A while back, a rash of articles circled the internet about college and university professors afraid to teach millennials. Citing the students’ overly offended and ever-entitled sensitivities, litigious helicopter parents, and a few cases in which instructors lost their positions and their shining reputations thanks to racist remarks in the classroom, professors across the U.S. should be shaking in their loafers when faced with a semester full of 20-year-olds. Or … should they?
Well, no, probably not. For most instructors, the issue of how to reach, teach and relate to millennial students is far less dire, but no less frustrating. Millennials aren’t likely to show up to class polished, poised, and prepared to listen and think critically, a fact which is potentially tarnishing to an instructor’s vision of what teaching college would be like — expanding the minds of young adults focused on more than just their eventual employability. Instead, millennials might saunter into a classroom two minutes after class begins, wearing sweatpants and clutching a giant cup of coffee. They might not outwardly disrupt a lecture, but won’t seem actively engaged in it either — staring instead at a laptop or smartphone, swiping and typing throughout important material.
How can instructors make a difference in the lives of students who seem like they’d rather be staring at a screen than learning from another human, who don’t seem interested in learning for knowledge’s sake, and who aren’t used to having to try very hard to succeed? Most important is remembering that at their cores, millennials are still just kids — people — like any generation that came before. However, they do have a different set of experiences, expectations and engagement styles that instructors can either choose to ignore or to embrace.
Surprising statistics on millennials and virtual learning Given millennials’ proclivity for digital communication and apparent addiction to technology, it may seem like a foregone conclusion that they’d prefer their college instruction virtual, too. Surprisingly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. According to the 2015 Graduate Management Admission Council’s (GMAC) Survey Report, millennials actually prefer less online learning than older students seeking MBA or graduate business degrees.
The survey found millennials would seek 19 percent of their educational content delivered online; Gen Xers prefer 31 percent of their class work online; and baby boomers seeking full-time, one-year MBAs prefer nearly half (44 percent) of their coursework delivered online. Gen Xers and millennials in the same situation reported preferring just 28 percent and 22 percent, respectively. The GMAC survey found that what millennials are really after is a mixed-delivery format. Most reported preference for a program providing about a fourth of instructional content online and the rest through traditional means.
A Millennial Branding study backed up the findings of the GMAC survey and took them a step further. The study found 36 percent of students said online learning “benefits the balance between work and class.” However, in spite of their openness to virtual learning, almost 78 percent reporting finding it easier to learn in traditional classrooms than online, a response rate that seems surprising for these digital natives. Instead, throughout a variety of studies, the most important function of education is active, engaged, fast-paced learning. Millennials want engaged, active learning More than 90 percent of the GMAC survey respondents indicated a preference for “active learning” or experiential education — and that includes technological components. “Millennials expect to be engaged in their learning; they do not do well being passive learners,” according to Educating the NetGen: Strategies That Work. “If you (as a teacher/university) do not have technology that will be part of their learning, they will go somewhere else where they can be engaged with, and interactive with, technology. Millennials perceive a sharp contrast between their comfort level of technology and the technology comfort level of their teachers.” Tom McBride, Keefer Professor of Beloit College, recommends one strategy for encouraging active learning: Flip the classroom. “It means having students do class work at home and homework in class,” McBride said. “At home, students hear lectures on podcasts.
Then they go to class and work together to apply what the lectures teach. This then becomes a new way of creating ‘labs,’ as when you present a lecture on price mechanisms and then send students, during class time, to a local store to observe the mechanisms for themselves on the shelves, or ask art students to detect artistic ‘symmetry’ in everyday images.” Breaking down instruction techniques More than anything, millennials don’t want to spend an entire class period focused on one kind of learning, so instructors should break their classroom teaching into 10- to 15-minute chunks of activity.
For example, a 50-minute class period could be broken into 10-minute portions of lecture, a short quiz, a YouTube video, a group activity and an active discussion. Don’t be afraid to incorporate fun learning techniques — research shows they are effective for millennials. In a 2009 study, Oklahoma State University psychologists Edward Burkley, Ph.D., and Melissa Burkley, Ph.D., tested the effectiveness of showing clips from the TV show “MythBusters” in a psychology research methods course.
“They showed four clips and asked students to answer questions about them, offer their opinions of them and respond to MythBusters-related questions on an exam that also included questions about other course content. The students said the clips helped them understand course concepts, apply their knowledge to real-world situations and were, quite simply, enjoyable. Students performed better on MythBusters-related exam items than on control items, suggesting the clips were effective educational tools,” Burkley and Burkley said.
Professor Christy Price, in “Why Don't My Students Think I'm Groovy?: The New ‘R’s for Engaging Millennial Learners,” found that “interestingly, the most consistent theme present in the analysis of the millennial responses was they preferred a variety of teaching methods as opposed to a ‘lecture-only’ format. It is important to note that these millennial students did not attack the lecture method altogether, but they had strongly negative perceptions of learning environments in which lecture was the only method used.”
According to one millennial respondent, "If you lecture all throughout the time then we get bored. If you are constantly changing from lecture, to discussion, to group work, that helps a lot. It helps keep us awake and we learn more. Stuff gets into our head better." It can be tempting to dismiss a statement like that as just another millennial looking to be babied, not wanting to work hard or wanting a college instructor to pander to his whims and preferences. Looking at it from a different angle, though, consider the massive amount of self-awareness most millennials possess.
Because many of the generation have gone through life with their feelings honored and discussed, they are more aware of their intrinsic strengths, weaknesses, fears and motivators than many of the generations that came before. Emotional intelligence and the millennial student “Emotions play a significant role in our everyday life, and the classroom is no exception,” according to Alan K. Goodboy, an associate professor at West Virginia University and co-author of a 2014 study titled “Making Students Feel Better: Examining the Relationships Between Teacher Confirmation and College Students' Emotional Outcomes.” “When teachers communicate with students in a way that confirms their performance in class, it helps students feel better about their learning experiences and, ultimately, challenges them to continue improving.”
Overall, instructors can succeed in teaching millennial students by taking advantage of all the tools afforded to them and by recognizing that just because these students were born within a certain set of years doesn’t mean they’re wired to behave or respond to praise, criticism and attention differently than anyone else. “We should also recognize that millennials struggle with many of the same issues and concerns their parents and grandparents faced,” said Jeff Nevid, author of “Teaching the Millennials.” “Millennials, like generations before them, strive to carve out their individual identities and roles in life.
They still dream the same dreams and face the same challenges of fitting in and making friends. They also face the same challenges when it comes to learning and acquiring skills needed to make their way in the world.” “Although many millennials may process information in different ways than earlier generations, it’s important to recognize that the human brain has not magically been rewired in the past 20 years,” Nevid continued. “The principles of learning and memory still apply. Yet millennials are using their brains in different ways to process information.
Although instructors may need to adapt the classroom to meet the learning needs of millennials, they should draw upon their knowledge of the learning process to help their students become more effective learners in the classroom.”