Nothing But Skill

It’s About Behavior

Purposeful behavior or action is a demonstration of skills and competencies, present not only in every classroom but in any human interaction as well. Skills are behaviors that show how well we govern and how effectively we use the theoretical knowledge stored in our brains. The struggle for educators is that “behavior” has been given a somewhat bad rap thanks to the likes of Ivan Pavlov and John Watson, because of their attempts to “manipulate” it. And behavior manipulation does not sit well with perceptions of what should be happening in society at large, let alone in our classrooms.

At the end of the day, however, it seems that behaviorists were right. One could argue that faculty do manipulate students’ behavior in an expectation of shaping a more desirable one. Whether it is to list causes of the Civil War, analyze a sonnet, critique a current news article, or apply a physics formula, the expectation is for students to demonstrate that they can do what’s expected of them and do so in the “correct” way. This is true in any discipline, not only programs broadly perceived as career education tracks, such as nursing or computer science. To be a poet, journalist, philosopher, or historian, all students need specific disciplinary-approved skills to demonstrate their knowledge.

Learning Environments Where the Desired Behavior Can Flourish

As much as faculty may think that student behavior is just the tip of an iceberg, bypassing student (inner) experience in the learning process, there’s nothing at the teacher’s disposal to attest to the quality of student learning, unless students convey their feelings, knowledge, attitudes, or opinions; and these acts of communication require skills. Faculty make inferences from what they see students demonstrate: what they have learned, how they feel or what their attitudes are. Regardless of the level of student attendance, persistence, or degree attainment, the only thing that matters is what skills and competencies students can demonstrate upon course completion. Faculty can attest only to that.

So ultimately, education is all about changes in behavior, and much of that is difficult to track. Students learn everywhere and all the time; learning is ubiquitous and unstoppable. Better yet, skill attainment is out of control by design. It happens even without a physical classroom. In learning, human beings are not bound by anything but their own analysis, reflection, and evaluation of surrounding realities. And these interpretations require skills.

Faculty then should not attempt to control student behavior by using grades or extra credit, but rather create learning environments where the desired behavior can flourish. What faculty do to achieve the desired behavior is up to them. Attempts to engage, inspire, or enlighten students may make faculty feel good, once students listen attentively to lectures, for example. But what really matters is not how faculty see students engaging in their learning, but what students can do because of it. What matters is how students behave at the end of a course, program or upon graduation from an institution, or rather what they do as a result of instruction.

Observing Student Skill Attainment

Skill demonstration, then, is omnipresent. Observing human behavior means observing skill. Every question, every response, every interaction is a demonstration of what we know and how well we can demonstrate it. Knowingly or not, human beings demonstrate their skills even when observing others. We evaluate each other’s behavior all the time and use skills at our disposal to select friends, lunch conversation partners, and spouses. How can we tell the level of experience of a doctor, musician, plumber, or sailor? We must possess and be mindful of skills to observe and evaluate these people’s behaviors for our benefit. What we eat depends on the skills we possess to secure and evaluate the food we consume. In the classroom, what we teach may depend on our skills to transfer what we know to others. Just like students, who need to demonstrate their skills, faculty possess certain skills pertaining to what, how, and when students should be able to do what their teachers can observe.

Acquisition of skills and competencies is a matter of paramount importance to equity-driven campus environments. That’s because faculty observations depend on their own skills and those skills in turn are always demonstrated in specific, identifiable contexts, and those are never free of bias. Responsibility, empathy, sharing, understanding, and collegiality all amount to observation and analysis of demonstrated behaviors. After all, how do we know that a student feels lonely? How do we know that they are excited, anxious, or hungry? Students’ articulation of thoughts may seem brilliant to some professors, but quite dull and disengaging to others. The degree of their success will depend on the range of faculty evaluation skills to assess the demonstrated skill. Faculty need to possess skills to notice behaviors reflecting their students’ states of mind, attitudes, and conditions. This is because no matter how well faculty are versed in their discipline, they will not be able to evaluate the intricacies of their students’ performance if such demonstrations contain too many elements that faculty are not familiar with.

Faculty Skill Sets

Technology, links to other disciplines, personal traits, or cultures unknown to the faculty may impair their judgments of students’ performance. It is part of the faculty skill set to elicit and identify the desired behavior that’s going to determine the success of the interaction with the student despite these challenges. Faculty demonstrate their own evaluation skills by observing and assessing their students’ behavior as well. This alone has significant implications on teaching practice. Student class participation or engagement are visible because faculty describe them: this student is nice, they always smile, answer questions, they are always in class, and they engage others in conversations on the relevant topics. And what are these descriptions if not specific, observable behaviors? Faculty need to consider their own skills to evaluate students’ demonstration of their knowledge of the subject matter in question. If students can fail because of lack of skill, so can faculty.

