How to Teach Generation Z in the Classroom

The Millennial cohort, also known as Generation Y, was born between 1981 and 1996. There are more than 75 million Millennials in America, outnumbering the baby boomers. Until recently, everything appeared to be targeted at them and their interests: television series, beer, running shoes, product packaging, city parks and of course, the Millennials’ home planet, BuzzFeed.

Inevitably, higher education institutions are also caught up in this Millennial maelstrom. Ever since the turn of the 21st century, when the first Millennials arrived on campus colleges, universities have been adjusting to meet their needs and address their concerns. As Millennials washed across American campuses like a 15-year tidal wave, they remade college life with WiFi connectivity and redesigned the curriculum with experiential learning and capstone courses. They also caused a new set of headaches, from online essay mills to smartphone-enabled distraction. Some campuses are still struggling to adjust.

And now, just like that, they’re gone.

The Millennial generation’s eldest members are now 37 years old. They’ve long since graduated and gone on to become practicing lawyers and doctors and CEOs of some of the world’s most valuable technology companies. The Millennials who remain on campus largely populate the graduate student lounges, if not the tenure-track ranks.

In their wake, you’ll find Generation Z, born roughly between 1997 and 2010. Not everyone agrees on that specific date range, but even conservative estimates suggest Generation Z is even more numerous than Millennials. Generation Z’s eldest members are already in their senior year of college, the first swell of a tsunami that will crest over American campuses some time around 2025. And like Millennials before them, by the time the wave recedes they’ll have left a lasting mark on higher education.

How Generation Z is different from Millennials

Like every successive generation, Generation Z represents a continuity from its preceding generation—yet also a clear break from it. The challenge for faculty is to understand what’s different about them, and adjust their teaching appropriately.

One of the most interesting shifts from Millennials to Generation Z is their straight-laced character. Levels of teenage drug use, alcohol consumption, smoking and pregnancy are at their lowest in decades. They are also driven to be successful in a way their predecessors are not, a trait that many ascribe to their coming of age during the dual challenges of the September 2001 terrorist attacks and the 2008 Great Recession.

The term “digital natives” is often applied to Millennials, but the truth is that most Millennials were teenagers by the time the iPhone was invented. Most members of Generation Z, by contrast, were watching YouTube videos on their parents’ devices at age 3. And the ubiquity of technology in their lives has impacted them differently from Millennials—particularly in regards to how they communicate and learn.

How Generation Z uses technology differently

  • They expect everything on demand. Generation Z has never had to wait to rent a movie or learn about a topic; it all happens online, immediately. They are not particularly impatient or entitled compared to other generations. It’s just that, for them, it’s normal not to wait.
  • They assume it’s tailored for them. Growing up during the birth of algorithms, they are simply accustomed to a personalized feed of information, entertainment, suggestions and requests based upon their personalities. Again, it’s not something they ever demanded; it’s just something that’s been done for them at every stage in their lives.
  • Their social life takes place online. Generation Z is comfortable in the online environment of social media. It’s not a distraction; it’s integral to social behavior. It’s also primarily how they send and receive messages. Email is to Generation Z as voicemail is to Millennials: they never bother to check it.
  • They like video better. Generation Z is happy to read online but prefers to watch, and they’ll leave video messages rather than send an email or text.

Generation Z in the classroom

These generational shifts in attitude, behavior and communication are becoming pervasive on campus, reaching all the way into the classroom. And institutions will be shaped by them; the question is whether it will be by accident or by design. According to higher education consultant Eric Stoller: “University leaders who understand the connection between digital engagement and student experience will cause dynamic changes within their organizations.”

The same goes for individual faculty and the courses they teach. Instructors who want to connect with students from Generation Z will benefit from shifting the way they teach.

How to teach Generation Z

  • Embrace personal devices. After years of fighting Millennials’ digital distraction, it’s time to shift perceptions of the smartphones and the students who use them. Generation Z went through high school organizing, delegating and even collaborating on group assignments via online video chat, each working from their own desks at home. For them, learning doesn’t happen in libraries and coffeehouses but through online resources and chatrooms. Digital technology is already the infrastructure of their learning, and it needs to become the infrastructure of the classroom as well. To wit: Ohio State University this year handed out 11,000 iPads to incoming students, complete with the school’s own app and its digital learning platform, Top Hat.
  • Personalize their learning. Personalized learning doesn’t mean designing a tailored approach for every student. Mostly, it means targeting it to the group by assessing their progress and adjusting on the fly. Formative assessment, especially when collected digitally, can give faculty a strong sense of a classroom’s comprehension of the course material. Instructors can review challenging concepts, or dig deeper into topics that clearly elicit enthusiasm.
  • Conduct office hours online. Online video chat applications such as Google Hangouts or Zoom allow multiple people to join a discussion, and enable screen-sharing for participants to demonstrate concepts or display work. Online meetings also allow for the convenience of evening office hours. (One thing never changes: students have the most questions to ask between the hours of 8:00 and 10:00 p.m.).
  • Publish assignments digitally. Generation Z is already awash in online content: it’s a more natural medium to them than books or television. So have them generate content of their own for peers and others to see, whether it’s written essays or video presentations. Assignments that are not intended not solely for the professor’s eyes bring an added layer of motivation and create opportunities for peer-to-peer learning and assessment.

Many of these teaching techniques are already gaining traction as late-era Millennials complete their undergraduate education and the first members of Generation Z arrive in their wake. Every campus’ teaching and learning centre has resources to help faculty make the shift.

The most important takeaway from the generational handover? Generation Z has a markedly different and more productive relationship with digital technology than their Millennial predecessors—something faculty can use to their teaching advantage.

Psychology professor Meghan Altman’s Generation Z class don’t need to be asked to bring their devices to class and collaborate. Learn how she uses Top Hat to take advantage of Generation Z’s shared mobile lifestyle that helps them keep organized, accountable on attendance, and even teach them about memory and recall.


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