Understanding Today’s Students

Part 1 in a Series

Originally, I set out to write a few paragraphs in an email responding to colleagues’ comments about struggling to understand the current generation of college students.

But I now have too much to say, and I don’t want to simplify more than necessary. That email has now grown into a series of drafted blog posts. I have the content mapped out, but I’m already regretting how much I have to omit. I have other work to do, and you don’t want to read a full article (or more) disguised as a blog.

“Students these days are different.”

Yes, they are. But the explanations that often follow this observation too easily drift into territory that doesn’t sit well with me. They’re too superficial, too insulting, too blindly nostalgic, or too bent on blaming.

iGen book cover

These students have been referred to as Generation Z, the Anxious Generation, Memennials, the Homeland Generation, and more. But the most fair, data-rich, reasonable discussion of the current generation of students I’ve found is Jean Twenge’s book iGen, the name she gives the generation born between approximately 1995 and 2012.

Caveat: “[W]hen we speak of a particular ‘generation’ – Baby Boomer, Gen X, Y or Z – we are inevitably talking aggregates, not individuals. [The name given to any generation] is a construct that allows us to simplify (and also to by-pass) the complexity and multifaceted nature of individual behaviour…. [It’s] a short-hand for pulling together masses of disparate psychological, sociological, demographic and other data in order to render large and diverse populations both homogeneous and distinctive as age-based social categories.”1

Watch Twenge introduce her idea of iGen in this 5-minute clip (and notice how she keeps trying to resist oversimplifying):

I’ve read Twenge’s article in The Atlantic, watched her TEDTalk, and looked at the summaries, but none quite captures what the book does.

Read the book. Or listen to the audiobook.


In Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, Stephen Brookfield urges us to investigate our teaching from our students’ perspectives (among others). To do that, we need to understand the experiences and expectations they bring with them.

Without this understanding, we risk the disconnect described by a professor who famously went back to school disguised as a student: “’I could see why my former ‘solutions’ had not changed [students’] behavior…. I often design solutions to student problems that do not address the actual source of the problem.’”2  

We may also assume students aren’t “much concerned about learning,” but “A more thorough examination of students’ orientation to college…reveals that students sincerely hoped to learn something important and meaningful in college.”3 We need to find out what they mean by learning.

Given this ease of misunderstanding, an unfortunate gap in most of the explanations of this generation is a thoughtful discussion specifically for those of us in higher education. Most advice is directed toward parents (“Protect them less!”), K-12 schools (“Challenge them more!”), and cognitive behavior therapists (“Reframe their thinking!”), but what about college teachers?

What are the implications for our teaching? We can build on these students’ experiences and expectations. We can also address their experience gaps and faulty expectations.

I’ll explore these implications in the rest of this series, starting tomorrow.

Read Part 2.

Rollins colleagues, the book is now available from Olin Library via online access

1 Erica McWilliam (2015) “Teaching Gen Z” (available online here)
2 Rebekah Nathan, My Freshman Year qtd. Cox
3 Rebecca D. Cox (2009) The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another

Featured image Photo Credit: Sixskinsia Flickr via Compfightcc