Five Ways that 21st and 20th Century Learning Will Differ

Proficiency, data, science and more.

March 5, 2014

How will teaching and learning in the early 21st century differ from its 20th century predecessor? Some shifts are already well underway. These include the growing embrace of open educational resources and of courses collaboratively designed and developed by teams including content area specialists, educational technologists, and instructional designers. Peer mentoring and grading are becoming more common, as is a gradual shift toward learner-centered pedagogies and competency-based, outcomes-oriented approaches.

Alongside these developments are five far-reaching developments.

1.  A 21st century education will be geared toward 100 percent proficiency.

A basic assumption of 20th century education was that not all students were capable of achieving a minimal viable competency. Course grades provided an overarching measure of proficiency. Intended as a motivating tool and a measure of students’ performance on various assessments, grades also embodied the assumption that one of college’s primary purposes is to rank students in terms of their academic accomplishments and their mastery of relevant skills and knowledge.

The growing prevalence of grading rubrics is a sign that faculty members were becoming more explicit about clearly delineating learning objectives and articulating performance standards. As higher education moves toward a heightened emphasis on learning outcomes, higher education will focus more attentively on the ways we can help all students master the skills and competencies that we seek.

2.  It will rest on the science of learning. 

Recent research in neuroscience, cognitive and developmental psychology, and assessment has taught us a great deal about student learning, and instructors will increasingly be expected to apply these findings to improve their teaching. Among the evidence-based concepts which can help instructors enhance students’ motivation, memory, attention, and cognitive processing are these:

  • Cognitive Flexibility:  A student’s mental plasticity increases when the student is aware of multiple, alternative, or conflicting points of view.  Learners’ motivation, learning, and intellectual suppleness increases when they must explain a contradiction or anomaly, fill a gap in knowledge, or overcome an impasse.
  • Cognitive Load:  Learners’ ability to process information diminishes when confronted with too much information at once.  Instructor can facilitate student learning by eliminating extraneous information or excessive numbers of points to assimilate.
  • Generation Effect:   Learning is enhanced when learners produce explanations rather than simply regurgitate answers on a test.
  • Grounded Cognition:  Concepts grounded in real-world experience or examples are much more likely to be retained than concepts expressed abstractly. 
  • Higher-Order Thinking:  Deeper understanding is elicited when students are asked to apply concepts, synthesize information, make predictions, form generalizations, or evaluate interpretations, than when they are asked to recall information. 
  • Mental Modeling:  Learning requires students to construct a framework of conceptual understanding which gives intellectual coherence to a body of material.  Instructors can help learners construct mental models by asking them to offer causal explanations and provide justifications or rationales.
  • Metacognition:  Metacognition refers to self-awareness of one’s own thought processes. It also involves the ability to monitor comprehension and accurately evaluate one’s mastery of material. Strategies for encouraging metacognition include asking students to respond to reflective questions; recounting their thought processes as they attempt to solve a problem; and making graphic representations of their thoughts and knowledge, for example, by drawing concept maps.
  • Multiple Delivery Modes:  Information is better remembered when it is delivered in multiple ways (orally, visually, and through activities) rather than when it is delivered in a single form.
  • Narrative Learning:  Stories tend to produce higher levels of comprehension and memory than other forms of instruction precisely because narratives are engaging and give coherence and structure to abstract concepts.
  • Organization Effect:  Learning increases when learners are asked to categorize, outline, or synthesize information.
  • Regulatory Fit:  Students with a prevention focus are especially sensitive to negative outcomes and seek to avoid errors, while students with a promotion focus are more sensitive to positive outcomes. Learning is enhanced when there is congruence between the activity or assessment and the students’ goal orientation.
  • Spaced Learning:  Long-term retention of information is greater when it is spaced out over time rather than concentrated in a single lesson.
  • Testing Effect:  Frequent low-stakes testing keeps students focused and helps learners more accurately assess their command of a particular topic or body of material.
  • Testing Expectations:  How well students perform on an assessment, and how well they are able to retrieve information or apply concepts, depends on their expectations of the nature and difficulty of the assessment. According to the concept of stereotype threat, learners underperform whenever they assume that a person like them tends to perform poorly on a particular test or challenge.

3.  It will be data-driven.

Courses taught at scale will give us unprecedented insights into how students learn. Embedded assessments will allow us to better understand how students navigate the learning experience and interact with the course material. We will better be able to identify gaps in learners’ understanding and confusions shared by groups of students. We will learn more than we ever have about the differences between successful and unsuccessful students, and what successful learners do to master a specific skills or concept. In addition, data will enhance our understanding of how students respond to different pedagogical strategies.

4.  It will be personalized.

Just as marketing, retailing, journalism, and entertainment programming have become more personalized, so, too, will higher education. Courses will become more individualized as instructors embrace adaptive learning, which will customize students’ learning pathways. Courses with embedded diagnostics will offer just-in-time remediation and enrichment activities to students, while learning dashboards will allow instructors, coaches, and advisers to intervene with real-time data.

5.  It will take advantage of technology in ways that truly enhance the learning experience.

Narrated PowerPoint slides accompanied by multiple choice quizzes have just begun to give way to next generation technologies.

These technologies will allow for learning anytime, anywhere. These technologies are connectivist, facilitating interaction of students to other learners, instructors and coaches, and experts.

These technologies also enable forms of active learning impossible in a traditional classroom, giving students access to simulations and educational games and to collaborative environments allowing them to create multimedia content which can be shared with others.

Equally important, these technologies will collect the data that make personalized adaptive learning possible, while improving student advising and support services.

Steven Mintz is the Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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