Move over, 3 Rs: Make room for the 3 Cs

Thoughts on teaching professional skills


It has been around two centuries since reading, writing, and arithmetic (collectively known as the “three Rs”) were suggested as foundational skills in education. More recently, communication, critical thinking, and collaboration have been proposed as a core set of professional skills called the “three Cs.” It’s not clear that the three Rs have dominated educational thinking recently, but it certainly seems that we should take the three Cs seriously to help our students prepare for 21st-century jobs.

Although I am not an education researcher, it is clear to me—and probably to you as well—that much of what students learn and how they are taught has not changed significantly for many years. Basic content for fields like mathematics does not require updating in the same way it does in fields like biology. Lectures remain the norm, despite increasing evidence that students benefit more from active learning, in which they engage in activities like discussion or problem-solving that encourage mental processing of material; seemingly anything other than a lecture is better for increasing student learning. (If you are not convinced, read Comparing students’ and experts’ understanding of the content of a lecture.) 

Even when instructors try to alter their methods to improve student learning, what we teach is not necessarily what employers value. One attempt to identify those skills was a 2012 survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s MarketplaceAlong with industry-specific skills and work or internship experience, so-called “professional skills” are also in demand. Among the conclusions of the survey are the following: “When it comes to the skills most needed by employers, job candidates are lacking most in written and oral communication skills, adaptability and managing multiple priorities, and making decisions and problem solving. Employers place the responsibility on colleges to prepare graduates in written and oral communications and decision-making skills.”

Communication and critical thinking are examples of skills that many of us recognize as important. However, instructors are tasked with teaching specific courses, often following department-approved outlines that, unsurprisingly, focus on discipline-specific learning outcomes. In many, if not most, cases, we are not required to cultivate professional skills, nor are we rewarded for doing so; in fact, we may even be reprimanded for taking time away from covering traditional disciplinary topics. Nevertheless, if students need these skills to be better prepared for jobs, then, despite the difficulties involved, we should be looking for ways to promote professional skills like the three Cs in our courses.

In my opinion, one of the best approaches that could work in many courses is the use of class projects. Critical thinking can be encouraged through the use of open-ended problems where students must make decisions about the approach they should take. Communication skills are utilized in writing project reports and giving oral presentations, which can be done through submitted videos if the class meeting schedule cannot accommodate them. Collaboration can be required through team-based projects with collective written and oral reports; individual responsibility can be retained by assigning “sub-problems” that individual students are responsible for addressing as part of the whole project.

An even better form of project is one suggested by a member of local industry: having an external “client” generally motivates students to perform at their best and also allows them to see how both the technical and professional skills they are developing will be useful outside the classroom. Several programs, such as the PIC Math Program, provide training for instructors who seek to incorporate an industry-inspired project into a course. In many cases, including such components makes both students and faculty happier and more satisfied with a course.

We should keep in mind, however, that students can only learn these professional skills (like any other skills) through practice, which requires feedback and multiple opportunities. It is also true that students will learn, for the most part, what instructors assess. If communication, collaboration, and critical thinking are not part of the course assessment scheme, students will receive the message that they are not important.

Some additional C skills could be added to the list. Creativity has been suggested: employers want employees who contribute unique ideas. Computing is another skill that opens doors to new types of career options. Adding chances to learn and practice these skills can broaden the opportunities available to students.

To benefit our students most, we should find ways to provide students with opportunities not only to practice such skills, but also to demonstrate to prospective employers that they have gained significant experience. Many employers ask questions during interviews that are best answered by applicants who can cite jobs or projects that helped them learn valuable skills. A collaborative project to solve a problem posed by a local industry gives students a great focal point for a job interview and an opportunity to discuss specific examples of their experiences with professional communication, teamwork, and addressing open-ended real-world problems.

Although the benefits for undergraduates and high-school students of focusing on professional skills as a form of workforce development is likely fairly apparent, it may be less obvious that such training can also benefit graduate students. The number of new PhD graduates typically far exceeds the number of faculty positions available each year, and many graduate students end up working in industry. Moreover, even for those who choose to pursue academic careers, how can it be anything but advantageous to be proficient in critical thinking, collaboration, and communication? These skills are at the heart of most research, teaching, and service activities.

So, regardless of the level and aspirations of the students we teach, focusing on the three Cs of communication, critical thinking, and collaboration will improve our classroom environment and better prepare our students to contribute meaningfully to a broader range of employment opportunities.


More on professional skills:

Trivium Pursuit: Advancing the 3 "C's" (Critical Thinking, Collaboration, and Creativity) of Twenty-First-Century Liberal Arts

An Educator’s Guide to the “Four Cs”

Framework for 21st Century Learning

Hone the Top 5 Soft Skills Every College Student Needs


More on active learning:

Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research

Active Learning, University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching

Active Learning, Cornell University Center for Teaching Excellence

Promoting Active Learning, Stanford Teaching Commons


More on engaging mathematics students with problems posed by industry (keep in mind that intellectual property issues may arise, so it is advisable to consult appropriate offices at your institution):

PIC Math Program, Mathematical Association of America

Applied Methods and Research Experience, The College of Wooster

Applied and Industrial Mathematics, Virginia Military Institute

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