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Teaching Across Generations – Part II

14 Jul

Last week in Part I of Teaching Across Generations, I discussed the differences in learning preferences between traditional and non-traditional/adult students, and offered suggestions for teaching a class comprising both.  In this week ‘s post, I’ll consider adult learners in light of literature investigating generational differences among adults, how this affects student learning, and strategies we can use in the classroom to engage – and expand – the ways learners learn.

Generational differences related to learning

Researchers propose that adult students might be grouped into different generations defined by the chronological period in which they grew up.  Within these different periods of history, participants and historians point to a collection of significant events that influence members of a given generation in a unique, often broadly shared, way.   Alongside these historical events, people of a generation grow up in a cultural milieu shaped by interactions of dominant and non-dominant political and educational belief about, for example, self/individuals, cultures/groups, teachers/students, learning/schooling.  Together these factors shape generational preferences for learning and teaching practices.  Furthermore, scholars engaged in this research suggest that we as teachers should keep these differences in mind when designing learning experiences so that students work in familiar ways, learn how others work, and gain experience learning in new ways.

“Teaching Across Generations” – the Baker College Effective Teaching and Learning Department’s resource guide – sets out a scheme typical of generational classifications:

Silents were born between approximately 1925 – 1942.  A significant event for the Silent Generation was the Great Depression and its effect on their parents.  They are called Silents because they are sandwiched between two more outspoken, take-charge generations, the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers.  Silent Generation attributes include keeping their heads down, working hard, and holding to traditional values. This began to change as women from that generation divorced and entered or returned to the workforce.  In the classroom Silent students are described as withdrawn, unadventurous, cautious, and preferring traditional classroom structure.  They may not enjoy working in groups or being singled out for questions.  

Baby Boomers were born between approximately 1943 – 1960/1964.  Significant events for Boomers were the Vietnam war and the sexual revolution. Baby Boomer attributes include being self-aware, self-centered, doers, and leaders.   In the classroom, these students are described as enjoying learning for learning’s sake, requiring lots of interaction and time to talk, sensitive to criticism, and having problems with authoritarian instructors.  They may not enjoy a passive classroom format where they are not allowed to question the lecturer.

Gen Xers were born between approximately 1961/1964 – 1981.  Significant events for Gen Xers were the Challenger explosion and the end of the Cold War.  This generation includes the “latch key kids”. Gen X attributes include self-reliance and impatience.  In the classroom they are described as wanting feedback and relevance in their assignments.  They may not enjoy assignments and activities without a clear connection to their personal goals.

Millennials were born between approximately 1981 – 2002.  Significant events for Millennials were the shootings at Columbine, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the war in Kosovo.  Attributes of the Millennials includes optimism, feeling special, being sheltered and protected.  Many are the children of “helicopter parents”.  In the classroom they are described as team-oriented, expecting active learning, and valuing service learning. They may not enjoy long lectures or other single activities that are not varied.  There has been a lot written about Millennials that suggests we amend our teaching strategies to better fit this generation.  Many suggestions include purposely incorporating technology into the classroom, and attending to their need for constant stimulation. 

These labels should be considered with caution.  Some social researchers question the validity of generational labels since much of the initial research and classifications were based on observations of middle-class, white Americans.  Because of this, these labels may not accurately represent the attributes of students who don’t belong to this demographic.  Furthermore, some social researches challenge the notion that an entire generation is fundamentally different from another generation AND are meaningfully similar to each other.  Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia has stated that “Generational thinking is just a benign form of bigotry, in which you flatten out diversity” (quoted in Hoover).

Of course, flattening diversity is a risk with any label we attach to our students, including labels related to learning styles.  The challenge in planning learning experiences is to extract useful information about differences between groups to create a better learning environment for all students.  Below is a table with some suggestions for particular generational groups on the left, that I’ve amended to be more inclusive of all students on the right.



Have individual work to appeal to the Silents preference for traditional classroom structure and to work alone.   Have individual work for all students and provide them with an explanation of how this will help their learning.
Work to foster a team environment to appeal to Baby Boomers preference for talking and sharing, and Millennials expectations for working in teams. Have team work for all students and provide them with an explanation of how working effectively in a team will help their learning. Provide them with strategies to support working in teams.
Ask for professional experiences to honor the work experience of Silents, Boomers, and Gen Xers. Ask all students for professional experience. Some traditionally-aged students may have significant work experience, or benefit from hearing the real-life experience of their classmates.
Change activities often to keep the interest of Millennials. Change activities throughout a class session to provide variety, prevent tuning out, and to appeal to the different learning preferences of all students.
Incorporate technology to tap into the tech savvy interests of Millennials. Incorporate technology to best support your learning outcomes for all students. This might mean pushing outside of your own comfort zone to learn about and use new learning technologies.

Perhaps the best use of generational labels for our teaching is to consider that all students come to our classes with different expectations and comfort with the different approaches we use in teaching.  We can use that understanding to design more inclusive learning environments that help students of all ages learn better.


Hoover, E. “The Millennial Muddle”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, (May 30, 2014). http://chronicle.com/article/The-Millennial-Muddle-How/48772/.

Effective Teaching and Learning Department.  “Teaching Across Generations.” Course Module Support Materials.  Flint, MI: Baker College, 2004. 13-24.  https://www.mcc.edu/pdf/pdo/teaching_across_gen.pdf

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