How to Teach Gen Z Students

Generation Z—typically defined as people born after 1995—is now arriving on campus. But by most accounts, they’re different from their predecessors, the Millennials.

“Gen Zs are not mini-Millennials,” said Amy Lynch, founder of Generational Edge, a consulting firm based in Nashville.

For one thing they—and not, as it is often reported, Millennials—are the first truly digital-native generation. Millennials still might have learned addition via flashcards, but Gen Zs more likely had an app that provided instant answers and feedback. As a result, “they reach for a smart device every seven minutes. They multitask across four or five screens instead of two or three,” said Lynch, the mother of two Millennial daughters.

“One outcome of that for the teacher is Gen Z is even more distracted than the Millennials,” she noted. “Their brains have simply been wired for the give-and-take of bits and bytes.”

They’re also a generation that understands the world is tough. The events of 9/11 and the resulting global conflict have been a constant theme in their lives, and many felt the effects of the housing crash and Great Recession at a young age, which seems to have left a lasting impression. Early indications are this will be a passionate group that works together to solve issues. Indeed, these students seem more diligent and less chatty than their Millennial elders, said Wayne Pinnell, CPA, a part-time accounting professor at California State University, Fullerton’s Irvine campus.

And, given they likely know someone with crushing college-related debt, they’re more likely to embrace local schools or inexpensive routes to education. Pinnell said many of his students work during the day and take evening classes.

Millennials, he notes, “came out of the pre-recession prosperity,” he said. “Now, I think young people say ‘We went through this downturn and Mom and Dad lost a job. I’ve got to do it myself.’”

Here are a few tips for teaching the next generation of accountants:

Think digital. Millennials may have taken a quick glance at the blurry handouts you passed out, but Gen Zers may not even go that far. Try using portals as a way to store everything from lecture notes to e-books. That way, Gen Z students—who are accustomed to having information at their fingertips—can access materials at their convenience and print what they need at their leisure. “I just post everything,” said Pinnell, who is also the managing partner at Haskell & White in Irvine, Calif.

Break it up. Long lectures aren’t the best technique for Gen Z students, who are used to multitasking and constant stimulation. Try a variety of teaching methods to keep the class moving and maintain interest.

“I see the increasingly short attention span present itself when I work with junior staff members. They ask a few, if any, questions and all too quickly are ready to move on to the next topic,” said Neil Pacifico, CPA, who works with several Gen Z interns at New York-based accounting firm Citrin Cooperman. “Today’s students need information presented in a digestible format—bullet points and straight-to-the-point solutions.”

Lynch agreed: “Millennials grew up watching a lot of movies that go for an hour and a half,” she said. Gen Z, on the other hand, is more used to a world where videos last a minute or two and messages disappear after a few seconds. “The things that have taught their brains to work have been very, very short,” she said.

One idea Lynch advised is to try project-driven instruction. “Give the Gen Zs a project, a goal and end and set them free to do it,” she explained. She recommends starting class with a 10-minute conversation followed by a task and then another 10-minute conversation. ”If you’re teaching Gen Zs,” she said, “you have to keep them busy.”

Make information graphical and digestible. Gen Z members love to communicate via memes and emojis. “Zs are much more visual,” said Lynch. “They communicate in images.” Large blocks of text and lengthy readings will likely lose their attention, so try using charts, graphics, different texts, and even different types of media.

Pinnell, who teaches auditing, has incorporated one 20-minute video into his classes and would love to add videos. “I think they’d really get it if I could somehow create an audit video game for my auditing class,” he joked.

Rethink how you communicate. Gen Zers grew up in a world of constant texting where email is considered formal. They are accustomed to receiving responses in seconds—not hours. Consider ways you can make yourself more available. Pinnell said he offers students email and work phone number and will respond even on the weekends. Other professors give out cellphone numbers and set up group texts or chats so students can help each other.

Pinnell said his in-person office hours are often “me, myself, and I.” Given that Gen Z favors digital communication—few want to spend time walking to an office for an appointment—more professors communicate with them via Skype or FaceTime. Group chats are a good idea, because students are used to group activities, Lynch said.

Be relevant. Gen Z grew up with even busier schedules than Millennials did, so they like to maximize what little spare time they have. For that reason, explain upfront why a lesson is needed and how it can be applied in the real world. “Think about the immediacy they have always had at their fingertips,” Lynch said. “They’re going to demand relevance first.”


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