No time to waste: Setting learners up for success now and for the future

The future arrived ahead of schedule. The past year and a half of the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated existing workforce trends and magnified others beyond recognition. A hybrid workspace, technological advancements, expectation of a diverse workforce and the constant need to upskill are here to stay. Yet higher education — the industry tasked with preparing the next generation of professionals — has been the most resistant to change.

Numerous universities still rely on course management systems that haven’t been updated since the 1990s, lack diversity in their student body and faculty and operate with a rewards system that can be at times problematic, e.g., tenure. An alarming trend revealed by a new Cengage Report shows that college graduates are entering the workforce feeling underprepared and questioning the real value of their education.

Leaders in higher education know that the additional challenges presented by the pandemic are piling on top of an existing array of problems that has been growing over time. These include “the looming enrollment crisis, the high cost of higher education, intractable student debt, the corporatization of education, limited learning on campus, and a general loss of faith in higher education among many sectors of the nation.” Simply cutting down on budgets and restructuring internally will not ensure that colleges and universities are living up to their purpose long-term.

It’s time for bolder changes, based on behavioral science, that will have long-lasting success. Below, I share insights I have gained based on my personal experience as an executive who transitioned from a tenure-track faculty position, as well as a behavior change expert, on three areas where higher education must evolve to meet the changing needs for the future of work, and the critical advantages of establishing connections to the corporate learning and development industry.

Create shared language across disciplines 

According to new research from Burning Glass, the top two skills employers want new employees to have are communication and team skills. One way to enhance both these skills is to teach students how to effectively work cross-functionally. The ability to work with different teams in sales, marketing and operations has been the single most valuable skill I have encountered during my transition into industry. The future of work will continue to demand this ability. One way is to strategically connect the skills that are being taught within higher education to the needs of industry and employers. Partnerships with industry leaders are a start but change should start from within, and higher education leaders must more intentionally prepare students to work across disciplines.

Researchers refer to this ability to connect the dots as “transfer.” For example, students are taught about the concept of “learning” in the context of different concentrations, but they are rarely taught how this concept is labeled elsewhere. “Learning” in psychology is akin to the concept of socialization in sociology, adaptation in biology, and acculturation in anthropology. However, the lack of common or shared language between disciplines disrupts transfer. Higher education professionals should also create programs where different disciplines can bridge and help scaffold transfer so students can develop a shared language.

Prioritize research labs to teach problem-solving

Employers are also looking for new hires to problem-solve, plan and troubleshoot. These skills are inherent to the research process, and higher education institutions would do their students and future alumni a disservice by eliminating these learning opportunities during budget cuts.  Even institutions that are not classified as “Research I” or do not identify themselves as “research-heavy” should still incorporate research into their learning strategy.

Research is not only the hub of innovation that motorizes creativity and critical thinking, it also allows for hands-on practice which enhances students’ ability to deepen their understanding of key material.

Research on “growth mindset” — or the belief that skills can be developed through effort — shows that the process of working toward a discovery is sometimes more valuable than the outcome itself. Lab work provides the space and time to collaborate with other students and faculty to work out the problems in an applied manner that large lecture halls do…

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