When Faculty Teach Millennials: The Odd Couple in Academia

March 20, 2015

At a recent pedagogy workshop, a senior faculty member gently pulled me aside. So as not to disturb his colleagues who were working on a prompt I had given them, he whispered, “This stuff is great. It really is. I’m going to use this in my class. But, what’s really concerning me right now is that I’m teaching a class of mostly freshman, mostly around 18-20 years old, and I’m 50 years older than they are! What am I supposed to do with them to connect? I feel lost.”

I promised him some background and some ideas, and I share them now with you, too.

Whether extrapolated from anecdotal evidence, or from the plethora of Millennial-learner focused publications, certain “common” characteristics continually surface:

  • Millennials are Protected. Ever heard of helicopter parents? Or, my favorite, lawnmower parents?
  • Millennials are Team Oriented. They’ve always known what it means to crowd-source something.
  • Millennials are Achievement Oriented. A result of the standardized testing and education movement, what we often see in college is an internalized value of achievement and results over the learning process itself.
  • Millennials are Pressured, because of the focus on achievement.

These are just a few of the characteristic generalizations placed on an entire generation. They can be prescriptive to a point, but our responsibility is to move beyond the generalizations while we develop a pedagogical approach that is most fitting for our course, our students, and ourselves. With that in mind, here are some tips to inform the ways you might adapt your teaching for today’s college student, and also certain timeless expectations to maintain (and be explicit about).

3 Implications for Millennial Learning

It is impossible to connect with students on any level until you know the knowledge and experience they bring to the classroom. This means we need to meet them where they are. Start out with some kind of formative assessment to allow students to share what they know, what experience they have with it, how they make sense of it, and where gaps in understanding may lay. Use that as the starting point for almost any learning experience, including lecture. This won’t help you garner nodding heads or knowing smiles when you make that Seinfeld reference (I heard crickets last semester when I did this), but it will help you teach the content of the course.

  1. Living in a world where information abounds and is generated at lightning speed, and mostly in sound bites (think social media, television, Internet), students benefit greatly from being exposed to ways of organizing and applying knowledge. How do we sift through all this content and make sense of it? A good guiding principle when teaching, but particularly when teaching Millennials, is to “teach students to process material with underlying principles in mind, using key words, heuristics, and guiding questions” (DiPietro, p. 170).
  2. Motivation drives learning, and intrinsic motivation is a powerful learning tool...if you can harness it. Intrinsic motivation for learning usually draws attention to the process as equal to, or greater than, the product. When focusing on process, discuss the value of failure to learning. If risk taking and creativity are desired, make them explicit aims for student learning (and construct a grading scheme that accounts for them).

3 Areas to Focus Faculty Expectations

Certain aspects of teaching and learning, and certain expectations, are important across time and generations. These can be considered, in most respects, necessary habits of practice and mind that we should hold our students accountable to learning and practicing. You can meet students where they are, expose them to ways of organizing knowledge, and foster their intrinsic motivation to learn the subject area, yet still expect students to:

  1. Write sentences, not msgs. Yes, we live in the era of text messages and Twitter where shortened acronyms for words and phrases have become the norm. While fluent in popular culture’s mode of discourse and language, the vast majority of professional environments (regardless of discipline) still view it as appropriate only in certain contexts, or even worse, simply as bad writing.
  2. Solve problems. I once worked for a supervisor who had one simple rule: “Don’t bring me a problem unless you also have a solution.” There are always going to be times when unforeseen obstacles prevent completing an assignment, attending class, participating in a group project, etc. It happens to everyone. When given an assignment, a student may say, “Sorry, I can’t do this because …” However, the most successful students (at Berkeley and as alumni) come back, explain the problem, and offer intelligent ways around the obstacle - new ways to achieve the same, or similar, goal. This is not only something to expect, but perhaps even make explicit in your syllabus, and reward accordingly - even if their solution isn’t the one chosen. Regardless of our generational affiliation, we learn to think about problems differently, and productively, when we are forced to also identify solutions.
  3. Embrace the “Why”. Everyone is asked, or required, to complete tasks, assignments, and projects they don’t particularly like, let alone are passionate about. While it’s always great to engage students through intrinsic motivation, it’s not always possible. Sometimes we have to push ourselves through the “less-than-exciting stuff” in order to get to the interesting ideas or applications - that thing we really want to do. Everyone has that one unit in their class that is just tough to get through, always garners students ire, and challenges everyone’s patience. However, it’s absolutely essential to learn in order to do the next thing, which is interesting, engaging, and maybe even fun. The important lesson for us, in guiding our students through these experiences, is to help them focus on why they need to learn the “less-than-exciting stuff” and how it will carry forward to address their driving interests in the discipline. NOTE: Students cannot embrace the “why” if we don’t explicitly discuss it with them first - this may be a fundamental change for some teachers, but it will be necessary to realize this expectation.

In short, get to know your students (even if they aren’t Millennials, it’s always good practice). Be willing to meet them where they are. And, know where to adapt your pedagogy to meet their needs without compromising the rigor or integrity of your course. Follow these principles and the generational differences in your classroom may move from being an obstacle to an asset.


DiPietro, M. (2012). Millennial students: Insights from generational theory and learning science. To Improve the Academy, 31, 161-176.