Friday, October 16, 2009

Teaching Millennials More Effectively

Are you passionate about teaching, but often distraught with the lack of student motivation and engagement? Perhaps, by failing to understand your students, you've either failed to push the right buttons, or are pushing the wrong buttons.

Yesterday I attended a thought-provoking, yet practical seminar at Kennesaw State University. It was lead by Dr. Christy Price, professor of Psychology at Dalton State College, and researcher in the area of understanding and teaching millennials. (If you'd like to read her essay on this subject, click HERE.)

Here are some of my take-aways:

1. Be relevant. Show students how what you're teaching will help them be successful in the areas they want to be successful. Don't teach knowledge for knowledge's sake.

2. Be relational. Millennials are all about relationships. Within sane limits (you can't be their parent or best buddy!) communicate with them via e-mail, one-on-one, etc. One of my sons communicates much better via e-mail than face-to-face. Use whatever means is most comfortable to them. Take an interest in their world, and they may take in interest in your subject matter and your world.

When teaching a one-time seminar or class, I like to start by asking students about their interests and where they're headed vocationally. Then, as I teach, I keep referring to how my content could help several of the class members with their specific goals. [After all, their primary motivation for being at school isn't to become wise (shocking), but to get a good job. So it makes sense to engage them by appealing to their felt needs.] Dr. Price used this technique in her seminar, talking to individuals before the seminar about what they do and referring back to them during the seminar.

3. Care. Students don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. Although this is so often said as to be trite, it's so seldom applied that students are wowed when they sense a professor really cares. One poll found students putting "knowledgable" last on their list of what they look for in a professor. Perhaps it's because they expect that any teacher should know her subject. Whatever the case, don't think you can impress them or hook them by knowing all the dates of important historical events. If you're simply dispensing facts that they can look up on the internet, you're irrelevant.

4. Chill. They live in an informal world. They wear flip-flops and pants that hang off their butts. Is it surprising that they're uncomfortable around uptight, immaculately dressed, formal types? Perhaps because they're more buddy-buddy with their parents than former generations, they come across less respectful when addressing other adults. They'll often treat you more as an equal than is comfortable to you.

Rather than bemoan their sloppiness and sometimes irritating remarks, harness that openness to get them discussing and thinking. Whereas former generations might have been too scared of their authorities to routinely challenge opinions or add to discussions, this generation will often dive right in.

One professor commented after the seminar, "I think the reason that most history professors lecture the entire hour is that they're afraid that if they allow for questions, students will ask them things they can't answer, especially when they're covering areas outside of their dissertation." I'd respond, "Get over it. They know you're not omniscient - why not admit it?"

So, chill.

I remember one of my college philosophy professors saying, "The older I get, the more comfortable I get with that little phrase, 'I don't know.'" I respected him for that. Still do. Get used to that phrase, followed by this comment, "but that's a great question! Maybe we can figure that out together!"

If you come across approachable, you'll learn so much together with your students.

5. Be open minded and flexible - not rigid. One teacher wanted students to not wear hats. Perhaps he felt it was important for his students to get used to a professional environment or whatever. One student approached him privately about his hat making him feel more comfortable. Additionally, (and probably the real issue) his hair was thinning, which was an embarrassment. The teacher bent and let the class wear hats. When it makes sense to change, change.

6. Don't talk down to them.
Many millennials are overconfident (a condition shared by most Americans, for that matter), leading them to think they're smarter and more knowledgeable than they are. When you're looking at your class, realize that most of them think they're above average. If your mission in life is to take them down a notch by showing them how dumb they really are, it probably won't work. They'll simply conclude, "That teacher thinks he knows so much - but he doesn't know anything that I can't find with a Google search. He's so full of himself!"

Instead, harness that audacity by getting their input. Ask them if they agree or disagree. Ask them how the principle applies to real life. Back in the late 70's one of my colleges scheduled a session for students to give their input into the curriculum. Lots of students showed up and gave valuable input. That's called respecting students. But how many teachers are humble enough learners to listen to students' ideas?

Use informal, rather than technical language. Don't try to impress them with big words.

7. Minimize lecture - 20 minutes max at a time. They don't hate lecture - just exclusive lecture. Inject discussions, video clips, etc. - anything to give them time to digest important concepts and appeal to the students who don't learn best by lecture.

8. Allow yourself to be fun and use humor. If you're not funny, find funny stuff (u-tube, etc.) that relates to your subject. Your students could help you to find it!

9. Enhance your teaching with new technology. Dr. Price gave us all hand-held devices (i clickers) at the first of the seminar, by which we could anonymously answer questions throughout the presentation. We quickly learned how many age-groups were represented, what attendees thought of certain concepts, etc., by choosing A) B) C) or D) in response to her questions. Her students each buy one to use in class.

This one device would be invaluable for getting helpful student input. In Math: "The concept we just presented - do you a) now fully understand it b) kind of get it or c) don't get it at all? If 90% don't understand it, you back up and discover what they missed.

10. Emphasize group work and allow students to get to know one another. After all, isn't one of the most important things you can come out of college with is the ability to network through your connections?

11. Let them know exactly what they need to do to succeed in your class. A rubric is a great idea. Make sure they thoroughly understand it.

12. Give them options. Some would do better with a long-term project, others with weekly tests. As long as they meet your objectives by the end of the term, who cares how they got there, as long as it's fair to all?

13. Consider giving earlier tests that count less, in order for them to get acclimated. Some students will wait until after to first test to see if they can get by without buying the text. Basing an entire grade on a midterm and a final can be devastating.

14. Allow them time to process information. You might use games, exercises, or application activities.

15. Use illustrations and jokes from their world. Not only are these more interesting to your students, but using them shows that you're interested in their world.

16. Use case studies - either shared by you, on video, or with a panel of experts.

17. Grade stuff. Remember, most aren't primarily after the knowledge; they're after grades. So if you ask them to do something and they do it, but they don't get a grade for it, they feel cheated. They're used to little rewards (like a few points here and a few points there) for completing tasks. Give points for participating in class, perfect attendance, etc. Make it clear from the start what behaviors will be rewarded.

18. Treat them as individuals. The millennial profile probably fits none of your students completely, and some of your students not at all. This informative and thought-provoking article warns us to not put millennials, or any other generation, in a tidy box -

Is this helpful? Are these workable ideas, or are some of them taking the millennial thing too far?

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