The last cohort of Millennial college students has graduated, and the oldest in Generation Z have replaced them. Born roughly from 1997 through 2012, Generation Z are the most racially and ethnically diverse generation we have taught thus far, according to the Pew Research Center. They are also 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.
According Seemiller and Grace in their book Generation Z Goes to College, “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). For example, you could invite guest speakers, have students work with case studies, or incorporate problem-based learning focused on social justice issues (p. 203). We shouldn’t only appeal to students’ social justice interests, though. We should also help students gain information literacy to translate those socially conscious convictions into informed perspectives that can manifest “educated actions” (p. 220). The ease of searching for information online, for instance, may have led students to believe that technology has made them smarter, not realizing that it is the technology that knows the answers, not them. Therefore, we need to help students recognize the difference between accessing information and learning. With the deluge of online material, our students need us to help them learn how to find quality and accurate information and how to identify and “unlearn” misinformation. Generation Z students may see themselves as savvy users of technology, but their (and our) assumptions about their technological competence may not be entirely accurate. We shouldn’t assume that because our students have been using technology practically since they were born that they know how to use it proficiently, effectively, or appropriately for learning.
From video chat to social media to messaging apps and video games, today’s students are constantly connected. According to a Pew Research study, a majority of teens have communicated with their friends via email, but only 6% use email daily. If email is your preferred communication, you may need to help students understand the importance of checking email regularly (and clue them in on netiquette). You also may have considered adopting students’ preferred modes of communication, such as texting, messaging, or social media. While we want to reach students, we also want to make sure we aren’t intruding into private space. Seemiller and Grace note, “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 …. In this situation, students will likely move to different platforms to maintain sacred space free from adults.” In other words, our communication with students shouldn’t intrude on their personal space—even if they have made it “public” on social media. Asking for student input and considering the legal issues (e.g. FERPA) should be our first steps before stepping outside of official student email.
Ultimately, we should approach Generation Z in the same way we approach teaching overall: use best practices, meet students where they are, help students progress, and adapt to changes in technology to provide students with an enriching learning experience. Students are not a homogenous group. Our goal is to figure out what students need from us in terms of learning experiences and support so we can help them succeed.
For more information on Generation Z, visit the forthcoming Faculty Development Instructional Guide on “Generation Z.”