The Generational Mix of Higher Education

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Millennials, Centennials and the Pedagogical Landscape
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A new generation of students is arriving in the halls – both brick-and-mortar and virtual – of higher education. On the heels of their predecessors, the Millennials, who altered the landscape of traditional teaching methods and assessment measures, come the Centennials, who promise to shake things up in their own unique way.

The nomenclature used to label the generations is not standardized and researchers also disagree somewhat on the exact delineations in the span of years should be encompassed within any one generation. However, in general Millennials, also called Gen Y represent the generation born from approximately 1975 to 1995. Some say 1980 – 2000. This means that as a group they would have started entering college around the mid 90s and currently make up a large portion of the student body in universities. Centennials or Gen Z represent the generation born approximately from 1995 – 2015 and they started entering college in the last couple of years.

As a group, Millennials challenged, and continue to challenge, many of the foundational practices of higher education. They transformed education into an entity akin to a consumer product and demanded that the system respond to them as they expressed their expectations about choosing what, where and how they learn. The Centennials promise to pose new challenges. As the first full generation of true digital natives, they think about and process information differently, and thus require a media-rich learning environment to hold their attention.

Collectively these generations define success differently and question the accuracy and authenticity of authority. They are savvy, demanding and have high expectations.

In the words of Marc Prensky, “Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.”

Their unique characteristics, diversity and expectations for the learning environment are transforming the college classroom and challenging faculty to examine traditional pedagogy as well as the learning environments offered to students.

This generational mix of contemporary students pose both challenges and opportunities for the modern educator to instill within them the knowledge and skills they need to navigate the future they face. To do so, educators must ground these new generations in the solid foundations that are still relevant, while not being stuck in dated traditions that no longer serve the modern world.
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A disclaimer before describing the generations in detail. By the very nature of the topic, talking about generations inherently involves broad generalizations. Blanket statements about an entire generation always apply to only a portion of its members. The specifics discussed will not necessarily apply to each and every individual in the cohort, but they do represent what the literature tells us about the group characteristics as a whole.

Millennials combined family and early school experience, along with their heavy mass media exposure, has been attributed to making them self-confident, extremely social, technologically sophisticated, action bent, goal oriented, service or civic minded, and accustomed to functioning as part of a team. It has also been blamed for making them impatient, demanding, stressed out, sheltered, brand oriented materialistic, and self-centered.

Unlike many previous generations who actively assert their independence, Millennials stay close to the parents through college (and often beyond) and turn to their parents for help when organizations don't meet their needs.

These parents have been labeled "helicopter parents" for hovering over their grown children to ensure their well-being and competitive advantage in life, particularly at educational institutions.


“Snowplow Parents” for clearing the way for their children.

The Millennials are used to hovering parents keeping tabs on their every move and they count on them to intervene and manage their situations (Anthony DeBarros, "New baby boom swamps colleges," USA Today, January 2, 2003).
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Many Baby Boomer parents allowed their children to have input into family decisions, educational options and discipline issues. Thus, the millennial children feel they have the right to negotiate with anyone including parents, teachers and school administrators. And they do challenge anyone at any time. To traditional authority figures this feels disrespectful, insubordinate and non-compliant.

As one Sociology Instructor put it, “More and more students challenge me and the material. They either see it as opinion, and nothing else, or they see it as propaganda.”

Linda B. Nelson sums it up this way in her book Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors

“For college faculty, this generation can be challenging to deal with. Millennials view higher education as an expensive but economically necessary consumer good, not a privilege earned by hard work and outstanding performance. They (or their parents) "purchase" it for the instrumental purpose of opening well-paying occupational doors on graduation, so they feel entitled to their degree for the cost of the credits.”

In terms of traditional pedagogy the Faculty may be accustomed to:

  • Primarily Lecture classes – where information is dispensed from the “sage on the stage”
  • Reading assignments in physical books. Typically one textbook to cover course material
  • Pen and paper note taking
  • Working individually rather than in groups
  • Quiet study or work time
  • Face-to-face interaction with others
  • Acceptance of professional authority
  • Limited access to faculty
  • Expectation that decisions will be accepted without challenge

Based on their experiences, Millennials have different perspectives and they tend to have a lot of expectations:

  • Consumer orientation
  • Assumption that institutions and authority may be corrupt and untrustworthy
  • Multi-tasking orientation that consists of: doing several things at once; learning from several different sources; using multiple technologies
  • Pragmatic approach to problem solving – need to see the purpose and the end game in all their tasks and assignments
  • Questioning the veracity of information
  • Entertainment orientation
  • Expectation of Instant gratification
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Related to their customer service expectations they expect 24/7 access and individual attention.

Millennials expect that:

  • everything is negotiable
  • they will be allowed continuous trial and error until they achieve the desired outcome
  • they will have a voice in every decision that affects them

Millennials expect and need praise along with clear, detailed and frequent feedback like they got from their parents and they will take silence to be a lack of approval.

Millennials had fewer academic demands in high school than previous generations. Many of them did little homework for their good grades through high school. They may have been functioning below grade level since early elementary school without being aware of it. College faculty may be the first strict grader they have encountered and often this will discourage them. Many are not very “hardy” and will quit or drop out because “it’s too hard.” They simply do not have the foundational experiences with minor failures and frustrations and have not developed the strategies to cope with this.

And thus, upon arriving to campus, expect the same minimal demands in college.

They are not accustomed to managing their own time and thus are typically not good planners and tend toward lateness if allowed. Faculty report that these students have unrealistically high expectations of success combined with a surprising low level of effort on their part and they often enroll in courses they aren’t prepared for.

