The face of higher education is changing every day. Colleges and universities are faced with numerous challenges such as low retention, decline in degree completion, budget cuts, rising costs, and changes in teaching methods and curricula. As institutions are looking for ways to increase degree completion and student retention, they also focus on improving student learning experience in the classroom. In order to accomplish this goal, it is important to understand the different generations that are occupying the classroom.
Generational cohort refers to a group of individuals who were born within the same time span, thus tend to share the same attitudes, beliefs, and values (Dimock, 2019). Today’s classroom is now occupied by a new generation of students called Generation Z or iGen. This generation born after 1996 is called Gen Z while individuals born between 1981 and 1996 are part of the Millennials generation. However, they are not the only one occupying today’s classroom. Other generations include the Generation X born between 1965-1980 and the Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 (Dimock, 2019).
The aforementioned generations have different experience with technology in their life. The Generation X-ers were introduced to the personal computer when they became teenagers. In comparison, the Millennials, also known as Net-Generation, were brought up in the world of personal computers and electronic devices. They are comfortable using any form of technology and use the internet for research and social media to connect with others. They are considered the earliest adopters of social media and internet technology (Seemiller & Grace, 2016).
The experience of Gen Z with technology is different in terms of accessibility and connectivity. All the devices used by the preceding generations are now combined into one device that does not leave their sight. Their high sense in technology makes them well informed online and offline (Seemiller & Grace, 2016). They live simultaneously in a virtual and physical reality and are more technologically savvy than all previous generations. They are the true digital-natives generation who believe that there is an app for everything. Twenge (2017) refers to this new generation as iGen, noting that the “i” in the word represents the internet, individualism, income inequality, in no hurry, in person no more, insecure, insulated but not intrinsic, income insecurity, indefinite, inclusive, and independent. Seemiller and Grace (2016) describe this generation as loyal, thoughtful, compassionate, open-minded, and responsible; characteristics that they bring to the classroom.
Gen Z students who are in today’s classroom are different from their precedent generations in terms of learning, interaction with technology, and social relation. Traditional styles of teaching that have been successful in the past are becoming ineffective in a world where most of the students are accustomed to a fast-paced environment with easy access to information at their fingertips. They have little patience for any experience that takes a long time.
Research on Gen Z in the classroom shows that these students learn differently from their predecessors. In addition to their cellphones, they are also bringing their values and their strong opinions (Seemiller & Grace, 2016). Having access to digital technology from an early age, Gen Z students have a greater need of technology-based instruction than their preceding generations. One way to keep this generation engaged in the classroom is to incorporate new technology in adaptive learning activities and understand the generational divide that exists between the instructor and the students in the classroom (Roehl, Reddy, & Shannon, 2013). While this generation is considered more self-directed and quicker learners than previous generations, they are not team players; thus teaching approaches that emphasize cooperative and social learning are important in creating a learning environment where the students are eager to learn and share what they learn. Seemiller and Grace (2016) argued that learning for Generation Z is more than access to the content; the emphasis should be put on the process through which these students learn and understand the content. The authors suggested to provide a platform for the students to gain practical experience that they can use in their field. They also recommended that students be exposed to learning approaches that help develop creativity. While this generation prefers to learn independently at their own pace, working in group settings can help them engage in social learning.
To stay relevant and effective in education, teachers, faculty, and administrators should thrive to understand the dynamics and cultural shift that is affecting the campus. There is no going back to the old paradigm; some drastic changes must be made in order to close the generation gap and improve student learning experience. Educators should reflect on their teaching styles and outcomes and be able to embrace new active learning and technology-enabled strategies in the classroom to keep the new generation engaged.
Dimock, M. (2019, January 17). Defining generations: Where Millennials end and Generation Z begins. Retrieved from Pew Research Center: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/17/where-millennials-end-and-generation-z-begins/
Jones , V., Jo, J., & Martin, P. (n.d.). Future schools and how technology can be used to support millennial and generation-Z students. School of Information and Communication Technology.
Roehl, A., Reddy, S. L., & Shannon, G. J. (2013). The flipped classroom: An opportunity to engage Millennial students through active learning strategies. Journal of Family & Consumer Sciences, 105(2), 44-49.
Seemiller, C., & Grace, M. (2016). Generation Z goes to college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Twenge, J. M. (2017). iGen: Why today's super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy - and completely unprepared for adulthood. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
About the author:
Dr. Claudia Bonilla has worked in higher education for more than 20 years. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Computer Information Systems and a master’s degree in Mathematics Education from Nova Southeastern University. In 2015, she completed her Ed.D. in higher education and organizational leadership at Nova Southeastern University. She is the Chairperson of the Mathematics Department at Miami Dade College in Florida and the Chair convener for the mathematics discipline. Her expertise includes Mathematics, Math Education, Curriculum Development, Higher Education and Organizational Leadership. She is also a member at-large of the Florida Mathematics Redesign group contributing to supporting community colleges’ effort to develop student-centered pathways and increase student completion rates.