands-on model to portray allocations and cost of goods by using a Fisher’s Price toy with colorful rings stacked on top of one another- biggest at the bottom and smallest at the top – then assessed student learning via questionnaire (Kern, 2002). Results revealed that student learning was retained and more effective when hands on models were used within an active learning environment (Kern, 2002). Students should be expected to be hands-on in their education, answering questions in class, creating examples, and participating in group work, in order to develop problem solving abilities (Kern, 2002). To improve this skill [problem solving] students should become hands-on with their learning and enroll in experiential courses when they are available (Holmes, 2014). Students are motivated to problem solve when they engage in experiential learning courses where they have to connect theory to practice (Crone & MacKay, 2002).


Many United States citizens believe that the most important skill to have as a college student is effective communication (Long, 2015). Many traditional-aged college students struggle with communication skills because they have mastered online interactions through social media, but lack experience with face-to-face conversations (Holmes, 2014). Communicating with professors and staff can be difficult for traditional-aged students because they may view the power and age gap as intimidating (Wecker, 2012). Students that are frequently engaging with others in a professional setting or constant talking with their professors in person during office hours seem to successfully hone communication skills naturally (Holmes, 2014). Students feel encouraged when the communication between themselves and the instructor shows that their thoughts and ideas are in fact valued (Myers & Goodboy, 2014). Supportive communication from administration, faculty, and staff motivate students to complete their coursework (Baxter, 2012). Quality interaction between students, faculty and staff was a primary factor in retention for students taking an online course, where general face-to-face communication was limited (Baxter, 2012). Crone & MacKay (2002) stated that effective communication between professors and students can enhance students’ problem-solving abilities when professors use a specific method that encourages reflections, rather than direct answers. A professor at George Washington University uses humor when demonstrating his lack of exceptions for students who are not honest and refuse liability of their own decisions (Wecker, 2012). “College students should take responsibility for when they have made mistakes and focus more on improving for the future” (Wecker, 2012). The use of humor can assist with understanding and clarity of the course content and may boost students’ confidence in approaching their professor when they have a question (Myers & Goodboy, 2014).

Traditional-aged college students feel more confident in familiar situations when surrounded by peers with whom they share a close bond (Crone & MacKay 2002). In Alexakos, Jones, and Rodriguez (2011) study, communication between peers was significant to high school students’ progress in a college level Physics course and promoted motivation and problem-solving amongst the students.  Frequent communication and interaction between peers developed a mentorship among the students, which resulted in a sense of accountability among the group. Likewise, students engaging in an online course glorified their constant communication with the tutor and looked to her as inspiration to complete the class (Baxter, 2012). Discussing and communicating anxiety and stress to other peers who are in similar situations can promote motivation and problem solving (Alexakos, Jones, & Rodriguez, 2011). When students did not have a lot of peer interaction, they asked for access to their peers in efforts to communicate and become social with one another (Baxter, 2012).


The three skills discussed in the literature are all linked and impact one another in an individual. Motivation in college students can encourage students to become resilient in difficult situations. Resiliency is essential to student development and can strengthen individuals’ problem-solving abilities, which is heavily dependent upon communication skills. It is important that college students interact and communicate effectively with peers and professors in efforts to build and develop their passion (motivation) and confidence in their college experience. When students are passionate and comfortable with their situation, it can result in determination and the ability to adapt (resiliency) and sustain through unexpected challenges (problem solving).

The common theme overall is peer-peer and faculty-student interaction. It is important that college students build meaningful relationships with their peers in order to develop a sense of community. In 2014, Holmes named collaboration as one of the top five soft skills needed in the workforce after graduation.

As educators, how can we promote interaction and collaboration within our environments, especially in community colleges lacking residential environments? This is perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing the two-year sector as we seek to develop students who are prepared for the modern workplace. Two-year college students need the same skills, and educators working in non-residential settings need to think creatively to promote interaction both in and out of the classroom.

Whether you work in a two- or four-year setting, with students living on or off campus, are you ensuring students leave equipped with these skills? If not, here are some suggestions for embedding these themes into your campus or department’s approach to student development:

  • Use these themes to develop department programming goals for the year, and align post-program student assessments to the skills discussed in this article.
  • Select one of the skills gaps as a campus or department theme for the year, and align co-curriculars, assignments, and student experiences around the common theme.
  • Review your college’s general education outcomes or departmental curriculum strategy. Are these skills represented, and if so, how can co-curricular strategies increase learning in these areas?
  • Develop modules to embed in your college’s First Year Experience seminar that promote peer-to-peer interaction and address the skills gaps listed above.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you observe other skills gaps among the students with whom you work? If so, what are they, and how do you believe students can fill in these gaps while in college?
  2. How do your Academic and Student Affairs areas partner to ensure students are obtaining the skills they need to be successful? Are there opportunities for collaboration or streamlining goals between the two areas?
  3. How would you incentivize students to participate in learning outside of the classroom in a non-residential environment? What do you believe motivates students to engage?


Alexakos, K., Jones, J. K., & Rodriguez, V. H. (2011). Fictive kinship as it mediates learning, resiliency,

perseverance, and social learning of inner-city high school students of color in a college physics

class. Culture Studies of Science Education, 6, 847-870. DOI: 10.1007/s11422-011-9317-7

Baxter, J. (2012). Who am I and what keeps me going? Profiling the distance learning students in higher education. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 13, 107-129.

Crone, I. & MacKay, K. (2002). Greater expectations: A new vision for learning as a nation goes to college. Association of American Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from

Holmes, B. (2014, May). Hone the top 5 soft skills every college student needs. US News. Retrieved from

Kauffman, D. F., Ge, X., & Chen, C. (2008). Prompting in web-based environments: Supporting self-monitoring and problem solving skills in college students. Educational Computing Research, 38, 115-137.

Kern, B. (2002). Enhancing accounting students’ problem-solving skills: The use of a hands-on conceptual model in an active learning environment. Accounting Education, 11, 235-256.

Long, C. (2015, March 23). The most important skill for students? Communication, say most Americans. The National Education Association. Retrieved from

Myers, S. A., & Goodboy, A. K. (2014). College student learning, motivation, and satisfaction as a function of effective instructor communication behaviors. Southern Communication Journal, 79, 14-26.

Russo, K. (2015, May). Hard skills vs soft skills: What they mean to your job search and the weight they carry with HR. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Sirin, A., & Guzel, A. (2006). The relationship between learning styles and problem solving skills among college students. Educational Sciences: Theory and Practice, 6, 255-264.

Wecker, M. (2012, September). 5 guidelines for college student-professor interactions. US News. Retrieved from

About the Author
Marisa Vernon is Assistant Dean – Access and Completion, at Cuyahoga Community College – Westshore Campus. Opened in 1963, Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C®) is Ohio’s first community college and now the state’s largest, serving 50,000 students each year. The college offers two-year associate degrees, certificate programs, and the first two years of a baccalaureate degree.  The curriculum includes 1,600 credit courses in more than 140 career, certificate and university transfer programs. Courses are offered at four campus locations, two Corporate College® facilities, online, hybrid courses, and many off-campus sites.

Tonisha Glover is a Master of Education student at Kent State University, focusing on identifying barriers to college completion, the first-generation student experience, and success factors among low-income student populations. During Spring 2016, she completed a graduate Internship at Cuyahoga Community College, where she developed learning modules to promote soft skill development among students during their early years in college. Tonisha Glover recently accepted a full-time Academic Advisor position at Kent State University, where she will be supporting first year students in exploring majors and academic programs to meet their goals.  

Please e-mail inquiries to Marisa Vernon.

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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