Keepin’ It Real for Millennials

Adjusting to the Millennial student has been a long, slow process for me, as it has for many of you, I’m sure. It has been almost like going through the five stages of grief, beginning with denial, which then changed to anger. As of last semester, though, I felt I’d entered something like an “acceptance” stage–and experienced a rejuvenation in the process. If that stage still seems far away to you, read on.

Image courtesy of FreePhotos. net

Image courtesy of FreePhotos. net

I’ve done a lot of reading on generations in the workplace, and on Millennials in particular. That reading, my teaching experience, and my experiences as a parent of two Millennials have led me to two main conclusions:

  1. Millennials are a distinct generation, though they hate to be thought of that way. As with the generations before them, their attitudes have been formed by the era in which they grew up. It is not fair or productive to blame them for this (we can gripe among ourselves all we want, though, in my opinion). And by the way, the better I get to know them, the more I feel that technology has been the main Millennial shaper, not hovering parents (and I’m not just saying this because I’m a parent!).
  2. They do have a work ethic; they do want to do a good job; they can be very respectful; they can even read and revise their work! But the key to bringing out their best qualities is keeping it real.

What I mean by that last comment is that . . .

Every piece of every writing assignment, every reading assignment, every homework assignment, and every class activity needs to have an obvious pay-off in terms of helping students learn, enjoy what they’re learning, and do well as future professionals.

I have found that trying to achieve this goal has required enormous discipline on my part. It means that . . .

  • Every in-class activity needs to be engaging, interesting, and relevant. Does showing PowerPoint slides full of bullet points meet this criterion? I don’t think so (unless the slides are broken up, often, with interactive exercises). I am trying to cull out all such class content to focus on what matters and help students learn what that is by doing things. By the way, focusing on what matters doesn’t mean pulling just the key concepts out of the book chapters. Often times, the examples and even the sidebars are important to students’ comprehension and development.
  • Every assignment needs to be carefully vetted for its “do-ability,” level of difficulty, amount of work required, and pedagogical pay-off. Millennials abhor wasting time–not because they’re shallow and lazy (though some are, as with previous generations) but because they have tons of stimuli coming at them every day. Also, most of mine have jobs, and the daunting job market makes them impatient with anything that doesn’t look like it’ll help them in their careers. (Fortunately, anything that you think is important is important to their careers. You just have to explain why.)

I have been amazed at how much work it has been to align my teaching with these criteria–which is another way of saying that I didn’t realize how much bloat I had in my class content and how sloppily thought-out my assignments were. Don’t get me wrong: students used to be fine with how I taught (I think). But now I try to make every minute count and every assignment completely purposeful.

I also give quizzes on the readings, require at least two drafts of every assignment, and assign homework that gets graded. But the students seem ok with all this, because they trust that what we’re doing is real and valuable.

That trust has been difficult to gain. It took, first, a willingness to change (it took me about three years to get to this point) and then a lot of new planning. I admit–it has been tiring. But I’ve never enjoyed teaching more.

This doesn’t mean that you won’t hear me complaining about “today’s students”! I still sigh and shake my head when a particularly confounding “Millennial moment” happens. In fact, my next post might be about those durned Millennials!

But I am beginning to realize that their questions, hesitancy, boredom, and outright challenges often reveal flaws in the usual ways of doing things. If we work with their “cut-to-the-chase,” “but why?” attitude, it can bring a new vibrancy to our teaching. And if we help them bring this attitude into the workplace in a constructive, respectful way, we’ll be doing them, and their future employers, a big favor

2 thoughts on “Keepin’ It Real for Millennials

  1. This is great stuff, Kathy! One of the things that has helped me create a sense of relevance and value is to spend some time – mostly at the beginning of the semester but reinforced throughout – articulating the difference between ‘the things that make students good students’ and ‘the things that will help people become stronger professionals’.

    A line I use that really gets their attention is “The things that have made you a successful student will hurt you once you stop being a student.” Caring only about the grade, doing the minimum necessary, only doing what you’re told, etc. are things that students learn in the 15+ years of schooling they go through before they get to us. These skills/habits/attitudes are great for being a ‘successful student’ but can be show-stoppers once they step off the graduation stage and are, for the first time in their lives, no longer students. Once I sell them on this idea and frame the remaining months of their time in university as a time to TRAIN themselves in those things that will *actually matter* in their post-student life, I find that they are primed to engage more with my assignments and see why they matter not for a grade but FOR REAL.

    A text I use and work through in my class that has been *extremely* helpful is ‘School Success versus Work Success’ by Henrietta Riesco. It is here: http://www.personalbrandingblog.com/school-success-versus-work-success/ I offer it to you free of charge! 🙂

    Thanks again for the thoughtful piece.

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