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Educating the 21st-Century Student

Educating the 21st-Century Student

How Students’ Expectations and Experiences Are Changing the Way We Deliver Education

Today’s college students experience a very different world than those of generations past. More than ever before, students are faced with the compounding challenges of competing obligations and financial pressures. A high percentage of TCC students work, attend college and care for others. They must navigate ongoing changes in technological advances while adhering to an ever-shifting landscape of etiquette, social media dangers and societal norms. Against this complex backdrop, higher education institutions that help students become confident, self-directed learners can create a foundation for life-long success.

There is consensus among researchers, practitioners and employers that 21st-century skills (e.g.: problem solving, communication and critical thinking) are important building blocks of achievement in both school and in the modern workplace. Preparing students to navigate the demands of the 21st century requires a shift in the traditional model of education. Students must excel in the areas of learning and innovation, digital literacy and career and life skills ( This means that higher education institutions need to cultivate experiences that encourage students to master these skills in addition to learning course content.

To meet these challenges, colleges are evolving on nearly every front: the design of college campuses and spaces, the role of the faculty and the learning experience itself. Traditional models of higher education are progressing to address how instructors teach, content delivery mechanisms and the physical environment in which students learn. New technology is driving profound shifts in educational fundamentals: the relationship between teaching and learning, the location and timing of educational activities and the very definition of what it means to learn. Twenty-first century students are used to information being readily available and largely free. Students also learn outside the classroom through social media and informative sources and have technological tools for communicating, learning and socializing.

As part of this evolution, education has shifted from expecting students to be passive recipients of knowledge to encouraging students to be active participants in their learning. “Active learning is a teaching methodology that asks students to engage as partners in the learning process instead of being passive consumers of information from experts,” said Lee Grimes, executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). “It gives them the chance to examine their attitudes and values as well as the course materials. Students develop habits of using higher order thinking skills like critical and creative thinking. Practicing these habits, with the skilled guidance of their faculty member, prepares students for what they will experience in the 21st-century workplace."

TCC is leading the way among community colleges by meeting students where they are and creating active learning environments that allow them to become engaged problem solvers who will significantly contribute to the social and economic fabric of tomorrow. To support these efforts, CTL has implemented the Active Learning Academy, which provides TCC faculty with tools and resources to implement active learning strategies in their classrooms. This program helps faculty to intentionally apply research-based strategies in their classrooms to develop world-ready students. By doing this, faculty are crafting a powerful sense of community in their classrooms, where students feel fully engaged in the course, hold each other accountable for success and take ownership of their learning.

According to William Torres, the instructional design specialist with the CTL who leads the Active Learning Academy, "Faculty who have gone through the Active Learning Academy have seen a positive shift in their classroom dynamics. Students are more engaged in their courses, they communicate more insightfully with their classmates and the instructor and develop greater critical thinking skills. In active learning classes, students write reflections, work in small groups and discuss topics and collaborate to develop predictions, conclusions or solutions.” These behaviors demonstrate that in addition to mastering course content, students are learning skills that will help them succeed in the workplace.

A 2017 study by Duke University further supports the notion that active learning pedagogies lead to the development of skills that will help them be successful in the workplace. In this study, they compared students in classes taught using active learning strategies to classes using the traditional lecture-based model. They found that students in the active learning courses reported increased skills in collaborating with groups to solve problems, working as part of a diverse team, serving as effective leaders and exploring complex ideas. This adds to the large body of research that supports the use of active learning strategies for advancing 21st-century skills and creating conditions for student success.

As teaching strategies continue to change, so must TCC’s learning spaces. The traditional model favored a podium in the front of the room, establishing a clear hierarchy between professor and student.

“We need spaces to be more fluid and flexible to allow students to easily transform the space according to their collaboration needs by rearranging the moveable furniture and demonstrating their thinking through activities like writing notes on sticky pads and whiteboard walls,” says C. Paige McMinn, instructor of Speech Communication and a TCC Integrative Learning Fellow.

In 21st-century learning spaces, there is no “front” of the classroom — instructors facilitate these discussions while in the center of the room, or while walking around the classrooms. Instead of a large display screen only on one wall, there are multiple screens on several walls, enabling the instructor to present information on all screens at once, or allow small groups to use each screen for their own collaboration and presentation.

In order to create powerful student learning experiences, TCC is taking a holistic approach by combining cutting-edge teaching strategies, technological advances and space design. “We know that students want technology that isn't restrictive, is customizable and allows them to do what they want, when they want. A college computer may be the only place students can reliably get access to the software they need, or collaborate on a shared project. Some do not have their own electronic devices, or the confidence to use it on their own,” said Caroline Hamilton, director of academic technology. The furniture and physical space of the 21st-century classroom needs to support this technology, including features like a podium that can be wheeled around the space as needed, untethered by wires and cables, and large screens that can display one student’s device so that a small group may collaborate.

The classrooms of the future are evolving to become true learning spaces in which instructors are trained to utilize technology, flexible spaces and active learning strategies to encourage students to collaborate with others, to construct their own knowledge, to solve problems, to communicate effectively and to think critically. The world is becoming more complex, so an intended and natural byproduct of higher education “redesigned” is greater expectations of the 21st-century student to ensure they excel academically and in the workplace of the future.