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Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Millennials

I attended a teaching workshop the other day that was all about the Millennial Generation (aka. Generation Me, Generation Y, or the Entitlement Generation). This includes people born between 1982-2002, although most typically thought of as the current college/university student population.

The first talk gave a general description of what this generation is like: they tend to be tech-savvy (having grown up with it), are team-oriented, have high self-esteem (thanks to the self-esteem movement of the 80s and 90s where you're told you can do anything), are good multi-taskers, have shorter attention spans, etc.. These are things I've heard before so, although interesting, nothing really surprised me.

The second session though, was a bit different. Instead of some "expert" talking about these students and how they want to be taught, there was a panel of 5 undergraduate students from different disciplines (English, Media Studies, Computer Science and Health Science). They shared their thoughts about the first talk and discussed what their expectations are when it comes to teaching.

This was an eye-opening experience, and I wish more people could have been there to listen to what these students had to say.

A familiar theme that cropped up while they were speaking was that they all craved relevance. Why are they learning what they're learning? What is the motivation behind it? Will it be useful to them in a future class or in a job situation? Basically, they said that if a prof can do this, then the majority of the class will be engaged and interested in the material.

What surprised me the most was the audience interpreted this as the students wanting to be "entertained", and that we shouldn't "cater" to this need of them wanting to know why they are learning something (that they should make these connections themselves).

It was interesting to hear the students respond to such statements. First, they flat out said (a number of times) that they do not expect to be entertained. They do not come to class for the prof to put on a show, nor do they want the prof to juggle while riding a unicycle. Second, they also do not want profs using technology just for the sake of it. Finally, because they grew up with the internet and other technology, information is right at their finger tips. So, what's the point of going to class if they can just look it up in 5 minutes? They can do that on their own - what they need to learn is how to make connections between the information.

What do they want? They want the prof to love what they are teaching and to convey what they love about that subject. They want the prof to use whatever style they feel the most comfortable with - nothing is worse that watching a prof flounder around with some technology that they aren't familiar with! If a blackboard and chalk is your thing, then go for it!

All the students told a story about their favorite prof - not one of them said "I loved the prof because they used Facebook/podcasts/blogs" or "I loved this prof because they were really easy markers". All of their favorite teachers used different methods (mostly "old school" methods!), but one thread joined them all: they loved what they were teaching, and were enthusiastic about sharing that passion.

I am so glad that I attended that session. It gave me a new appreciation for the students of today, and what kind of pressures they have to deal with (they have to basically decide what career they want in 7th grade!). Maybe next time I am teaching a class, or even see a bunch of them on laptops in the cafeteria, I'll be able to better understand their wants, needs, and actions.