Integrating 21st Century Skills Across the College Curriculum

USA Funds SymposiumTo be ready for careers in the new global marketplace, college students need a new set of essential skills, and postsecondary institutions must adopt new teaching practices to instill those skills in their graduates. Michael Sutton, an associate professor in the Gore School of Business at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, shared with participants at the 2014 USA Funds® Symposium the importance of integrating essential soft skills with hard skills in the college curriculum.

Sutton has led the development and deployment of new project- and competency-based programs at his college.

“There’s never been a time on the planet when an individual entering a four-year institution taking on a technical skill would realize that by the end of those four years, half of the skill they acquired is obsolete,” Sutton reported. He noted that leading business executives want to hire graduates who can think for themselves, and allow the employer to teach them the rest, so that new employees can be effective and productive in three months instead of nine to 12 months.

“We had to find a way to build models and exercises in decision making, critical analysis and critical thinking that would permit them — the learners — to acquire a way of thinking quite different than if they were taking tests or if they were responding to multiple choice questions,” he said. “As we know, the real world is not based on lectures and multiple choice questions.”

Among the skills Sutton cited as crucial for new graduates are relationship-building, negotiation, problem-solving and decision-making, interpersonal communication, and collaboration. He highlighted several techniques he uses in his competency and project-based approach to help instill those skills in his students.

Building relationships

Sutton notes he uses the social media platform LinkedIn, as well as blogs and wikis. Students learn how to create a digital persona and to use LinkedIn to develop relationships that may lead to employment. “We can’t guarantee them a job,” he said, “but we can guarantee that they’ll have at least 200 high-quality relationships, which we’ll show them in the digital world how to create.”

He also stressed the importance of structured gaming, exercises and simulations in helping students develop essential skills. “I cannot overstress how gamification is changing the landscape of education,” Sutton said. “Before they came into college, they played games all the time. Now we’ve got to sit them in a seat somewhere and talk at them. No way.”

Sutton notes that his learners receive copious feedback on their progress. They are asked to reflect on their experiences, and they benefit from significant coaching and mentoring. Speaking of the role of faculty, he said, “We can no longer be the sage on the stage. We have to be the guide on the side.” 

Steps for schools

He suggested the following steps for colleagues at other colleges:

  • Build the capacity for coaching and mentoring of learners.
  • Employ gamification.
  • Experiment incrementally. Apply a competency-based approach to a single course, for example.
  • Engage local employers to support your efforts. Employers not only can identify the skills they expect in graduates seeking employment with them, but their engagement builds ready-made paths to employment for a college’s students.
  • Create a collaborative community of inquiry. Faculty must be impassioned by the sense of discovery and inquiry so they can impassion their learners.
  • Integrate students’ personal reflection on what they have learned and experienced.

“So the future is about the integration of these incredible soft skills, and we have the opportunity to touch the souls of these individuals and help them develop what they might not otherwise have,” Sutton concluded.