21st century teaching: How do we reach students?

How do we reach college students in this ever-connected, permanently plugged-in society?

I’ve pondered this question since I began teaching at the college level in 2005, and I’m still searching for the answer.

Earlier this year, the book Academically Adrift used survey data and information from the Collegiate Learning Assessment to examine student success at 24 colleges and universities. The results garnered much attention:

  • 45 percent of students did not demonstrate significant learning during the first two years of higher education.
  • 36 percent of students did not demonstrate significant learning during four years of college.

The analysis also indicated that students are often not asked to read long texts or write lengthy papers.

The thought-provoking book sparked a much-needed discussion: What can be done to improve academic rigor?

It raises important pedagogical questions. Should professors assign massive amounts of reading and writing to fill the gap? Will this improve student learning?

Let me offer a qualified “maybe.”

I spent a decade as an editor and manager before becoming an educator, and I’ve discovered many parallels between leading a newsroom and managing a classroom. As I found with my employees, my students have a variety of strengths and weaknesses, and different students excel in different ways in my classes. My job as a teacher is to capitalize on the strengths, mitigate the weaknesses, and help students realize their potential.

As I began teaching, I read What the Best College Teachers Do, a qualitative study by Ken Bain seeking to get to the heart of what makes good professors effective. One of the many passages that resonated strongly with me:

They [the top professors studied] believe that students must learn the facts while learning to use them to make decisions about what they understand or what they should do. To them, ‘learning’ makes little sense unless it has some sustained influence on the way the learner subsequently thinks, acts, or feels.

In this age of digital natives, we must find innovative ways to engage and captivate students’ minds. As Nicholas Carr documents in The Shallows, technology does shape our brains. We have yet to understand fully how a generation raised on the Internet behaves, interacts, and grows.

I’ve heard and seen educators criticize this new generation, saying they don’t read, they don’t write, and ā€” worst of all ā€” they don’t think. But that blanket criticism misses those creative minds who learn in unusual, nontraditional ways. They absorb new ideas and materials in a multimedia universe. It’s what they’ve grown up with.

Perhaps many students don’t digest massive amounts of reading and engage with traditional texts because their brains are wired differently, as Carr and others note. They don’t think in linear narratives. They seek links and search for connections. They learn through stimulating environments. They hunger for application and immediate results.

Am I advocating minimizing reading and writing? Absolutely not. But I do think we as educators have to push ourselves to find ways to weave the traditional ways of learning with the new, helping students link their familiar, digital world with the analog one we teachers grew up in.


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