Teaching “Millennial” Students: Why are faculty so interested?

The Schreyer Institute has hosted, co-hosted, and facilitated invited programs on teaching “Millennial Students,” every one of which has attacked relatively large numbers of faculty.  Yesterday, we hosted another seminar on this topic.  Our guest speaker, Dr. Kathy Schmidt, asked how many faculty found the characterizations useful or helpful for teaching.  Only a few faculty stood up for the generational classifications, others indicated that they were skeptical or unconvinced. 

We had a lively discussion about whether behavioral the differences that we see in today’s undergraduates represent any substantive cognitive differences in how students learn.  I see these generational categorizations as one of many classifications used by people to make complexities more manageable.  I have seen very little compelling evidence that today’s students learn in different ways than students of previous generations.  Some hints at interesting possibilities, but nothing solid yet.

Instead, I think that many students come to college with different expectations about their own and others behaviors.   And I think it is this misalignment that is prompting faculty to seek more information about their students.  It is probably fairly analogous to the way some faculty must have felt on campuses in during the Vietnam era. 

This divide may seem wider than generational transitions that have occurred since the 1960s and before the late 2000s.  I suspect a number of factors are likely at play today, including technology access (something all Millennial conversations invoke).  As many others have said before, students today are more connected to technology than ever before, whether that translates to technological literacy is a matter of debate. 

I am not convinces that new technology is the primary factor.  New technology is always with us.  Instead, I think it is the intersection of today’s new technology with other factors that merge to create the widening expanse between faculty and students.  One of these factors may be fiscal changes accumulating since the 1980s that have resulted in less frequent turnover of long term faculty.  Fewer institutions are hiring, and few are hiring many tenure-line faculty.  Add that to delayed retirements, and we have a big stretch of time between students and faculty. 

Pre-tenure faculty may be operating more like their senior colleagues than their students, even when they are wired and tech-savvy.  Not only are tenure-line appointments rarer, the tenure bar is higher.  So changing courses to be more appealing to Millennials might be riskier than ever.  Perhaps some senior faculty, e.g. those voting on tenure committees or observing junior colleagues, are still skeptical of technology enhanced teaching.  This would not be surprising given the number of active-learning skeptics, even after decades of research.  Tenure is too precious to risk alienating your reviewers. 

Likewise, the growing number of fixed-term faculty may also be more risk averse.  Neither pre-tenure or fixed-term faculty would want to be viewed as capitulating to or coddling their (Millennial) students. 

I’d like to see the Schreyer Institute develop some programs that move this conversation to the next level — beyond student characteristics.  Perhaps we could tackle the question about whether faculty should surrender or adapt to Millennial demands or expectations (though we would first have to discuss exactly what those demands are).  It is possible to stick to one’s learning objectives, while still adapting to the new student context. 

I would also like to explore what specific student expectations and behaviors are different, and help faculty work toward a better alignment.  Let’s move beyond classifications of students in the aggregate to the specifics about what exactly is different.  And next to what differences are problematic in the classroom.  We need to learn more about exactly what issues faculty see as needing resolution.

Who’s up for this exploration?

1 thought on “Teaching “Millennial” Students: Why are faculty so interested?


    “I would also like to explore what specific student expectations and behaviors are different, and help faculty work toward a better alignment.”

    We did a few student feedback sessions in IST a couple years ago, asking students how they would like to see technology integrated into the courses. We specifically asked about using Facebook in the flow of courses, which received 2 very different responses:

    1. Sure, I go there each day anyway, might as well have school related things there.
    2. NO! Stay away from my social spaces!

    Eventually, we found students wanted a course to be *like* facebook.
    – Ability to post questions/thoughts and have reactions from your peers AND instructor.

    – Ability to network both within and outside of the class (on course related materials. Kind of ‘ask the expert’ for instance, someone in industry)

    – Timeliness. This will always be a sticking point as students expect near-instantaneous feedback from instructors, while instructors are doing a lot more than just teaching (which many students do not realize).

    When faculty voice frustrations about students using cellphones and facebook during class, I always try and put it in perspective. It’s nearly identical to what many of us did pre-cell phones or computer in class: pass notes. Instead of passing papers or hand signals across a room, it just happens to take place via a new medium.

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