Here Comes Z: Strategies To Engage A New Generation Of College Students

How To Engage A New Generation Of College Students

With easy access to global information, Generation Z ambitiously seeks knowledge through the technology that is ingrained in their day to day experience.  They don't see technology as a tool; to a Gen Z learner technology is a normal part of life. What makes them different from their predecessors is their potential to construct solutions to educational or societal issues with the technology that allows them to text, stream, publish, chat, create, connect, listen,and explore at will. How does a 21st century teacher instruct and engage such a potentially powerful group of students that have unlimited information and technology at their fingertips?

The Gen Z Learner

15 Mind-Blowing Stats About Generation Z by Giselle Abramovich, Senior & Strategic Editor, CMO.com. June 12, 2015 

According to Seemiller & Grace (2015), the average Gen Z student entering college today has..

  • An overreliance on technology and 24-7 access to any information.
  • Trouble distinguishing fact from opinion, and a sense of entitlement that anything on the Internet is up for grabs.
  • An 8 second attention filter and a need for an immediate response.
  • A propensity to be 'generalists' vs. 'specialists'.
  • A tendency to think in a non-linear fashion, and prefer to construct rather be instructed.

Many teachers utilize technology and employ the flipped classroom model for instruction, but the key to connecting with this type of learner lies not only in the delivery of the content, but the connection to real world experiences.

Because Gen Zer's have an overreliance on technology for answers to their questions and for maintaining social connections, they have no time for delays. Technology aided instruction should work seemlessly. They demand immediacy- access to social connections, feedback and content must be available right away in order to pass through that 8 second filter and capture their focus. An average Gen Z learner can multitask across 5 devices at a time.

Socially, they can connect with anyone from celebrities to the president of the United States to a peer across the globe and because of that connection, they can have a tendency to let their social network influence their thinking. As a teacher, it's important to teach them how to discern facts vs. opinions and how to critically evaluate sources through modern information literacy skills.

Gen Z learners desire brief, meaningful, and effective learning experiences and in general, they see issues and trends from a global perspective. The world is not hidden from them, and therefore they look for solutions to problems based on the big picture, which can form them into generalists (know a little about everything) versus specialists in a subject area.

Information Literacy

With search engines, Wikipedia, YouTube, and other social media sites as places where Generation Z gets information, research has become less about the process of knowledge acquisition and more about quickly finding the answer needed for an assignment. Infinite knowledge is available at the touch of a screen, which can pose challenges when teaching about credibility of sources; cursory searching on Google yields convenient information that may or may not be credible. The Gen Z learner is exposed to information first through technology and many times without guidance, as any topic is just a search away. Skills like critical evaluation and the ability to judge the content for what it's worth are imperative.

Content on the internet is widely user generated which presents favorable and unfavorable consequences: Easy access to scholarly information as well as access to false or non-credible information. Teaching information literacy throughout the curriculum is a must from kindergarten to higher education, but the days of pouring through books in a physical library or even a slow library database are not what this generation is used to. Teachers now have the responsibility to teach skills that enable the leaner to sift through information in order to determine accuracy and relevance. Throughout all curriculum, teaching of proper searching techniques, evaluation of sources, use of databases, and the synthesis of a vast amount of content is a must.

Social Connections

Whether they realize it or not, Gen Zers are using their social connections as learning tools. This generation is accustomed to intense relationships that aren't limited to a classroom. They have 24-7 access to their social circle via technology, and participatory learning is an everyday, if not every minute, occurrence. What they are doing/feeling/learning is public knowledge via a post, and peers readily collaborate through technology. Together, this generation learns collectively through YouTube channels, live streaming, content curation, and social influence. To a Gen Z learner, there is not one source of knowledge called an 'expert'.. the expertise lies in the collective knowledge. Additionally, one can be self taught on their desired topic through the their network.

An instructor who believes that effective teaching occurs through the 'sage on the stage' method will not engage this type of learner. Gen Z is skeptical; they demand proof, opinions of others, and a chance to be a part of the learning process, not learn as a passive bystander. They need rewards and feedback that change frequently and opportunity to show off what they have created in a public forum, both in person and online. The measure of one's knowledge is trending less toward formal education and more toward skills; these learners think spatially and in 4D.

Engaging Gen Z Learners

The learning experience matters for a Gen Z student. Why would they be inclined to sit through a long lecture, when they can watch to the same content through multiple engaging podcasts, or videos? How can we engage this learner without compromising the educational process?

  • First, allow them to use technology and take advantage of their drive for self learning. Instead of taking devices away in the classroom, incorporate them into activities that promote searching for credible information.
  • Build a social community beyond the walls of the classroom. Remember that a Gen Z learner is tethered to their social network. Make yourself available through social apps for questions. For some learners, this may be the only way they feel comfortable asking questions.
  • Show them the content they are learning has relevance on a global scale. These learners are practical, savvy, and thrive on a good challenge, especially when it reflects their personal interests and is accompanied by instant gratification.
  • Lastly, be brief and capture their attention with visuals. Gen Z prefers microlearning; with so much information trying to get past their filter, standing out from the noise is key to engagement. Keeping it simple, but sparking their curiosity can hook them into paying attention to your mission.

The bottom line is that a traditional educational practices require thoughtful change in order to meet the needs of this generation. Gen Z wants to be part of the process of learning, not passive bystanders. They are resourceful learners whose attention span is hindered by a constant bombardment of information. They make up for that with their creativity, self discovery skills, speed to process information, and the ability to handle multidimensional learning experiences.

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