Gen Z: Do You Know What to Expect from a New Generation of Students?

Generation Z vs Millennials… It’s a common debate, but have you ever wondered how different Millennials and Gen Z truly are? As a millennial, I can’t say that I agree with a few of the characteristics attributed to my generation. Regardless, the lists below are general observations that a study from Ernst & Young revealed about the two generations. The differences are subtle, but definitely present.

Generation Z vs Millennials

Millennials Characteristics

  • Self-centered
  • Entitled
  • Idealist
  • Creative
  • Dependent

Generation Z Characteristics

  • Self-aware
  • Persistent
  • Realist
  • Innovative
  • Self-reliant

You probably see why people can sometimes merge the two generations under the same umbrella. However, there seems to be something different about Gen Z in how they perceive the world today and choose to live. I think this difference becomes clearer when you think of them in context of education.

That is, how do today’s Gen Z students who are entering post-secondary institutions learn?

4 Things to Consider When Teaching a Digital Generation

gen z students

I listened to a Growing Leaders podcast recently with Tim Elmore (founder of Growing Leaders) and Corey Seemiller, author of “Generation Z Goes to College.” In this podcast, they discussed the nuances of Gen Zers and what post-secondary educators should expect from this digital generation.

Here, I’ve outlined Seemiller’s thoughts to consider:

  1. Gen Z students take less risks
  2. They learn or want to learn differently
  3. They may be digital natives, but not all of Gen Z is technologically savvy
  4. Internet is great, but self-learning can mean misinformation

Generation Z Takes Less Risks

Growing up with or around technology has helped make them one of the most socially aware generations especially with what is not-so-great in the world. Of course, the extent of that awareness will vary from person to person. But I think the ease with which Gen Z can access news stories at home and around the globe greatly impacts their behaviour.

Seemiller highlighted that many students entering post-secondary school identify as loyal, responsible and purposeful in pursuing formal education. This point interested me a lot because, in my experience, Baby Boomer and Gen X parents lived in a time where (ME) + (DIPLOMA) = JOB.

We know this isn’t the case anymore and moreover, depending on when Millennials graduated (that is, on the tail-end), the job market of late hasn’t been friendly.

Gen Zers are witnessing a trend: older siblings still live at home or have come back because they lack a career or an affordable living space. Hearing that Gen Zers are purposefully pursuing formal education suggests that they’ll also be going about it differently, more realistically, more pragmatically, and without the expectation that there is a job waiting for them at the end of it all.

This should be a huge wake-up call to educators who face the question, “So what’s the point in going to college or university?!” I don’t know what the answer is, or where it lies, especially with rising tuition costs. But we need to effectively and honestly rethink and explain to Gen Zers the value of formal education.

Generation Z Learns Differently

Most of us are familiar with the K12 curriculum and its emphasis on…group work! You either love it or you hate it, but Gen Z definitely hates it. That may be too harsh. But Seemiller’s findings suggest they don’t like group work, at all. Moreover, Gen Z is exhibiting shifts to more intrapersonal learning methods as opposed to highly interactive, interpersonal ones.

These intrapersonal methods could include things like journaling, writing daily or weekly reflections, free-learning, or solo projects. I remember in high school having my ISU (Independent Study Unit) outline, weighted at a not-so-whopping 10%, handed to me with two weeks left of class. Those two weeks without fail were my favourite when it came to completing school work.

gen z

Overall, I think that students should have more than a tenth of their mark determined by independent learning methods. In fact, Seemiller found that students today tend to be ‘social learners’; while they don’t prefer to work with other students, they do benefit from working around others (and discussing their findings with one another afterwards).

Any changes to curriculum are unlikely, but it may prove to be necessary in coming years. What some educators can do is tweak styles or habits to effectively suit this new cohort. For example–I think this is true for many of us–students like to think before they speak but educators don’t always allow them the opportunity.

I’m not talking five, ten seconds. Next time, try thirty seconds. It’ll feel way longer and awkward. For everyone. It’s unlikely that you or they will enjoy that silence and someone might speak up to break it. Although it’s no sure-fire way, give it a try. It’s one of the few times throughout their day that you’ll have them unplugged and can foster good, human conversation. Our students have a lot to say and we may simply not be giving them the time.

Generation Z Isn’t Entirely Tech Saavy

It’s true. For whatever reason, not every Gen Z member you come across will be a technological, digital whiz or have unlimited (if any) access to technology. If we’re thinking of students just entering college/university, the likelihood of this is low, so it seems more relevant for elementary and high school students.

However, for those students unfamiliar with the day’s technology, college/university will be a huge step into new territory. In fact, it is mandatory in some courses to have a laptop. Thankfully many school libraries have incredible resources to help students on their technological journeys, though the onus is ultimately on students to seek help should they need it.

What you as an educator can do–though it may seem small or insignificant–is reach out to your students, before classes begin or early in the year. See where they’re at technologically by sending out, for example, a survey. It’s challenging enough in many first-year classes to make meaningful connections with students due to sheer size. This is one possible way to do that and show that you want to set them up for success.

Generation Z’s Self-Learning Means Unlearning

There is a lot of great content on the internet. There is also a lot of terrible content on the internet. With both types of content, we also find true, factual content or false, unfounded content. As someone who frequents Google for information and answers to questions I can’t answer on my own, I’ve definitely gotten better at sifting through the credible and incredible pages.

With this practice also comes the realization that not everything on the internet is true. I feel silly having to say that but it’s a reality that our younger generation has to realize, from schoolyard gossip all the way up to what they see in the news and everything in between.

The greatest thing educators can do for their students is instill in them critical thinking skills, a desire to ask questions and be inquisitive. But before students get there, educators will have to help walk them through that process of unlearning those misconceptions or misinformation that they may bring with them to college/university in different areas of study.

Read Next: The Direct Impact of Social Media on Gen Z’s Identity

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