Creating Real-World Learning Opportunities

Renee Wright

As faculty, we all strive for opportunities for students to use what they learn and discover in our classes in real-world situations. Recently, I stumbled on such an opportunity as my students completed an essay assignment establishing criteria for student success. While researching the topic, someone came across an article from 2015, “American Millennials Are Among the World’s Least Skilled,” and wondered why American’s scored so low. The class asked if they could research the topic for the next essay assignment; not wanting to pass up a teachable moment, I agreed.

When we work on research projects, students first have to create questions that will guide their process. Their questions included:

  • Why did Americans score low?
  • What is the test?
  • Who are millennials?
  • What other countries are part of the testing?
  • What happens with the test results?
  • Who reads the test results information?
  • Who is the audience for the specific article? Why?
  • Who cares?

Researching the topic, students found that the test is called the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) and has been administered around the world for years.

According to the website, PIAAC directly assesses cognitive skills in the areas of literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments. The assessment is designed to provide information about the skills and personal traits that are important for success in the 21st century global economy. Actually, this turned out to be a great follow-up assignment because students could look compare the criteria they established in the previous assignment to the skills being assessed on the test.

Upon further investigation, students were upset when they looked at the data of American students’ performance. They were disturbed that much of the focus suggested they, as millennials (born after 1980), were part of the reason for low scores. This carried additional concerns: In reviewing the title of the article, would employers think differently of them when they were interviewing for a job or being considered for a promotion? Had the educational system failed them in some way that made them less prepared? According to the data, millennials have attained the most years of schooling of any cohort in American history. Some even took the practice test. They wanted to know what happened.

As they researched the information and started to write, I was surprised that their message seemed to blame everyone:

  • the curriculum
  • unqualified teachers
  • the high cost of education
  • inadequate funding

However, a few students wrote about the low performance considering education standards. Generally, they believed teachers didn’t expect enough, so they “slacked off”. As one student wrote, “How can we be expected to excel, when the system is satisfied with ‘average’?”

Coming off the second essay, students had complained about the challenge of the assignment and my expectations. Writing this third essay put those complaints in a new light. One thing was clear in their writing for the third essay: They realized they had to be the agents of change. Reflecting on their research, if America spends more per student on education than countries scoring higher on the assessment, funding wasn’t the problem. Changing the mindsets of students should be the greater concern.

As I read through the essays for the third time, I’m comforted in the idea that students could transfer what they learned about mindsets at the beginning of the semester to something that had meaning for them. All in all, it was a struggle, but it was also a GREAT semester!