Because they anticipate the same minimal demands they are used to from their earlier education in their college courses as well, they can become frustrated, overwhelmed and resentful about the amount of reading, research, problem solving, and writing that they are assigned and about strict or rigid standards or deadlines that they are held to for their work. Many faculty report that these students have unrealistic demands and expectations.

Because they have grown up in a different world, never assume that they know certain things like:

  • You don’t want to talk to their mother when they are having problems
  • You don’t always get points for showing up or an A for effort
  • The definition of plagiarism and cheating
  • It’s not appropriate to call the professor at home after 9pm
  • They can’t use IM language in papers
  • It’s not okay to email the professor 10 times a day
  • When they email you at 3am, you’re not sitting on the other end waiting to respond to them
  • Most offices close at 5pm
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The traditional faculty milestones of rank or position, tenure, and education level do not necessarily inspire a great deal of their respect. To them, universities and faculty render customer service, a functional means to an end. So, abstraction, intellectual discourse, or knowledge for knowledge's sake is not attractive for them, not what they are looking for and not what they feel they have paid for.

Therefore, if they are dissatisfied with our services (usually workload, grades, or our responsiveness to their desires), they complain to the "bosses," often involving their parents to bolster their power. They sense they have the upper hand: that instructors are subject to being disciplined or even fired at administrative will and that institutions want to retain students and keep them happy. In this quasi-corporate model, the customer is always right, whether or not that is the reality. So millennials can be demanding, discourteous, Impatient, time-consuming, and energy sapping.

Despite the difficulties millennials may present, this generation can be reached and mentored if we make a few adjustments. After all, they have career goals, positive attitudes, technological savvy, and collaborative inclinations.

Although millennials are understandably cynical about authority and don't assume we have their best interests at heart,

  • they value communication and information.
  • they need to understand why they are doing what they are doing
  • they want to be involved in meaningful activities, not mundane busy work

So they respond well when we explain the objectives of classroom activities and projects and why we use the teaching and assessment methods we do.

To help engage them we can explain the relevance of our reading selections, assignments, in-class activities, and rubrics. As the experts in a field of study, we should have solid, research-base, pedagogical reasons for our choices. Sharing these reasons helps break down their resistance and dissatisfaction.

  • They anticipate clear expectations, explicit syllabi, and well-structured assignments.
  • They expect detailed instructions and guidelines for completing assignments.
  • They have come from K-12 systems where students are actively involved in learning and classroom activities change often.
  • Teachers are helpers and facilitators of learning meeting their individualized needs.
  • They want to have input into their educational processes.

On the human side, Millennials also want to know that we care about them. Remember that they are still very attached to their helicopter parents and are accustomed to high levels of involvement and near-constant interaction. So they want, and expect, faculty to relate to them on a personal level as well.

They expect faculty to show that they care about their learning and well-being by calling them by name, asking them about aspects of their lives, promising we will do whatever it takes to help them learn, stating how much we want them to be successful, and voicing our high expectations of them.These interactions will go far in earning their loyalty and trust.
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The newest generation in our university classrooms is Generation Z, also known as the Centennials. Gen Z is significantly different than previous generations, and these students will bring both challenges and opportunities for the future of higher education.

They represent a cohort that doesn’t remember a world without smart phones, social media and instantly available information. Labels such as “All Technology All the Time,” and “Born Digital” have been used to describe this group.

They were raised in a school system that focuses on mainstreaming and classroom diversity as well as the ubiquitous inclusion of technology. They also make no distinction between devices or online territories. For Gen Z, learning is one continuous, multi-faceted, completely integrated experience – connecting social, academic and professional interests. Technology has been integrated into their classrooms since the early grades

As one mother describes in a Time magazine article

"My son is 7 years old and attends a public school in Oak Park, Ill., just outside Chicago. He reads ahead of most of his classmates, so he accesses a specialized online curriculum instead of the standard printed book. He uses a mobile device to compete in math games with kids all over the world. Much of his homework involves picking a subject he’s interested in, investigating it on his own and then reporting back in a classroom discussion."

That’s a very different approach to education than previous generations and a continuation of this is what Centennials will expect from their college experience. To capitalize on Gen Z’s ability to self-educate and co-create content, traditional learning materials need to be supplemented and enhanced with digital opportunities.

  • Z’s feel comfortable in front of a screen.
  • A majority prefer a digital format when reading, studying, taking notes, and doing problem sets.
  • That preference for digital was most emphatic when it came to doing research, with 92 % saying they preferred working on a screen.
  • 41% spend > 3 hours per day on their computers in non-schoolwork related activities – compared to 22% a decade ago.
Photo by Keira Burton from Pexels

They don’t want to influence their education, they want to co-create it.

  • Centennials are independent, self-reliant and not as dominated by helicopter parents as the Millennials.
  • They have and 8-second attention span – down from 12 seconds in 2000 for Gen Y
  • As U.C.L.A. student Hannah Payne told the New York Times, “Generation Z takes in information instantaneously and loses interest just as fast.”
  • Social media has become a primary source for their educational research

To capitalize on Gen Z’s ability to self-educate and co-create content, traditional learning materials need to be supplemented and enhanced with digital opportunities.

Whether we are comfortable with it or not. Whether we agree with it or not. The student body of higher education today is vastly different than that of the past. And they are demanding change in the way that we teach them and help them reach their goals.

We must find ways to meet them where they are so that we can help to adequately prepare them for the future – a future with challenges and opportunities we and they cannot yet even imagine.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt once said: "There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generations of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny."

While this was intended for a previous generation it certainly seems apt to describe the generations of young students we are educating today.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.


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