Skip to main content
Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

January 20, 2015

‘Productive disruption’ teaches students to be intentional learners

Center for 21st Century Liberal Learning (C21)

“Our goal for first-year students is that, by the end of the year, they can present a coherent story about their intellectual goals. If we help students do this work in the pre-major, they are more likely to end up in the right majors for the right reasons. And they become engaged students who are a joy to teach.”

Kevin Mihata
C21 Director and Associate Dean for Educational Programs, College of Arts and Sciences

The Center for 21st Century Liberal Learning (C21) is a recent initiative of the College of Arts and Sciences exploring how to best prepare undergraduates to thrive at the UW and beyond. The Center’s core programming revolves around the C21 Fellows, a group of students who experience a unique curriculum tailored to their needs, and who also contribute to shaping the future of C21 itself. Undergraduate students apply to participate in the program. The most recent cohort started in summer 2014, building skills and relationships even before their first quarter at the UW. C21 is collaborating closely with Undergraduate Academic Affairs, First-Year Programs, and the Career Center in this effort to re-think what a college education should offer.

Putting students in the driver’s seat: In order to get the most out of college, students need to learn to be strategic early on, say C21 staff. “At a big research university like this, if students are not intentional about their own learning, they will miss a lot of great opportunities,” says Director Kevin Mihata. Through experiential learning, facilitated discussions and structured reflection, C21 staff guide Fellows as they learn to be proactive about their educations rather than simply ticking off requirements. “It seems clear that they can’t learn this just by us telling them,” says Mihata. Four years of practice as C21 Fellows helps students develop key skills, attitudes and habits they can draw on to shape their futures.

Learning is less about finding the right answers than asking the right questions: C21 leaders find that incoming students often need to unlearn some attitudes and practices in order to get the most out of their UW education. Intensive, early fall experiences are designed to jump-start this new way of thinking before first-year students ever arrive on campus. In 2014, this consisted of a short study abroad experience in León, Spain. “They have done everything right to get here, but they haven’t had a lot of experience operating in ambiguity,” says Gretchen Ludwig, C21’s curriculum coordinator, of students transitioning from high school. “In León, they came to us for feedback but were really fishing for what we wanted, for the answer. After we didn’t tell them, they began to reflect that maybe there isn’t just one answer.” C21 Fellow Alvaro Contreras says the León trip was “preparing us for what college is going to be like. In high school we’re so used to having a rubric of what we have to do. Here they just told us, ‘Go out, explore, and then give us a presentation.’ ”

A ‘home base’ as students adjust to college life: Like the communities many undergraduates find in the Greek system or student organizations, the C21 Fellows program offers students a tight-knit campus ‘home’ with small cohorts and dedicated campus mentors. For example, Bob Stacey, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, advised the Fellows in Spain during their summer study abroad experience. C21 staff see such support as critical to student success. The first quarter of college is “not a comfortable place to be,” says Ludwig. “They really need a community to support them as they try to make sense of their college experience.” C21 Fellows have three overlapping communities: their own cohort, a “learning lab” that mixes together about 15 C21 Fellows at different points in their academic careers, and all 72 C21 students. Fellow Louie Vital notes, “It gives us a way to not be stuck within our own discipline, but to really learn from each other, and what other majors and students have to offer.”

C21 Fellows (left to right) Alvaro Contreras, Ednauh Kamlondy, Louie Vital and Tiffanie Matthews reflected on their UW experiences in a C21 video. Contreras remarks, “We don’t have anyone saying, ‘Do this, do this this way.’ It’s all the way we interpret it.” Kamlondy notes, “Here they say, ‘This is the prompt, what can you do with it?’ ” Images courtesy of Isaiah Brookshire.

C21 Fellows (left to right) Alvaro Contreras, Ednauh Kamlondy, Louie Vital and Tiffanie Matthews reflected on their UW experiences in a C21 video. Contreras remarks, “We don’t have anyone saying, ‘Do this, do this this way.’ It’s all the way we interpret it.” Kamlondy notes, “Here they say, ‘This is the prompt, what can you do with it?’” Images courtesy of Isaiah Brookshire.

“I teach my 9th graders in the Bronx the same things that C21 taught me: creative problem-solving, love of learning and resilience. I am so happy to facilitate the kind of mentoring relationships that helped me succeed in college for students who otherwise wouldn’t have them.”

Jeevon Durkee ‘13
C21 Fellow 2012-13; B.A., Geography

Out-of-the-box assignments: C21 coursework reflects the program’s focus on ‘productive disruption’—getting students to take on challenges that may be uncomfortable but activate creativity. The C21 curriculum is made up of one-credit seminars that meet for 90 minutes each week. Assignments are often open-ended. One recent activity asked Fellows to film a video reflection about their UW highs and lows so far. Responses ranged from tears to laughter, from quiet reflection to dancing—sometimes all in the same video. These displays of vulnerability and resilience sparked a lively class discussion about the unexpected stresses of college, and how to pull through them. Through assignments like this, mentors believe C21 students have an opportunity to learn to take risks safely—what Assistant Director Cynthia Caci jokingly calls “supervised floundering.”

Students co-create the curriculum: C21 coursework is already student-driven­, but juniors and seniors are also asked to submit proposals about next steps for C21 as a whole. For example, juniors recently designed and proposed a C21 major. Mihata says, “We are in year three, and this is an iterative process. We are co-creating the model with the students.”

A UW education is more than the diploma: As C21 Fellow Ednauh Kamlondy reflects, “University is not just a place to focus on your major, but a place to learn as much as possible.” One thing C21 staff want students to learn is that they don’t have to find every answer on their own. “They are so used to the individualized testing culture,” says Ludwig. “That’s how they’ve been judged. But knowledge is distributed­. What we are helping them learn is how to ask for help, navigate networks and use those networks to solve problems.”

Making better majors: C21 leaders have a series of goals in mind. “The first quarter is just about building a support system,” Mihata says. “The first year is about helping students develop an intentional self-story of their own intellectual aspirations. There’s also an institutional goal here: to get students into their majors earlier, and into the right majors for the right reasons.”

Learn More

Read the full Provost report on how to link academic passion to life and careers.