Chapter 3
The Learning All Students Need for the 21st Century

The education all students need...


prepares them for personal success and fosters a just, democratic society. The panel believes that the elements of such an education can bring together the many expectations various groups hold for college study. The central question is simple: What should all students be learning in college? No matter their aspirations or prior preparation, what will all graduates require to lead personally fulfilling and socially responsible lives? What learning should result from an undergraduate education of quality, whether gained from study at a selective liberal arts college, an urban university, an open-enrollment community college for part-time adults, online courses, or a combination of them all?


Though easily framed, the question is not easily answered. By raising substantive issues, it looks for a response that goes far beyond a simple list of courses completed or books read.


The intentional learner

The panel recommends that colleges and universities place new emphasis on educating students to become intentional learners. In a turbulent and complex world, every college student will need to be purposeful and self-directed in multiple ways. Purpose implies clear goals, an understanding of process, and appropriate action. Further, purpose implies intention in one's actions. Becoming such an intentional learner means developing self-awareness about the reason for study, the learning process itself, and how education is used. Intentional learners are integrative thinkers who can see connections in seemingly disparate information and draw on a wide range of knowledge to make decisions. They adapt the skills learned in one situation to problems encountered in another: in a classroom, the workplace, their communities, or their personal lives. As a result, intentional learners succeed even when instability is the only constant.


For intentional learners, intellectual study connects to personal life, formal education to work, and knowledge to social responsibility. Through understanding the power and implications of education, learners who are intentional consciously choose to act in ethical and responsible ways. Able to place themselves in the context of a diverse world, these learners draw on difference and commonality to produce a deeper experience of community.


The intentional learner is empowered through intellectual and practical skills.

Mastery of a range of abilities and capacities empowers intentional learners as they maneuver in and shape a world in flux. The intellectual and practical skills needed are extensive, sophisticated, and expanding with the explosion of new technologies. As they progress through grades K-12 and the undergraduate years and at successively more challenging levels, empowered learners excel at:

  • communicating in diverse settings and groups, using written, oral, and visual means, and in more than one language
  • understanding and employing both quantitative and qualitative analysis to describe and solve problems
  • interpreting, evaluating, and using information discerningly from a variety of sources
  • integrating knowledge of various types and understanding complex systems
  • resolving difficult issues creatively by employing multiple systems and tools
  • deriving meaning from experience, as well as gathering information from observation
  • demonstrating intellectual agility and managing change
  • transforming information into knowledge and knowledge into judgment and action
  • demonstrating intellectual agility and managing change
  • working well in teams, including those of diverse composition, and building consensus.
The intentional learner is informed by knowledge and ways of knowing


Intentional learners possess a core of knowledge, both broad and deep, derived from many fields. Since study must be about something, the sophisticated cognitive skills developed by empowered learners cannot be separated from content knowledge. Higher education has traditionally sorted this knowledge into disciplines, each of which uses distinctive modes of inquiry that shape the way it sees the world. Self-aware, informed learners understand the value of multiple perspectives in gaining a complete picture. College education favors studying about significant, challenging issues as a way to hone intellectual and practical skills. Theories help explain phenomena, and the better informed learners become, the more precise their abilities to link theory with practice.


To become informed learners, students should have sustained opportunities, both in school and in college, to learn about:

  • the human imagination, expression, and the products of many cultures
  • the interrelations within and among global and cross-cultural communities
  • means of modeling the natural, social, and technical worlds
  • the values and histories underlying U.S. democracy.
The intentional learner is responsible for personal actions and civic values

Empowered and informed learners are also responsible. Through discussion, critical analysis, and introspection, they come to understand their roles in society and accept active participation. Open-minded and empathetic, responsible learners understand how abstract values relate to decisions in their lives. Responsible learners appreciate others, while also assuming accountability for themselves, their complex identities, and their conduct. By weaving moral reasoning into the social fabric of life and work, they help society shape its ethical values, and then live by those values.


To develop these competencies and commitments of responsible learners, education should foster:

  • intellectual honesty and engagement in ongoing learning
  • responsibility for society's moral health and for social justice
  • active participation as a citizen of a diverse democracy
  • respect for and appropriate use of intuition and feeling, as well as thinking
  • discernment of consequences, including ethical consequences, of decisions and actions
  • deep understanding of one's self and one's multiple identities that connect habits of mind, heart, and body
  • respect for the complex identities of others, their histories, and their cultures.