The last cohort of traditional-age college Millennials has graduated from college, and now the oldest cohort of Generation Z students have taken their place in our classrooms. A majority of NIU undergraduate students are now Generation Z. Born roughly from 1997 through 2012, Generation Z are the most racially and ethnically diverse generation we have taught thus far. Generation Z are more likely to enroll in college, less likely to be in the labor force, and more likely to have a parent with a college degree than prior generations (Fry & Parker, 2018). While Generation Z are less likely to be immigrants than Millennials (as of 2019), that is expected to change as “the racial and ethnic diversity of the post-Millennial generation is expected to increase in future years as new immigrants join their numbers. Today’s 6- to 21-year-olds are projected to become majority nonwhite in 2026 (when they will be ages 14 to 29), according to Census Bureau projections” (Fry & Parker, 2018).
Born roughly from 1997 through 2012, Generation Z are the most racially and ethnically diverse generation we have taught thus far.
Teaching best practices are best practices for teaching all students. The evidence-based practices that are touted as “better” for teaching Generation Z (and Millennials before them) are best practices for teaching all students, not just those from the current generation. Yes, there are some differences in the way members of Generation Z have grown up, particularly related to use of technology, but many of the challenges of teaching the current generation are variations of challenges that have always been present in teaching. Whereas today’s students may look up information on the Internet and regurgitate the first source they find on the subject, previous generations may have reached for the nearest encyclopedia or book and regurgitated information from that source in an assignment. The challenge in both instances is similar: how to teach students to conduct research in a way appropriate for the college level. There are new challenges in teaching, but they are not the fault of the newest generation; rather, they are the result of ever-evolving technology and a changing educational landscape.
Furthermore, generalizations about the members of any particular generation are not useful insofar as they criticize an entire group based on their age range. There is still a lot of variety of perspectives and experiences within each generational division, and painting everyone with the same brush to draw conclusions about what an entire generation values, for example, is not necessarily useful nor accurate and may misrepresent certain demographics. The purpose of the following information is not to draw broad conclusions about members of Generation Z, but rather to present some universal realities many members of this generation contend with and how those realities may impact their learning and our teaching.
Generation Z, as a whole, has spent more classroom time than previous generations on preparing for and taking standardized tests, in many cases to the detriment of the arts and wellness (pp. 191-92). This focus on test-taking may mean faculty will need to help students prepare for the type of learning they will do in college, where standardized testing is rare and program-focused (e.g. Content Area Tests for teaching licensure candidates). One of the problems students may encounter is the potential scarcity of opportunities for developing creativity in middle and high school affecting their ability for creative thinking in college.
Generation Z … has spent more classroom time than previous generations on preparing for and taking standardized tests.
While creativity is essential in higher-order thinking and learning, K-12 schools have statistically deemphasized creative programming— “visual arts, dance, theater, and music classes” (Seemiller & Grace, 2016, p. 177)—and increased standardized testing since the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 (and its replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act, in 2015). A skill prized by employers, creativity involves “generating multiple unique ideas and combining those ideas into the best result” (p. 177). In addition, “imaginative learning—looking at problems from multiple perspectives and imagining a solution—is related to the concept of creativity” (p. 177). However, Generation Z students, in Seemiller and Grace’s (2016) study, rank imaginative learning as their least preferred approach (p. 177).
Regrettably, their learning preference does not align with what employers desire in job candidates. While the arts may have suffered in the age of standardized testing overload, not only “artistic courses” can help students develop creativity. For instance, “traditional academic subjects might employ innovative pedagogies like project-based learning, which can boost creativity by challenging students to solve a complex problem” (p. 177). While students may be skeptical of or resistant to imaginative learning, it behooves faculty to incorporate opportunities to develop creativity in their classes. As Seemiller and Grace (2016) point out, “It is difficult to expect that Generation Z students would prefer imaginative learning methods that foster creative thinking if they seldom engaged in this type of learning before college” (p. 178). This disconnect between the creative thinking sought-after by employers and the practical learning preferred by Generation Z students may require faculty to explain the relevance of their teaching and learning methods to students by highlighting the transferable skills that may not be obvious to students (p. 176).
