Understand, Engage, Connect: Meeting Millennial Learners Where They Are

18 Mar

by Bill Rozaitis, Education Specialist, Center for Teaching and Learning

Meeting Millennials

When teachers get together to talk about their work, the conversation inevitably comes round to the students they’re teaching—their habits, the challenges they’re facing, and the challenges they pose as learners.  One of the best resources on this topic that I’ve found is this video by Michael Wesch, a cultural anthropologist at Kansas State who asked his students a simple question:

What’s it like being a student today?

Their responses – at once provocative and disturbing – have a lot to tell us about the current generation of college students and how we, as educators, can create environments that help them learn.

One of things I take away from the video is the clear mismatch between how students say they want to learn and how they are actually taught.  Wesch’s students seem to feel that they’re not being taught in the ways best suited to help them achieve deep, meaningful learning.  They seek engagement and connection.

In this they seem to be typical of Millennial learners generally, at least as described by Neil Howe and William Strauss, Christy Price, and Richard Sweeney (links in Resources below).  These authors have written extensively about Milliennial students (those born in the early 1980s through the turn of the 21st century), and have found them to share certain characteristics:

  • DSCN0424They are digital natives who are perfectly at home with technology and use it to mediate their experience and social relationships,
  • They value experiential and exploratory learning, quickly becoming bored with passive lectures,
  • They are high achievers who are very grade motivated,
  • They are impatient, easily bored, and expect instant gratification,
  • They believe (for better or worse) that they are expert multitaskers, and often switch between tasks such as homework, monitoring phone and Facebook feeds, and listening to music,
  • They are team oriented and comfortable working in groups.

There are many who believe that generational distinctions such as these are overly simplistic, based on faulty research that tends to erase differences between individuals while privileging certain groups—namely the white, middle class, traditional college-aged student—over others.  I sympathize with that position, becoming a little queasy myself when talking of broad generational traits.  (For an article treating the problems at the heart of generational thinking, see the “The Millennial Muddle” by Eric Hoover.)

That being said, I do see some value in thinking about “Millennial” learners – particularly insofar as it forces us focus on the students we’re teaching and how we can best meet their needs.

The questions for me then become not whether “Millennial” or “Gen Y” or any other label is adequate or accurate, but rather:

How can we understand the students in our classrooms?

When we understand them, how can we meet them where they are?

Educational Pursuits 3Student-Centered Learning

Student-centered learning has the power to motivate and inspire today’s students—Millennial or otherwise—and is a tool for creating the kind of students you’d like to teach.  I’ve found it useful to focus on three elements at the heart of student-centered learning when discussing how to apply it in classroom situations:  understanding students, engaging them actively, and connecting them with content and each other.   I’ll discuss each of these elements below.  My purpose is to spur your thinking so that you come up with ideas or strategies that you can try in your classroom tomorrow.


One of the most important questions a student-centered teacher can ask is, “What are my students learning?”  Fortunately, there is an easy way to answer this question: Ask them.DSCN0038 7

Perhaps the simplest and most impactful change you can make to your teaching is to incorporate formative assessment techniques to understand what your students know.   One minute writes, clicker questions, pre-class quizzes, midterm assessments, background knowledge probes—all of these help you understand your students and customize learning to their particular needs.  There are many terrific resources available on the nuts and bolts of formative assessment, the best probably being Classroom Assessment Techniques by Thomas Angelo and Patricia Cross.  For those new to the concept and looking for a good web guide, I’d recommend Indiana University’s “Classroom Assessment Techniques” page, a resource largely based on the work of Angelo and Cross.

Understanding students also means that you take an interest in them as people and make clear your commitment to being a partner in their learning.  According to Christy Price, Millennial students think the ideal professor is energetic, enthusiastic, flexible, tuned into students, friendly, and approachable.  Professors who showed these traits were perceived by students as being more in touch with student culture and thus better teachers.

One strategy for meeting students where they are is to use students’ names during your classes.  If you can’t remember names (either because your class is too large or you simply don’t have the knack for it), there are things you can do.  Some instructors print class rosters with student pictures so that they can refer to student by name whenever possible.  Others ask students to state their names before answering a question or offering a comment; this approach personalizes class in a very important way and shows students that you care about them as people.  Finally, you might arrive to class a few minutes early and stay a few minutes late to greet students as they enter and leave.  This is a great opportunity to talk to your students, learn about them, and show that you’re a partner in their academic success.


Authors who’ve written about today’s students seem to agree that they value exploratory and experiential learning, become easily bored with a strict diet of “lecture only” teaching, and value the smart instructional use of technology.  This group of students wants to be engaged, and you can do that in several ways.

One of the most important things you can do is to incorporate active learning strategies into your courses.  According to a literature review by Michael Prince (link in Resources below), there is a strong consensus among researchers about the positive impact of active learning.  How might you give students opportunities to work “hands on” with material?

