Learning in The 21st Century: Teaching Strategies to Promote Self-Determination

Learning In The 21st Century:  3 Teaching Strategies to Promote Self-Determination


I have never met an urban student at the beginning of the year who told me their goal was to fail at the end of the first term. Unfortunately, there has been a disconnection between the perceived ambition a student has to reach academic goals and the actual percentage of students who arrive with positive academic outcomes. Institutional support and key tools that foster students to integrate curricula with their lived experiences can prove as an added tool to promote persistence. In my five years of research on the persistence and learning outcome of students, I have observed that student learning has completely evolved.

In the traditional classroom, I would begin my college lectures by asking students to shut off their devices, and focus on their assignments. I would follow the prescribed curriculum with traditional modes of analyzing assignments that were completed. With time, I could see my students really wanted more.



They wanted to know how this curriculum ( I taught organizational communication, research analysis, audience segmentation and public speaking) applied to their lived realities. Some students juggled 2-part time jobs while completing BA degrees fulltime. Others wanted to land an amazing job and find their financial success as quick as possible!

Surprisingly, one student even said, “Dr. D I hear you. You want me to submit my assignment and write this speech in this format, but I don’t have time for this. I plan on becoming a mogul, and so I really need to focus on making money.” I looked at him and replied, “You may be the next Zuckerberg or Gates, but you also want to have a longer vision for where you intend to go.  What will happen if you do not understand the ramifications of a major contract, how to appeal to a large grantor or understand the small print in the middle of a contract?”  He paused after this comment, and thought about this but I did not see him return to class for the next two weeks. He did not return.This student was determined, but his mind could not make the connection between the coursework and his desires to be an entrepreneur. We cannot be afraid to let them discover new aspects of their potential while they are enrolled in our classrooms.

Some of our students may come from areas that we have deemed unsuitable. These students are often battling challenges from lack of resources, socio-economic barriers, and access to quality learning.  I’ve had the pleasure of directing programs that worked with at-risk teens to ensure their student success.  I have also worked with the adult population of students who battled the heavy schedules of an adult learner while raising a family.  A common denominator of ethic was the key skill of self-determination.

In the beginning of our course, I would have students complete an introductory as a way to break the ice with the students in the classroom. I was particularly moved when one student mentioned that he had spent years in the foster system, and had nobody from his family to attend his high school graduation. He mentioned to the class that, although no one was present, he himself was present, and he decided that he would receive his degree with pride. 

Skeptics may feel that any aspect of learning that appears to non-objective as a waist of learning. I would beg to differ.  There are too many outward displays of discontent happening within the school walls.  Although the aforementioned student, did not return, I had another learner who had failed to complete my course over a 2-year period.  She finally came a third time and said she was willing to do whatever it took to pass the course. She never missed one class, submitted all assignments, and even gave such a persuasive speech about her perspective on criminal justice that the class gave her a roaring applause.  In the end-she told the class, that she took the coursework for granted. She realized that all of the assignments I was giving was for a purpose.  She mentioned to the class, that they had to find ways to see the value in the assignments.  I truly was proud of her.  I could see that sometimes, the biggest lesson is not within our classrooms, but the external influences of the daily rigor.

 We know that positive coaching, excellent teaching strategy and peer leadership encourages the growth of individuals who strive to learn.  We cannot forget to meet the needs of those learners who are struggling with external aspects of life as this also plays a role as to how they perceive their learning and personal self-concept. Some of the ways we can promote activities to enhance self-determination are the following

  1. Student Journal of “Hot Topics”

Have students take five minutes to write a journal about a relevant news event, neighborhood community project or insight. The key here is for them to share something of interest that they have a choice to pick. This type of autonomy is useful and promotes critical thinking.


  1. Life Application of Course Objectives

Give students the assignment and then throw in a CURVE ball. When I allowed students to add one component to the assignment that would surprise the class or build engagement, students were excited.


  1. Peer Interviews

Try to find a way to build engagement by providing great peer to peer feedback. This sparks inclusion and retention. Try to peer stronger students with those who may not be as strong in a given area. Set the parameters for critical feedback.





About the Author:

Dr. Allana Da Graca is the President of Turning On The Lights Global Institute. TOLGI creates digital products to help individuals reach their personal and professional goals.  Continue to follow the 2016 Blog series that focuses on Education, Creativity and Digital Innovation.  Please subscribe and pass this article along to those who may enjoy this article. Thanks!Sign Up


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