“Trying to connect to this generation is not the same as selling out to them.”1
One of my greatest frustrations with discussions of this generation of college students is the way some talk about their protected childhood and its consequences (see “Being protected & becoming risk averse” in Part 2). This is one of the many reasons I prefer Jean Twenge’s book iGen (see Part 1), which doesn’t pull any punches on the facts but resists the judgy tone and problematic conclusions of some others.
In Part 3, I described how we might draw on these students’ experiences to inform how we think about learning (i.e., as applying and producing knowledge, and “‘serious play,’”2) and teaching (i.e., as the joint pursuit of creative complexity). Then, in Part 4, I described how we’ll need to complement their experiences with lessons in critical research and slow learning. Today, in the final installment in this series (that could go on and on), I’ll address two more areas where I think we need to dig in.
The Value of Struggle & Difficulty
Yes, they’ve been sheltered and kept close to home, which has exacerbated their discomfort with struggle and difficulty. A 2019 study by Deslauriers, McCarty, Miller, Callaghan, and Kestin demonstrated that students may perceive the labor and delayed success of active learning and cognitive effort as not learning, and the ease and confidence resulting from passive experiences like listening to lectures as effective learning.3 The latter may be more familiar, given how they’ve experienced school thus far, so it makes sense that they may not recognize learning that doesn’t “feel like” learning. (The Deslauriers et al., study is titled “Actual learning versus the feeling of learning.”)
But this doesn’t mean that they can’t or won’t learn through struggle, difficulty, discomfort, etc. Think about the disconnect between this generation’s risk-aversion and desire for ease–and gaming, which is “centered on solving problems before they can move to the next level” and where “they realize that each time they fail, they have just learned one more strategy and now know that it won’t work.”4 They do have experience (and probably joy!) with resilience, persistence in the face of difficulty, productive struggle, appreciation of challenge, grit, a growth mindset, and more. Context matters. Effective learning connects new experiences to prior ones, so why are they willing and able to deploy these important ways of thinking and being in some contexts, but not (apparently) in our classes?
One reason is clearly our grading system. You know what I’m going to say next. Grading solely on high-stakes assignments (i.e., summative assessment) actively penalizes those very experiences that we want students to bring to class, described above. A grading system that integrates plenty of low-stakes opportunities for practicing new skills, making mistakes, rebooting and trying again (i.e., formative assessment) encourages and cultivates these skills in the new context of college learning.
There are plenty of resources out there for building in more formative assessments, such as this piece from Edutopia, this page from Yale’s Center for Teaching and Learning, and this page from the Center at Indiana University.
In addition to building in and recognizing the role of struggle in the learning process, we can also normalize academic struggle by making it transparent. Mariolina Salvatori and Patricia Donahue’s The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty introduces a small but powerful activity called “the difficulty paper.” Their prompt is below, worth quoting in full.
These brief (1/2- to 1-page) writings are examples of a low-stakes formative assessment (win!) that encourages metacognition (winwin!) about the relevance and importance of struggle (winwinwin!), bringing it front and center into the regular part of the learning experience.
“These are papers in which you identify and begin to hypothesize the reasons for any possible difficulty you might be experiencing as you read the assigned texts. Each week, you will write a difficulty paper. Each week, I will select one or two of them as unusual or representative examples of the readings you produce. I will photocopy, distribute, and use them to ground our discussions. My goal, in doing so, is to move all of us from judging a difficulty as a reader’s inability to understand a text to discerning in it a reader’s incipience awareness of the particular “demands” imposed by the language/structure/ style/content of a text.”5
The idea here isn’t to “water down” content or sacrifice rigor. The idea is to make the experience of learning (as we see it) recognizable, to offer them a “way in” by connecting to their prior experiences that may be from other contexts.
In-Person Interactions & Interpersonal Skills
Finally (for this series, that is), we don’t do this generation of students any favors by letting them interact primarily in digital spaces. Twenge’s book and Gretchen McCulloch’s delightful Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language offer thoughtful discussions of how these students have been using various technologies for interactions that are far more complex and meaningful than we appreciate. But they do, as a result, have less experience with in-person interactions and all of their subtlety and nuance. I won’t belabor the consequences, but consider the resistance to group work, the difficulty with sexual messaging, employers’ ongoing pleas for more attention to teamwork, and their well-documented increase in loneliness with this generation.
Hybrid or blended courses with some components intentionally shifted to the online environment, online office hours that offer greater flexibility and access for students when they’re off campus, digital assignments and activities that motivate these students by drawing on their strengths–all of these are positive developments in higher education. But let’s also look at how we design face-to-face activities as teachable moments. Let’s make the roles and rules for different contexts transparent, such as the following:
Show them what effective use of office hours looks like, and think about your office hours pedagogy.
–How do you help them use that time as practice in a certain kind of interaction?
–See this article in Inside Higher Ed, and this article in the Faculty Focus newsletter, and this study from the journal InSight and this page from UNC-Chapel Hill’s Learning Center.
Give them specific roles and describe the skills for working in groups and teams.
–What does a “facilitator” do?
—How does a “devil’s advocate” disagree constructively?
—How does a substantive “amplifyer” build on others’ good ideas?
–What do they need to listen for when their classmates talk?
–How can they engage “social loafers,” or groupmates who aren’t doing their part?
Oh goodness, this is already a long post, and I really need to get back to focusing on my in-person interactions with campus colleagues. I hope these brief explanations and strategies are useful. Most importantly, though, read Twenge’s iGen because the key really is not in having a toolkit of techniques but in better understanding the students who are actually in our classrooms. Effective practices will follow.
1 Charlie Sweet, Hal Blythe, and Rusty Carpenter (2019) “Creating an iGen Pedagogy” in National Teaching and Learning Forum
2 Erica McWilliam, “Teaching Gen Z” (2015), available online here
3 Louis Deslauriers, Logan S. McCarty, Kelly Miller, Kristina Callaghan, and Greg Kestin (2019) “Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom” (available online here)
4 Darla Rothman (2014) “A Tsunami of Learners Called Generation Z” (available online here)
5 Mariolina Salvatori and Patricia Donahue’s The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty