From a very young age, children learn through play and exploration. This is a time tested truth, and for generations academics have struggled to capture the learning elements of play and exploration and to harness their power in a classroom setting. All too often, sadly, standardization and metrics win out and students are forced to ‘learn’ in an artificial environment in order to achieve equally artificial standards. In essence, children’s natural processes for learning and exploration are often squelched by the traditional classroom environment.
My colleague Hap Aziz recently wrote about the disconnect between millennial students and higher education in the online world. One of his key points was that millennial students are very adept at online learning, and yet generally do not appreciate what is offered to them in terms of online courses. This conundrum is a technological evolution of the age-old problem expressed above—the natural tendencies of learning are thwarted by institutional efforts to teach and measure in very traditional means. Ironically, history repeats itself as students are again forced to forego their natural tendencies to conform to the world of education.
From Aristotle to John Dewey to Jean Piaget, many great philosophers recognized the need for the academic process to start with the student’s natural inclinations. Education is not, nor has it ever been, a one-size-fits-all proposition. So what does this mean for higher education when it comes to dealing with the millennial student online? It means that you do not start with a prefabricated, cut-and-dried set of expectations and outcomes for an online course. It means that you instead start with knowing the learner and allowing them to use their proclivities rather than stifling them. Therefore, it is equally as important to know the student as it is to know the content!
So what does research tell us about the millennial student? Millennials Go to College by Neil Howe and William Strauss may be the definitive resource on their characteristics. In a nutshell, Howe and Strauss identified these seven traits as common to the new generation of learner—categorically, students born since 1982:Special. They have always been treated as special, important, and wanted. Positive feedback and academic emphasis on building self-esteem means they are comfortable on a pedestal.
- Sheltered. A product of being over-protected by parents and society. Consequently, they have little experience in resolving conflicts.
- Confident. Motivated, goal-oriented, and destined for greatness. They see college as the launch pad for future success.
- Team-Oriented. Group-oriented within their own generation. Not wanting to stand out or be considered selfish, and geared toward service and volunteerism.
- Achieving. Focused on good grades, hard work, and involvement in extra curriculars. Pressured to be perhaps too career focused; achieving goals supersedes the importance of personal development.
- Pressured. May not understand spontaneity as their childhoods were structured and regimented with organized activity. Overly given to multi-tasking and taking on too much, but expect others to be flexible with their scheduling conflicts.
- Conventional. Civic minded, respectful of authority, and believing that the government knows what’s best and will take care of them. They value parents’ opinions, conformism, and social rules.
- The millennial student expects the instructor to be authoritative yet accessible; worthy of respect and personal. While this student may respond well to positive feedback, he/she may require detailed, compassionate explanations of failures rather than just being pointed to a rubric. This student will strive to meet expectations when given a second opportunity.
- If you run into a conflict with this student, take the high ground. It does not always pay to take a hard line and force them to accept your judgment. Consider difficult situations as teachable moments to help them develop their resolution and negotiation skills.
- Create meaningful opportunities for group work and team assignments. When doing so, allow them the opportunity to evaluate their own participation and the participation of their peers. Give them ownership of the goals and outcomes for group assignments.
- Remember to keep a focus on how your course develops them as a person, not on how well they will meet pre-established course objectives. If their goal is to meet course objectives, when the course is over so is their learning. If they learn that they are acquiring life-skills and useful knowledge, their learning continues as they move on in life.
These are some general principles to consider when working with the millennial student. In a follow up to this article next week, I will expand on how the millennial student uses technology, and what specifically that means for enhancing online instruction.