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5 Tips for Teaching Generation Z In College

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Time Magazine reported at the beginning of 2015 that Generation Z students are wired differently and that as they move into their college years, it is becoming apparent just how they differ from previous cohorts.  

Generation Z consists of students born between the mid-1990s and 2010, and learn differently because of their exposure to technology. These students have been also been brought up differently and like Generation Y (ie. Millennials), they are forcing professors to re-think how we present our material. This group of students makes up more than one quarter of the U.S. population and are now starting to enter their final years of high school, which means their next stop will be our college classrooms. 

As a parent to a son that falls into this age group, I can already see some of the challenges he will have when he starts college. I also see the differences that are already apparent in his high school experience that I did not encounter when I was his age. The school administrators at my son’s high school have been talking about college since day one. In fact, Northeastern University reports that 81% of current high school students want to go to college. However, if professors are not prepared for the differences in expectations and learning environments, we risk increasing the divide between the way this generation learns and the way we teach.

Understanding how Generation Z thinks will help you plan new teaching strategies to maximize engagement and retention in your class.  Here are some tips to help you prepare for the challenges and changes on the horizon:

Tip 1: Become A Learning Guide

These students have a robust digital lifestyle, which means they are used to multitasking but are not necessarily very social with in-person groups. Some teachers find that Generation Z students have short attention spans, that are more easily engaged by changing approaches often. It has also been found that these students will not tolerate the “sage on the stage” form of teaching and connect more easily with teachers and professors as facilitators or guides. They are highly capable of self-directed learning and critical thinking but only when they feel what they are learning is important or valuable. They prefer active learning and a student centered learning environment.  My son is currently in 9th grade and all of his core subject classes are project-based so I can only imagine know how frustrated he is going to be in a more traditional college classroom.  In the next five years, the most effective professors will be doing tasks right along with the students and showing them that it is OK to make mistakes.  

Tip 2: Generation Z Embraces Technology

Students in Generation Z reach for a smart device every 7 minutes. It makes sense then, to try to engage these students through familiar channels.  Students now want to communicate via email instead of attending office hours, they want movies instead of novels. Finding creative ways of embracing technology inside and outside your classroom is going to make it easier for students to become accustomed to college life and to flourish in your classroom.  

Something I’ve started to do is keep Skype office hours along with my in-person office hours so that students who want to connect digitally know there is a time they can get immediate attention and face-to-face help, without being physically present. I get great feedback from my students and many have said they appreciate this method of communication.

Tip 3: Allow Educational Freedom

This new generation of students wants to be creative and to think critically about problems but only if they can see the relevance of the subject as it relates to everyday life. They thrive on relevant, applicable lessons and prefer active learning or project-based tasks. As a parent, getting my son motivated to do homework is one of my hardest jobs and it only gets harder when I can’t justify why he needs to do it. As an adult student in college, he is going to have to find that motivation within himself and may disengage from the class if he can’t see the relevance.

Giving students a choice of topics or project execution will increase participation and engagement. For example, if your students are reading “Life of Pi”, instead of writing papers and reports, give them the choice of painting, sculpting, literary writing, or even to design a board game around the book. Instructors need to find ways to re-think how they teach their subjects to keep students motivated to learn.

Tip 4: Teach Students the Benefits of Taking Risks

Generation Y students were not afraid of risks and were often found jumping into new ideas and technologies head first. Generation Z students do not have the same amount of confidence. I find this trait particularly interesting since this generation has been praised from birth far more than previous generations. This may be due to the difference in the economy between when Generation Y students were growing up, since the 90s brought a lot of prosperity and when Generation Z students were growing up which was a time of recession.

In a time where there is a 400% increase in multigenerational households, and epidemic student debt from higher education, Generation Z students need to learn self-confidence and how to take an acceptable amount of risk. One trend in particular that I am finding challenging is how difficult it’s becoming to get students to participate in conferences and contests. Students are afraid to put themselves out there since they might ‘fail’. As an instructor, I continue to try and find ways to bolster their confidence and show them that failure is sometimes the key to success.

Tip 5: Speed of Access Matters

Generation Z students have grown up with technology in their hands and most have had access to high speed Internet connections for the majority of their lives. The speed in which they can access the digital tools you are requiring matters to them.  There’s not a lot of patience for technology slowness. Students expect to be able to find whatever information they want quickly and will often give up in frustration if a solution isn’t easily found.

According to a recent journal article, students read less than 20% of text and only spend 4.4 seconds for every 100 words on the page. Obviously this means that traditional reading assignments are not going to get through. It appears that K-12 teachers are getting the message since my son’s 9th grade classes still read books as a group in class and don’t expect them to read outside of class on their own.

Generation Z students not only want speed in their technical access but they want speed in their communication as well. I have found that students in online classes get very frustrated if they have to wait for an email answer. However, the upside of this mentality is the ease in which they are able to to filter through extraneous or misleading information when searching online for an answer. It is important to keep this in mind when working on your teaching strategies since online scavenger hunts and other online research tasks may be too simple for this group.

In Short

Keeping all of the above in mind, it can be difficult to keep pace with the technology needs of teaching these new tech savvy students with the limited budgets provided to us. Many of the new techniques that we as educators are learning focus on how to find technology that we can use in our classrooms for a low cost.

When it comes to engaging generation Z students, flexibility really seems to be the key.

I have a first-hand view and how these students operate. They want to be able to look at less-than-traditional sources for their learning and information and they don’t want to wait patiently for answers. These students don’t mind working in groups as long as they have a connection with the other students and share their interests.  It’s important to them to know why they are having to perform the tasks you are asking of them and they want to see the bigger picture of how your lessons fit into their learning requirements. To be effective teachers to these students, we need to learn to take a step back from the stage and learn to guide and facilitate a truly student centered learning environment.

Top Hat is designed to connect professors and students in the classroom and to create a more engaged and active learning environment. If you’re interested in a demonstration of how Top Hat can be used in your classroom, click the button below.

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