One way to interest Generation Z students in creative thinking is by incorporating a socially conscious curriculum. According to Seemiller and Grace (2016), “Generation Z students want to learn not just for learning’s sake, but because they can then use that learning to create social change” (p. 203). Ideas for promoting social ideas include inviting guest speakers, having students work with case studies, and creating “problem-based learning experiences using social justice issues as the context” (p. 203). Educators must not only appeal to students’ social justice values and interests, but they must also promote information literacy so that students are well-informed on social issues. If Generation Z students are interested in what is going on in the world and how it affects them, but they “lack information literacy, then what information are they consuming in these news stories? Are they drawing their questions from blogs and forums or are they accessing legitimate research?” (Seemiller & Grace, 2016, p. 220). Faculty can help students translate those socially conscious convictions into informed perspectives that will help them “engage in educated actions” (p. 220, emphasis added).
While 23 states now require cursive instruction, including Illinois, which requires at least one unit (the mandate took effect in AY 2018/2019), many in Generation Z cannot read or write in cursive (An, 2019), which may be limiting for them. Generation Z has also grown up using iPads or Chromebooks in the classroom (Seemiller & Grace, 2019, p. 190), which may mean they have done less handwriting overall. The differences in the way Generation Z has used technology in K-12 classrooms may pose challenges for college professors. For example, students may be more inclined to take notes on a laptop in the classroom, so professors may have to be more diligent about helping students avoid distractions or might have to communicate their preferences for laptop, tablet, or smartphone use in class, from integration to prohibition. Additionally, students who did not learn cursive, or even those who learned one unit but were never required to use it thereafter, may have difficulty reading a professor’s handwriting or deciphering primary sources such as facsimile or digital images of The Declaration of Independence.
The type of educational support Generation Z students need may differ from the support required of previous generations, particularly older Millennials. Older Millennials, for example, grew up still using library card catalogs and saw the first online library catalogs develop. They also conducted research using print sources throughout high school and into college, were the first generation to encounter widespread use of the Internet in an educational setting, and were the first generation to be introduced to social media as we think of it today (in fact, the oldest Millennials graduated from college before Facebook was developed). Older Millennials also grew up largely without cell phones and graduated from college a few years before the first iPhone was released in 2006.
Generation Z, on the other hand, has always had access to web and social technology. The oldest Gen-Zs were in primary school at Facebook’s inception and when the first iPhone came out. Generation Z has been inundated with nearly infinite amounts of information at their fingertips, and most of the oldest students in Generation Z had their own smartphone by the age of 12: 58% of 12-year-olds in 2009 had a cell phone, as did 73% of 13-year-olds (Lenhart, Ling, Campbell, & Purcell, 2010, p. 14). Comparatively speaking, the oldest Millennials had little if any access to cell phones at 12 and 13 years old (in 1993-1994), while only 18% of 12-year-olds and 34% of 13-year-olds had a cell phone ten years later in 2004 (Lenhart et al., 2010, p. 15). For the youngest in Generation Z, 7% owned their own mobile device by age 8, and 59% owned their own tablet by the same age, and the average 5-8-year-old spent over an hour per day on mobile media devices in 2017, with children from lower-income families spending more time on mobile devices than children from higher-income families (Rideout, 2017, pp. 23-24).
Generation Z has been inundated with nearly infinite amounts of information at their fingertips.
What does all of this mean for our students? The ubiquity of technology and the ease of searching for information online for Generation Z may influence their attitudes toward and approaches to learning. For members of this generation, “research is less about acquiring new knowledge and more about accessing a quick answer to complete an assignment” (Seemiller & Grace, 2019, p. 203). Students may mistakenly believe that technology has made them smarter, not realizing that it is the technology that knows the answers, not them. Therefore, when teaching this generation, we need to help them see the difference between accessing information and learning. As Seemiller and Grace (2019) point out, “For those in Generation Z to engage in effective reading and writing today, they may need educational support and strategies that were not necessary when those in older generations got information primarily from encyclopedias, library books, and teachers” (p. 203). Because of the overload of information available online, our students need to learn, with our help, how to navigate all the information available to them, find quality and accurate information, identify misinformation, and even “unlearn” misinformation (pp. 203-204).