Teaching then, is a deliberate activity intended to result in specific behavior in our students, and that’s what we get: students take the test because that’s what’s expected of them. Students doing their work to obtain a grade, do just that: work. But what are the desirable outcomes of the “work” activity? As always, the devil is in the details. Let’s imagine a course where theory and practice coexist as outlined in the course syllabus as two distinct skills that are to be acquired by the students. At the end of the course, students will be able to analyze the theory and put it into practice. One does not exist without the other in the course, yet both are distinct concepts. Perhaps theory could require more reading and could be assessed with a written essay; practice may require more classroom discussion and could be assessed with a presentation.

Skills and Competencies Relevant to Students’ Lives

Now, considering our current higher education accountability system based on grades, how do we know to what extent a student, upon completion, has attained one grade or the other? What does a grade of B+ tell us about how well the student can explain theory and how well they can put that theory into practice? What have the students learned? Do they read or write better at the end of the course? Are they better in theory or practice? Do they possess the skills to apply what they have learned in their future endeavors? There is no possible way to answer these questions unless faculty pay attention to demonstration of skill and document it accordingly.

Therefore, skills and competencies need to be relevant to students’ lives to help them make decisions and influence their lives in ways that they see as necessary for the pursuit of their happiness. Some of us never make it to the top despite ideal preparation, dispositions, family, or social backgrounds, whereas others dig themselves up from an abyss against all odds. But whatever we do, we do it with skills that help us interpret the available environment, resources, social and cultural capital for our benefit. And depending on our surroundings, some of us are better at skill application than others. The faculty would then be tasked with observing and documenting the expected behaviors, while letting students know what they are learning.

Demonstration of Relevant Skills

Now, how can students demonstrate their skills? Certainly, looking at students picking correct answers on a proctored multiple-choice test is a very limiting view of assessment. Why choose that assessment method, then? We can do better. English majors can tell a difference between well-written and badly written essays; journalists can identify skills necessary to articulate a compelling story, and sculptors are all about skills in their craft. Inspirational speech is a matter of skill and so is insightful analysis of a psychological theory.

Why do some veterinarians and construction workers charge higher fees than others? The difference is not only in the skills pertaining to the specific profession, but also marketing, timeliness, and analysis of resources, to name a few of the variables that may influence the behaviors we choose to demonstrate. In all our professions, we can identify experts, whose skills go above and beyond the average. Our professional role models, famous thinkers, and inspiring leaders influenced our own skill sets by demonstrating behaviors that took us to the next level, to higher ground, to the following chapter. So ultimately, it may be that a skilled opera singer draws a larger crowd than a mediocre one, but as their audience, we strive for mastery, that degree of success we call skill. Skills that we possess determine success in our lives. Working with students to determine how they wish to demonstrate their learning will make much more sense if skill demonstration, rather than a test score, are at the core of the classroom interactions.

Although faculty may not always call it learning, they do pay attention to their students’ behavior. At the same time, however, our systems of accountability call for issuance of grades, test scores, and percentages as numbers indicating students’ performance in compliance with course requirements, rather than a more nuanced assessment of what students have learned. Furthermore, it is no small challenge for the faculty to speak about the importance of learning on campus, knowing that the surrounding educational system keeps us accountable for course completion, transfer rates, or even wage attainment after graduation, but not actual learning.

Conclusion: Intentional Empowerment

Analysis of transcripts that students bring with them to a counseling office may address the degree to which the student has fulfilled the requirements of the system, but once in the classroom, faculty ask students to complete tasks, to solve problems, to analyze, to evaluate, and to read and write. So perhaps the solution for educators at any level, really, is to identify and describe the desired skills that are to be exhibited by successful students. How do we know that our students think critically, or that they are effective leaders and problem solvers? How can we say that our students know how to analyze, write, and share what they know? How can students articulate the purpose of their learning? Can they examine the purpose of their actions?

In today’s rapidly changing reality, we need to know how to cope with challenges relating to technology, misinformation, mental health, and identities. These require skills that can and need to be taught intentionally to empower ourselves and others. Leaving acquisition of these skills up to chance is not a responsible thing to do. Choices that our students make as they go through their lives will also depend on skills that will help them manage and handle life’s challenges. So perhaps it is time that we acknowledge ubiquitous behavior manipulation as an outdated idea and place skill and competency attainment at the forefront of educational interactions.


Dr. Jarek Janio has been working in higher education for over 20 years. He founded an Annual Student Learning Outcomes (SLO) Symposium in 2014, and with the arrival of Covid, he started Friday SLO Talks, weekly events that attract faculty and assessment practitioners from all over the country and abroad. Dr. Janio is currently working at Santa Ana College in Southern California as faculty coordinator at the School of Continuing Education.


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