  • Incorporate clicker questions into your lecture courses that allow students to work with information or apply concepts to new situations.
  • Peer instruction – a technique perfected by Eric Mazur to help students with conceptual understanding of physics – can be adapted to many disciplines and is a great way to engage students in their own learning and that of their peers.
  • Strive to create opportunities for variety in your teaching, both in the strategies you use (moving between lecture and active learning, for example) as well as the assignments you create.  In addition to assigning standard academic papers, consider allowing students to create multimedia projects for assignments.  Student-created videos, podcasts, or web assignments provide different ways for students to demonstrate their learning while leveraging students’ interest in tinkering with technology.
  • Ask yourself how you can make your material more relevant to students.  The instructors I’ve talked to recently seem to agree that students can be reluctant to buy into the importance of skills that their instructors see as foundational—critical thinking, for example, or writing.  How can you translate the importance of these skills and the course content you’re teaching into a language that makes sense to students?
  • Consider using goal setting activities to help students discover for themselves the importance of material.  Such an activity might be done early in the semester by asking students to write down on a piece of paper the main things they would like to learn in your course and why it’s important for them to learn these things.  Collecting and reading these gives you important insight into your students and their motivations.  You might also return them to students during the middle of the semester and ask them to reflect on their goals and how successfully they’re meeting them.  In this way, a simple activity that takes no more than a few minutes to initiate becomes both a way to generate student interest in the subject matter as well as a formative assessment tool that can help students reflect on and monitor their own learning.
  • I’ve known faculty who’ve invited students from previous semesters to talk to their classes about the value of the curriculum.  Hearing students like themselves talk about the course, what they’ll be learning, and its relevance is a powerful motivator and can help students identify why they should care about the course material.  Video taping such conversations would provide a nice archive that you and your students could draw on in the future.

Finally, search for ways to connect the content that you’re teaching to students’ lives and experience.  It can sometimes be hard to do this, so why not ask your students for help?  A class activity might involve tasking students with finding real world applications of what you’re discussing and then sharing those with the rest of the class.  This can be done in class via think-pair-share discussion or could be done out of class in an online discussion forum.

Along Mississippi River - North Mpls


According to Christy Price, the number one characteristic Millennials desire in an ideal learning environment is that it be interactive and participatory—in other words, that it connect students to content and each other in meaningful ways.

Connect with Content

Today’s students value content that they can access anywhere, anytime.  Online resources appeal to these learners in ways that traditional print text books do not.  It’s certainly important to assign complex reading to students, but you might ask yourself if you can balance these with other kinds of resources: videos, podcasts, or other forms of multimedia.  Some instructors capture their lectures via Camtasia or Jing and make those available online for students; others use tools such as these to create stand alone learning resources that students can access out of class.

You might create assignments in which students themselves generate content that is used to teach their peers.  In one biology class, student groups were responsible for researching a topic assigned by the professor.  These groups were required to create a video presentation of their information (usually a voice over PowerPoint), along with five questions for the rest of the class.   These videos were uploaded to YouTube where other class members watched them.  The instructor then assigned students to discuss the questions online and in class.  Good questions were used on exams.  This particular approach shows a nice intersection of engagement and participatory learning.

Connect Students with Each Other

Today’s students clearly value social connections and use technology to facilitate these.  Why not leverage that in your classroom?  Build formal and informal cooperative learning activities into your course and encourage students to come up with ways of establishing community.  They may start Facebook groups or use other social networking platforms to collaborate.  They may use blogs or wikis or Google docs as platforms for shared knowledge creation.  Social bookmarking tools such as Diigo might be a nice way to build a knowledge community that extends beyond the walls of the classroom.  Derek Bruff has described his students’ experience with social networks as learning networks; it’s worth a read for ideas you might transfer to your own teaching context.

When you employ student-centered principles of the kind described above, students are more likely to be inspired by your teaching.  Interestingly, it’s just as likely that you too will become more inspired by using these approaches.  Every teacher knows it: our jobs are more fun and rewarding when we teach students who are enthusiastic and tuned into the learning experience.  Student-centered learning is the best way that I know of to make this happen.


Neil Howe and William Strauss.  “Millennials Go to College: Executive Summary.”  American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Offices (2003).

Christy Price.  “Why Don’t My Students Think I’m Groovy?  The New” R” s for Engaging Millennial Learners.”  The Teaching Professor. 23.7 (Aug/Sept 2009): 7+

Michael Prince.  “Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research.”  Journal of Engineering Education.  July 204: 1-9.

Richard Sweeney.  “Millennial Behaviors and Higher Education Focus Group Results: How are Millennials different from previous generations at the same age?”  Creative Commons Attribution License, 2012.



2 Responses to “Understand, Engage, Connect: Meeting Millennial Learners Where They Are”

  1. wernerschwartz 27 March 2013 at 10:41 am #

    Reblogged this on wernerschwartz.


  1. Formative Assessment: When Students Record Their Own Learning in Small Bites | TILT - 17 February 2014

    […] Understand, Engage, Connect: Meeting Millennial Learners Where They Are […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: