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Understanding and Teaching the Millennial Learner

Have you heard yourself or a colleague say "Students today …"

  • "expect an A if they do the work."
  • "just want to be told what is on the test."
  • "expect me to be available 24/7."

If so, you are likely referring to a Millennial student. Generational cohorts, such as Millennials, share an age, location, and history, which influence perceptions. Millennials were born between 1982 and 2002 and were impacted by major events, such as 9/11, the Columbine Shootings, and the Rodney King Riots (Howe and Strauss 19). Generally speaking, Millennials are...

  • the most racially and ethnically diverse generation, with approximately 20% having one immigrant parent (Howe and Strauss 15).
  • closer to their parents than any previous generation. According to Neil Howe, renowned author on the generations, "there is no generation gap between Millennials and their parents."
  • more civic-minded.
  • constantly "connected" through multiple forms of technology (i.e., cell phones, social networking sites, tweeting, etc.).
  • so comfortable with technology that they don’t perceive it as such, but rather as a natural part of life. In fact, they are described as "digital natives" versus "digital immigrants."
  • a 24/7 generation who don’t tolerate delays well.
  • "multi-taskers" who simultaneously study, text message, listen to music, etc.
  • more interested in doing than knowing because information changes so rapidly.
  • "Nintendo" or "trial and error" learners. That is, they enjoy learning through games because they can play until they obtain mastery.

The first step in teaching other generations is recognizing that there are very real differences among them, and that our perceptions are based on when we were born, the significant events that have shaped our lives, etc. One generation is not necessarily better or worse; just different.

So what are the implications in terms of teaching and learning for the Millennials?

  • They easily disengage when they experience a delay in their 24/7 world. Consequently, instructors will need to be clear about their availability in terms of online communications (i.e., "I will only answer emails between 4 pm and 7 pm every day," or "You can expect a response from me within 24 hours, Monday through Friday.").
  • Millennials expect faculty to use technology and use it well. At minimum, they expect their instructors to be able to use email. In the same vein, if a student has a question, needs to make an appointment, or seek clarification, she or he is more likely to do so via email versus in person or over the phone.
  • Millennial students are accustomed to active learning and small group work, although they’re not necessarily good at the latter. Therefore, faculty need to design meaningful learning activities that allow students to work together in dyads, triads or structured small groups, and provide clear instructions and guidelines when doing so.
  • Pinder-Grover and Groscurth say that even though they are one of the most diverse generations, most of them have grown up in homogeneous neighborhoods. Consequently, they need to work in heterogeneous groups so that they have an opportunity to work with students whose opinions and backgrounds differ from theirs. Furthermore, infusing a variety of perspectives is critical when selecting literature, sources, speakers, etc.
  • They have high expectations and expect clear and explicit instructions regarding assignments.
  • Timely feedback is crucial. (I.e., within one or two class periods, depending on the assignment.)
  • Because they tend to prefer images over text, PowerPoint presentations and webpages need images interspersed throughout.

Other suggestions:

  • Help shape their high expectations by telling them what they can expect of you and what you expect of them.
  • While they trust and respect authority figures, they don’t necessarily view faculty as such. Consequently, we need to be authentic role models and model the behaviors we desire in our students, such as respect, being on time, etc.
  • Appeal to their civic mindedness by engaging them in service learning opportunities.
  • Create a community of learners and explicitly talk about what you expect in terms of their behavior towards each other. They grew up in a rather sheltered environment (e.g. child safety laws emerged with this generation), so safety, including psychological safety, is important to this generation.
  • Use case studies and other activities that allow them to work together to solve real world problems. For example, in a Business class, students might work in groups to research, design and create products or services.
  • Pinder-Grover and Groscurth say to be aware that these "digital natives" aren’t necessarily "critical consumers, users, and creators of information. Consequently, they benefit from using their technology skills to design and test solutions to real world problems."
  • Use media sources that students recognize. To find out what those are, poll your students at the onset of the semester and ask them to share their favorite TV shows, news sources, movies and music.
  • Likewise, allow them to communicate their understanding through media that they find useful and familiar.


Howe, N., and W. Strauss. Millennials Rising: The Next Generation. New York: Vintage Books, 2000. Print.

Pinder-Grover, T., and C. R. Groscurth. "Principles for Teaching the Millennial Generation: Innovative Practices of U-M Faculty." CRLT Occasional Papers No 26. Center for Research and Learning and Teaching, U. of Michigan, 2009. PDF file.

Educating the NetGen. Dallas: STARLINK, 2005. Print.

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