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Teaching Today's Students


by Emily Bartelheim
October 2016

There is no denying that today’s typical higher education students are much different than those of previous generations. Commonly described as “millennials,” research has found different attitudes, expectations, preparation, strengths, and shortcomings they bring to the classroom (Mazer & Hess, 2016). In fact, many experienced faculty are finding they need to adjust their teaching practices in order to be more effective.

Scott Titsworth, dean of the Scripps College of Communication, has done extensive research on millennials and their use of technology in the classroom. “’Millennial’ is a convenient container term to describe a certain age group of students that are entering our classrooms today,” said Titsworth. While it’s easy to group together a generation of students, he emphasizes that each student is still unique as they enter the classroom.

Characteristics of Today’s Students

So what are some qualities of millennials and how can they be addressed from a pedagogical standpoint? According to research, there are both positive and negative characteristics of this generation.

  1. In an article Titsworth co-authored with OHIO’s Angela Hosek, assistant professor in the School of Communication Studies, they observed, “millennials increasingly use ‘scripting’ as a guiding metaphor for life” (Hosek & Titsworth, 2016). Instead of building and creating knowledge from scratch, today’s students are more likely to repurpose, recycle, and reuse information from other sources for their own creative purposes.

  2. Millennials tend to have a greater focus on instructor–student relationships, most likely a result of “helicopter parents.” Because helicopter parents give high amounts of attention and praise to their children, these students can have an inflated sense of self-esteem and appear entitled. They may expect the same attention and praise from instructors that they receive from their parents, and will be more motivated when they have a strong personal relationship with their instructors (Frey & Tatum, 2016).

  3. Today’s students tend to view college as a financial set-up for a career rather than focusing on learning and intellectual curiosity (Buckner & Strawser, 2016). This can create a tendency for them to look externally for direction and approval, instead of taking responsibility for their own learning—establishing an external locus of control. “Millennials measure their success by the grades and grade point average that they receive,” said Titsworth.

    While this may be a result of viewing education as a pathway to career, Titsworth attributes part of this orientation to recent policy trends affecting PK-12 education. “This excessive orientation toward measurable success that they’ve grown up with as a result of high-stakes testing, is something that can impact the way millennials engage their classrooms and the tasks they’re assigned in the classrooms,” said Titsworth. “I think that’s a very important thing to understand when we’re the teachers in those classrooms.”

  4. Millennial students are often referred to as “digital natives.” “Millennials have an experience level with technology that is far greater than any generation that precedes them,” said Titsworth. This is not to say that they are experts, but their comfort level with using technology is stronger than any previous generation of students.

    However, there is a downside to this comfort level: the use of mobile phones for purposes unrelated to the course. Titsworth has conducted two studies regarding the impact of mobile phone use on student learning. One of Titsworth’s studies found that the students who engaged in social media use during class recorded around 40% fewer details in notes and scored about one-and-a-half letter grades lower on multiple-choice exams (Kuznekoff & Titsworth, 2013).

Creating an Effective Classroom for Today’s Students

The learning landscape is changing, requiring instructors to engage today’s students as co-consumers/owners of ideas and approaches in the classroom (Hosek & Titsworth, 2016). Yet there is a fine line between academically enabling millennial students and creating a challenging yet effective classroom. Some suggestions follow for how to adapt teaching styles for these unique learners.

  1. Use millennial students’ tendency for “scripting” to your advantage. This generation of students often finds abstract assignments with too much freedom overwhelming; they fare much better when given a flexible structure that allows for guided creativity (Hosek & Titsworth, 2016). Start by using information already present: “How can students learn to evaluate, manipulate, and use that information before instructors ask them to jump into the deep end and create something completely brand new?” Titsworth said.

  2. To play off of today’s students’ desire for strong, praising relationships, instructors can make students feel more personally connected to the course content. “Millennials will learn best in a classroom environment where they feel very personally connected to the information they’re learning,” said Titsworth. “If they can feel personally connected to the material they’re learning in class, they’ll be far greater to excel to the highest possible ability that they have, to put forth a maximum amount of effort, and to want to continue learning in that particular subject.”

  3. To address millennials’ tendency to push academic responsibility onto their instructors rather than accepting it themselves, experts propose to “explain the purpose of higher education and the learning process such that students may adopt a learning orientation” (Buckner, & Strawser, 2016). Clear articulation of the class and the role and responsibilities of both the instructor and students are integral; these practices will enhance student growth and professional development.

  4. According to a study by Kuznekoff, Munz, and Titsworth (2015), “teaching strategies that integrate students’ use of mobile devices should be commended” as this practice reflects adaptation to cultural shifts and a new generation of students. For example, various instructors at OHIO have incorporated Twitter as a participation tool during class, especially for large classes with over 100 students. Another study found that when students used mobile devices during class for class-relevant purposes, there was no harm to learning or recall, except when done at a high frequency (Kuznekoff, Munz, & Titsworth, 2015).
    Titsworth reiterated that while it is important to capitalize on the knowledge millennials bring with them (i.e., technology use), instructors need to remember students aren’t professionals in these fields: “They’re not computer experts, they’re not coders, but they are comfortable with technology. So how do we use that comfort to our advantage?”

While the current generation of students may share some attributes associated with millennials, Titsworth said instructors should note that these students’ learning styles and qualities are actually quite diverse. “Again, the term ‘millennial’ paints that population of students with a very broad brush in terms of describing them,” reminded Titsworth. “There’s a lot of textures and a lot of layers as to what those students are like on an individual basis. When we look at literature or people that write about or speak about millennial and post-millennial students, it’s always critically important to remember that it’s a rhetorical construction that we as social scientists and educators might tend to use.”

As a first step for instructors who want to effectively employ teaching styles more suited to millennial learners, Dean Titsworth recommends starting small. If faculty want to integrate new technologies or social media into the classroom, “learn how big of a bite of the apple to take off at any one time,” he said. “Don’t stop thinking big, but don’t necessarily start big.”

The Office of Instructional Innovation’s (OII) instructional designers offer help with pivoting teaching styles to increase student engagement. They keep up with cutting-edge research and trends in course design and pedagogy, as well as the psychology of learning. OII’s instructional designers offer expertise on topics such as using social media tools in the classroom, and engaging students with interactive video. One-on-one faculty consultations also help instructors with more unique challenges. For more information about these and other services, see our services or contact us to explore new ways to engage your students.

OII serves as a catalyst to spark bold experimentation and sustainable discovery of promising new approaches to instruction. OII provides a variety of services to academic units and faculty, online programs and students, as well as additional initiatives to further the institution’s mission. Visit our homepage for more information.