Generation Z must also contend with attention span issues and an inability to focus because of technology. Increased Internet accessibility through Wi-Fi and smartphones has led to the halving of average attention spans, and students from Generation Z tend to “multitask”: they may “search through endless information on the Internet while posting messages to their social media sites, watching a video and trying to write a paper all at the same time” (Seemiller & Grace, 2016, p. 180). However, this so-called multitasking is actually an increased “inability to focus,” contend Seemiller and Grace (2016, p. 181). Thus, educators need to continue to assist students by encouraging them to be more focused and less distracted and helping them to create healthy study and work habits that do not involve “multitasking” (p. 181).
Generation Z students may see themselves as savvy users of technology, but their perception of their effectiveness at using technology for educational purposes may be inaccurate. We should not assume that because they have been using technology practically since they were born that they know how to use it proficiently, effectively, or appropriately for learning in our college courses.
Teens communicate in a variety of ways with their peers and family. From video chat to social media to messaging apps to video games, today’s students are constantly connected to friends and family. As of 2015, 64% of teens communicated with their friends via email, but only 6% used email daily (Lenhart, Smith, Anderson, Duggan, & Perrin, 2015, p. 26). If your preferred method of communication with students is email, it may be necessary to help them understand the importance of checking their email regularly. For instance, you may need to “mentor and teach Generation Z members proper email etiquette” (Seemiller & Grace, 2019, p. 64). On the other hand, you may want to meet your students halfway and adopt some of their preferred modes of communication, such as texting, messaging, or social media communication (p. 64). Just make sure that your communication with students is FERPA compliant and appropriate.
...make sure that your communication with students is FERPA compliant and appropriate.
Regarding social media, try not to be the “old person” intruding into “private” social media space. Seemiller & Grace (2016) put it thusly: “The term creepy tree house has been used to describe what happens when adults and authority figures enter the social networking space that was previously used for peers to connect with each other. Should higher education professionals enter the adult-free zones of Generation Z students as a way to connect? Probably not: the last thing Generation Z students want is the dean of students following them on Twitter. In this situation, students will likely move to different platforms to maintain sacred space free from adults” (p. 223). In other words, maintain boundaries: communicate with students in ways that are proper and do not intrude on their personal space (even if they have made it “public” on social media). Soliciting their feedback on whether they would respond well to social media contact should be a first step before adopting that mode of communication.
Safety is a major concern for Generation Z students. School shootings, bullying, and cyberbullying (as well as the 24-hour news cycle) have made schools feel less safe for this generation of students (Seemiller & Grace, 2019, pp. 192-93). For example, the Human Rights Campaign reveals that “70 percent of LGBTQ youth report having been bullied at school because of their sexual orientation” (as cited in Seemiller & Grace, 2019, p. 193). Moreover, “more than a third of teens in 2016 were affected by cyberbullying compared to 19 percent in 2007” (p. 193).
Safety is a major concern for Generation Z students.
These challenges may follow Generation Z students into their college experiences, and they may feel fear as they enter college or after news of another mass shooting incident at a school or college in the United States. The never-ending news cycle means that many people may now be susceptible to vicarious trauma: “The ability for everyday people to see images, view recordings, and even tune in to live feeds of tragic events in progress can make those events feel more personal as people picture themselves or their loved ones in those situations” (p. 151). These stresses our students carry with them may affect their involvement and success in our classes, so we must understand these potential issues and help our students thrive despite them.
In the end, educators should approach teaching Generation Z in the same way they approach teaching overall, by using teaching best practices, meeting students where they are, helping students progress to where they need to be, and adapting to changes in technology to provide students with the most enriching learning experience possible. Students are not a homogenous group, regardless of whether they fall into the same generation category. The educator’s goal is to figure out what students need from us in terms of learning experiences and support so our students can succeed in college and beyond.
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Northern Illinois University Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. (2020). Generation Z. In Instructional guide for university faculty and teaching assistants. Retrieved from https://www.niu.edu/citl/resources/guides/instructional-guide