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Historians William Strauss and Neil Howe predict they’ll emerge as the next Greatest Generation, filled with a sense of optimism and civic duty. San Diego University psychologist Jean Twenge, PhD, calls them Generation Me, a group raised in an era where self-esteem is more important than achievement. Mark Bauerlein, PhD, an English professor at Emory University, thinks they’ll be the most illiterate cohort yet, thanks to search engines and the proliferation of text messaging.

That range of opinions about millennials — also known as Generation Y — is typical, though researchers have been studying the group for more than a decade. Even the birth years of this set remain contentious, though most agree the millennials were born from 1981 to 2004.

When it comes to more specific Millennial characteristics — such as whether this generation learns differently from their older peers — the research is just trickling in. Here are some of psychologists’ findings on the topic and how to apply them in class:

Make your class multimedia. A study by Dalton State College psychology professor Christy Price, EdD, suggests that millennials want more variety in class (August/September 2009 The Teaching Professor). “This is a culture that has been inundated with multimedia and they’re all huge multitaskers, so to just sit and listen to a talking head is often not engaging enough for them,” Price says.

Instructors are playing to the millennials’ interests by incorporating Facebook, Twitter and other platforms into their teaching. Price, for example, allows students to earn credit for contributing to the learning environment when they post YouTube links related to course content on her Facebook page. Price herself shares such videos with her entire class.

St. John’s University psychologist Jeffrey Nevid, PhD, of APA’s Div. 2 (Society for the Teaching of Psychology), also uses film clips and YouTube videos in class, then works with students to help them identify and encode the psychological concepts in these clips and discuss how they apply to real life.

Such multimedia approaches appear to work, suggests a 2009 Teaching of Psychology (Vol. 36, No. 3) article. In the study, Oklahoma State University psychologists Edward Burkley, PhD, and Melissa Burkley, PhD, tested the effectiveness of showing clips from the TV show “MythBusters” in a psychology research methods course. They showed four clips and asked students to answer questions about them, offer their opinions of them and respond to “MythBusters”-related questions on an exam that also included questions about other course content. The students said the clips helped them understand course concepts, apply their knowledge to real-world situations and were, quite simply, enjoyable. Students performed better on “MythBusters”- related exam items than on control items, suggesting the clips were effective educational tools, say the researchers.

Be more relaxed. Price’s research shows that Millennial students prefer a less formal learning environment that allows them to interact informally with the professor and fellow students. That may be because this generation is more comfortable around adults, psychologists suggest. They often have closer relationships with their parents and other adults than previous generations, possibility because they were raised in a more child-centric society, says Ellen Pastorino, PhD, a psychology professor at Florida’s Valencia Community College and author of a 2006 “E-xcellence in Teaching” e-column about generations in the classroom, published by Div. 2.

Given the central role millennials have played in their parents’ lives, the Millennial generation often expects professors not only to be knowledgeable but also readily accessible and approachable, says Steven Meyers, PhD, a psychology professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago. They’re used to caring adults, as opposed to hierarchical relationships that were more characteristic of other generations, he says. As a way to build connections, many instructors are communicating with students via cell phone, text message or on Facebook. Pastorino cautions, however, that professors must set boundaries, particularly when it comes to some students’ need for constant contact.

Make your teaching relevant. Millennial students are more likely to perform better when professors connect their lessons to real life, says Meyers, and Price agrees. Her research suggests that millennials perceived professors who listened, related and talked to students about their lives as connected to Millennial culture and saw those who were unattached or who solely focused on course content as not very tuned in to millennials. Humor and use of current examples also helped engage students. Miami Dade College psychology professor Sheryl Hartman, PhD, adds that professors also need to explain clearly why course content is important, as well as how students will be evaluated in their knowledge of the course. “They need to know what’s going to be exemplary and how to strive for that,” she says.

Explore new teaching methods. millennials also want assignments that are more creative than the typical 10-page final paper, say psychologists. “millennials seem to be more experiential and exploratory learners, so they really seem to benefit from the personalization and customization of assignments,” Hartman says. Her students develop podcasts or PowerPoint presentations with audio narratives to demonstrate their knowledge of a psychological concept.

Active learning approaches — such as the use of student response systems and collaborative learning — are associated with greater academic achievement, though this isn’t necessarily Millennial-specific, Meyers says. For example, a 2007 study examined the use of an electronic audience response system, in which students use handheld “i>clickers” to respond to questions during a class lecture or discussion. Compared with a group of students in a standard lecture, the clicker group students participated more in class, reported greater positive emotion during the lecture and were more likely to respond honestly to in-class review questions (Teaching of Psychology, Vol. 34, No. 4).

Service learning also appears to work well with millennials, Meyers has found, through both research and experience. He requires his developmental and clinical psychology students to volunteer at social service agencies, schools, Boys and Girls Clubs, tutoring programs and pediatric hospitals. “I have students tell me how transformational their work in the community is when they’ve assisted families in homeless shelters,” Meyers says. “Those are lessons that they remember long after the course has ended.” Research also supports the value of service learning. An October 2009 Teaching of Psychology (Vol. 36, No. 4) meta-analysis suggests that when paired with structured reflection and classroom discussion on student experiences, service learning can improve students’ academic, personal, social and citizenship skills.

In the end, Price says, the needs of millennials may not actually be generational at all. Today’s students may simply be showing us the benefits of paying more attention to what’s working and the importance of gathering student feedback on teaching methods.

“Really, all they’re asking for is for us to use good [teaching] practices,” she says. “That’s something I’m not sure I wouldn’t have asked for when I was in college 20 years ago, but nobody asked me.”


Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.

 

Further reading, resources

  • Campus Compact, a national coalition dedicated to campus-based civic engagement, offers resources to help faculty develop servicebased learning curricula on its Web site.

  • The Chronicle of Higher Education explores issues in college teaching and technology in its Technology department.

  • Howe, N. & Strauss, W. (Second Edition). (2007). Millennials Go to College: Strategies for a New Generation on Campus. Great Falls, Va.: Lifecourse Associates.

  • Price, C. (2009). Why Don’t My Students Think I’m Groovy?: The New “R”s for Engaging Millennial Learners. The Teaching Professor, 23.