Bridge the Generation Gap With Your Students

Boomer and Generation X faculty can build stronger relationships with today’s students.

by Lea Hart

February 14, 2017

Whether you’re a Baby Boomer or a member of Generation X, you’ve probably noticed some fundamental differences between yourself and your Millennial college students.

“We’re all just noticing that there’s a change,” said Cassy Henderson, Ph.D., assistant professor of accounting at Sam Houston State University. “Of course we wonder if it’s just in our head. Are we just getting older?”

But it’s true: Researchers have noted certain fundamental differences between Millennials and older generations. For instance, as Millennials grew up with technology (as a White House Council of Economic Advisers report stated, “the sheer amount of computational power and access to information that Millennials have had at their fingertips since grade-school is unparalleled”) they tend to expect instant access to information.

That desire for quick feedback can create challenges in the classroom. Henderson noted her students often email her asking questions about items covered in the syllabus rather than reading it. Many ask her if they really need to buy the textbook.

Whereas professors may have once lectured and used PowerPoint presentations in the classroom, that approach doesn’t work for Millennials, who won’t tolerate lengthy lectures, said Stephen Scarpati, CPA, clinical associate professor of accounting at Sacred Heart University.

“If you’re lecturing for more than 20 minutes, you’re lecturing too long,” he noted. “Pure lecture doesn’t work with them.”

Differences aside, Millennials bring plenty of positive traits to the classroom as well, which faculty can use to their advantage. Scarpati said Millennials are enthusiastic, and want to talk and engage with their professors. Meanwhile Henderson noted they’re accepting of others and truly value their education.

While differences can leave faculty feeling unsure about how to connect with their Millennial students, Henderson, Scarpati, and Shani Robinson, CPA, Ph.D., assistant professor of accounting at Sam Houston State University, offer some advice to faculty to help them have better relationships with their students and engage them in the classroom.

Be consistent and fair. Though students from all generations value consistency, Robinson believes that Millennials may expect more from faculty in terms of structure and direction.

“Millennials have been provided with the paths to success, whether that be in school or extracurricular activities,” she said, noting that they will be looking for that same kind of clear guidance in college.

Scarpati recommended that faculty ensure the materials that they go over in class and give for homework are consistent with the questions that appear on the exam.

“One thing that will turn them off is if they feel they’ve been misled,” he said. “While this is probably true of all of us, it is certainly the case with Millennials.”

Robinson added that faculty should be specific in their syllabus and classroom policies, and try not to deviate from them. For example, she said, if your attendance policy states, “If you miss X number of classes, you’ll fail the class,” there’s no room for debate. If a student complains, you can point to the policy.

Communication should be frequent and to the point. Millennial students, often due to their high school experiences, have come to expect digital communication with faculty, Henderson said. She recommends communicating frequently with students—either through daily or weekly emails, through the school or class website, or by texting.

“The key is constant communication—give them as much information as you can,” she said.

Scarpati said that emails should be direct and to-the-point. Shorter, but more frequent communication is best, he said.

Have a clear technology policy. Millennials are used to having constant access to technology and most carry their cellphones with them everywhere. Opinions vary on how faculty should handle technology in the classroom.

Scarpati does not allow cellphone use in the classroom. He believes his students can’t focus on what’s happening at the front of the class if they’re looking at their phones.

“If they’re texting, they’re clearly not learning,” he said.

Robinson agrees students will miss information if they’re focused on texts or social media, but approaches the issue through discussion.

“I need to let them know I understand them,” she said. “I use my phone, too. But I tell them I want them to be successful. If they miss something in class, I’ll tell them they’re going to miss something on the test.”

Meanwhile, Henderson allows cellphones in class, which she believes creates an opportunity for students to learn to manage their own time.

Don’t call them out. Henderson said Millennials are more sensitive than past generations. She recommends avoiding calling them out in class for mistakes.

“Being hard on them in front of their peers is not good for them,” she said.

Instead, pull them to the side to speak with them, or address the matter after class, she suggests.

Get to know them as individuals. While it’s easy to simply classify the current group of students as Millennials, remember they’re all individuals with different personalities and different learning styles, faculty say. Getting to know them individually helps engage them in the classroom.

Scarpati makes an effort to get to know his students by their first names. He can recognize them in the hallway and sometimes has lunch with them.

Robinson works hard to create a classroom environment that’s welcoming. She encourages students to ask questions, and to talk to her outside of class.

“I make the classroom environment such that I can talk to them one-on-one,” she said. If a student asks a question, Robinson will sometimes walk over to that student to discuss the answer, rather than answering from the front of the classroom. Or, if the class is working on a problem, she might sit down with one student and work the problem with him or her.

Use real-life examples. Using examples from your own life experience both helps students get to know you and engages them in learning. Scarpati, who was a practitioner for more than 30 years before coming to Sacred Heart University, said his students like to hear real-life stories that relate directly to the topic being discussed. For example, he’ll talk about companies’ business dealings in foreign countries during lessons on international topics.

While faculty may feel overwhelmed by the differences between themselves and their students, it’s important to remember that some things remain the same, Scarpati said. Today’s student has the same core personal values as past generations, and remembering that fact can help faculty identify what they have in common with their students.

“Students want what we wanted in college,” he said. “They want to like their courses and their professors, make friends, and enjoy their time.”

Lea Hart is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this story, email lead editor Courtney Vien.

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