Tag Archives: millennial classroom

What? Are we still talking about how to teach Millennials?

Some topics seem to draw people in and one that keeps resurfacing is “who are today’s students?” There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of articles, books, blogs, advice… lots of ways to help us adjust to the students in our classrooms. In some respects, I am reluctant to join the chorus that could be stereotyping students and suggesting that the Millennials* (people born between 1982 and 2004 or thereabouts) are so perplexing that it takes experts’ advice to be effective with the kids these days. I am, however, a firm believer in the importance of knowing your audience and that does take going beyond assessing their prior knowledge. What makes Millennials tick and how can we better reach them in our classes? A wealth of information that describes this generation exists, but there is far less published on how their characteristics impact teaching and learning processes.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to dig deeper into the literature on Millennials because last semester Crystal Ramsay and I provided two departmental seminars on Millennials students. In those seminars we addressed instructional concerns identified by the faculty that included the following: texting/cell phones in class; class attendance issues; feelings of entitlement (deserve a trophy for showing up); not taking responsibilities for their actions and blaming others; not taking charge of their education; and pretending that they get A’s in all of their classes since I’m the only one handing out lower grades.  Do any sound familiar to you?  

On January 19th, we revisited this topic by offering a session for all of Penn State faculty called Teaching Millennials: Engaging Our Students with Instructional Strategies. In this session, we began with a quick reflection on generational markers and characteristics – we all bring ourselves into a teaching and learning situation and our characteristics influence how we respond.  You might like taking the “How Millennial are You?” quiz at the Pew Research Center site. 

While at the Pew site, try and spend some time on their “Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next” that provides a deeper look at their behaviors, values, and opinions. Another useful resource on the influences that impact Millennials can be found in “The Information-Age Mindset: Changes in Students and Implications for Higher Education.”

A quick read that suggests initial findings as to what do with Millennials in your classrooms is called, “Why Don’t My Students Think I’m Groovy?: The New R’s for Engaging Millennial Learners”  while another perspective suggests that Millennials need variety in our classrooms.  For some specific instructional issues, you might like to look at a study that addresses “does their low tolerance for boredom make the lecture method less effective?” (Roehling, P.V, et. al. (2011). Engaging the millennial generation in class discussions. College Teaching, 59 (1), 1-6.) as well as another study that looks at how psychological traits influence their learning (Stewart, K.D. & Berhardt, K.D. (2010). Comparing millennials to pre-1987 students and with one another. North American Journal of Psychology, 12 (3), 579-602). There is so much to sort through and decide if it is relevant to you and how you teach and learn with Millennials. Please join in and share with us. I’m finding this is a conversation that gets better as we go along.


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?

Millennials, computer use and you

The New York Times ran a fascinating article yesterday about Your Brain on Computers. The article presents an unbiased view of the rampant technology use by both adults and children, in this era of data bombardment.  We are spending more time researching and talking to faculty about the Millennial generation, their traits and possible methods for engaging them in educational settings.  Below are some quotes from the article that struck a chord with my experiences at PSU.

One recurring theme in the article dealt with data bombardment and multitasking. 

“Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information. These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored.”

This is a key theme we run into in many of our meetings with faculty.  ‘Students can’t sit still and focus for an hour in my course, they are always checking their cell phones or laptops’.  I understand the frustrations, but I’m also starting to understand more about how dopamine works, specifically around rewards and learning.  One of my favorite designers, Raph Koster, explains dopamine in the context of video games.  Good games are always built around reward structures, and when you learn how to overcome an obstacle and rewarded in the game, your brain typically releases a dopamine burst.  Essentially, Koster posits, you’re high on natural, biological drugs when you play a good game and, to a lesser extent, learn new things.  Could a class session be structured more like a game, encouraging learning but in the context of this reward structure to keep students interested and solicit this same biological effect?

Another portion of the article deals with multitasking. 

“While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress.”

The article goes on to weigh both positives and negatives around multitasking, citing several different researchers.  What I would consider the negatives tended to outweigh the positives, with one example explaining that heavy multitaskers often tend to forgo valuable information that could be leveraged immediately, opting instead to continue searching and sifting through other data sources.  The article also goes on to cite researchers talking about neuroplasticity; that is, the ability for the brain to continue to adapt and change during our lives.  The old school of thought was that the brain stopped adapting after childhood.  The new hypothesis is that the bombardment of data via all our current data sources is actually beginning to change our neural networks of the brain. This could present yet another disconnect in the millennial classroom; the brains of faculty, compared to students, are physically different and wired differently.

My favorite quote of the article deals with the need to always be connected, always checking email, IMs, new sites and other data sources.

“Throughout evolutionary history, a big surprise would get everyone’s brain thinking,” said Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford. “But we’ve got a large and growing group of people who think the slightest hint that something interesting might be going on is like catnip. They can’t ignore it.”

This phenomenon I do witness with some of my students, and to me this is my tipping point.  I can understand the desire to check, with a high level of frequency, email and your favorite interactive websites.  But when that desire to check data sources turns into a ‘I can’t stop myself because I might be missing something’ philosophy…I struggle to find a positive angle to this.