Teaching Today’s Students

Things to consider when teaching today’s students

© Leslie Owen Wilson                           Contact Leslie


Leslie’s Note: While the term “millennials,” referring to a generational group born from 1980-1995 is now not a major focus, the advice offered under “key considerations” below is not passé. Today’s generational monikers include those of new generations, Generation Z (1996-2010), and newer still Generation Alpha (2011-2025). Who makes these popular naming decisions, I have no idea. However, no matter what the age or name, in my opinion the listing below is still very applicable as educators and work supervisors attempt to deal with successive generations of workers and students whose generational peer groups and personal experiences may be vastly different than their own.

Key considerations and implications:

  • Do not make assumptions about students’ backgrounds –investigate!
  • Do not make assumptions about what students may or may not know, especially in the areas of writing and technology — assess and access prior knowledge and skills
  • Be aware of signs of referential non-recognition (This is when teachers make a reference, offer an example, metaphor, or story that has no meaning to their students. The lack of understanding may be social, cultural, experiential or due to a lack of historical awareness. While the reference and its relevance may be clear to the teacher, students may have no contexts for understanding it.)
  • Be aware of current youth culture as trends may be tied to areas of interest, and this awareness will help you connect with current or known examples and meaningful metaphors
  • Make learning relevant to their futures – -find and make connections to things important to their generation of learners.

Generational Differences:

While the listings charted below were initially keyed to “millennial” students, many of these generational trends and generalities also apply to members of Gens Z and Alpha

General Characteristics

Examples of Educational Implications

Samples of Actions Taken

  • Have heightened techno skills and ability to access information
  • Professorship has changed — no longer an expert, now simply a person with expertise
  • Found information may be perceived as carrying equal weight
  • Naiveté about credibility, quality, and reliability of sources, or timeliness, accuracy, or authenticity of information
  • Plagiarism may not be perceived as morally or ethically wrong
  • Main ideas need to be stressed as opposed to details, or if dwelling on details, place within the contextual relationship of main ideas.
  • Need for simplified information first.
  • In online learning environments have clear rules of social engagement (netiquette)
  • Have students investigate sources and authors– other writings, academic credentials, political backgrounds of sources
  • Establish, discuss, and publish clear plagiarism policies
  • Course requirements need to encourage critical thinking and appraisal
  • Model critical thinking as you go through scholarly investigations
  • Share exemplary databases and websites pointing out indicators of excellence
  • Offer simple overviews before concentrating on details placing facts and data in larger contexts
  • Molded by viewing a myriad of global violence, thus they are often skeptical.
  • Looking for frameworks, rules, and organizational and social structures that give form, but ones that are not so rigid as to disallow creativity and individuality.
  • Looking too for heroes that are real and inspiration that is uplifting but believable
  • Don’t make assumptions about generational knowledge and experiences – ask or pre-assess
  • Students may question or challenge information and assumptions
  • Be prepared for strong, often emotionally charged opinions, and some skepticism
  • Want to have some control of aspects of the class and their educational directions and experiences
  • Want to have prototypes, samples, and examples provided as it saves time and effort
  • Looking for everyday heroes and role models that are realistic – often little tolerance for older idealized models
  • Need rights of passage experiences that clearly mark their progressions toward some goal
  • Get to know students, their culture, their interests, become familiar with their mythology, and their heroes and concerns
  • Anticipate challenges and have questions that redirect or defuse, and challenges that refocus their efforts
  • When possible, involve students in decisions about rules and structure of learning experiences offering them real choices
  • While providing prototypes, challenge students to go beyond these
  • Have great diversity of talents and interests.  
  • Hunger for information and problem solving challenges.  
  • May have very different social skills and standards.
  • Often prior educational experiences have included accommodations of individual differences – be aware of trends like Multiple Intelligence Theory, learning styles and modalities, brain-based education
  • Students may expect partial credit on wrong answers
  • Students may be easily bored and want to use creativity or look at issues and problems in new and different ways
  • May have the view that good learning should be “edutainment”
  • Be aware of educational trends in K-12 education
  • Address, privately, any unacceptable behaviors, and try not to take it personally
  • Use e-mail, websites, and public folders to post reminders, due dates and grading criteria
  • Be willing to negotiate alternatives to assignments, especially if these are initiated and well thought out by students
  • Are discriminating consumers, work hard, and value volunteerism and community service
  • Appreciate frequent and timely feedback
  • Want to know that courses and programs offer useful training for future employment as higher education is often perceived as job training not just educational experience — educational experiences are about connections to the real world, not just learning stuff for stuff’s sake
  • Students may be stretched to physical and mental limits and over-scheduled as they work several jobs, plus many volunteer, so be aware of the length of assignments and time constraints
  • Students may prefer to work cooperatively, or collaborate on projects, and they may prefer to work in small groups or pairs even in testing situations
  • Offer personal feedback, marginal notes, focused conversations to discuss work, or personal e-mails about students’ work
  • Require peer reviews prior to handing in assignments, and give training on how to align and offer constructive criticism within grading rubrics and assignment parameters
  • Make material relevant and applicable to future lives either by offering direct connections or by giving students time to contextualize and make connections themselves
  • Consider projects, authentic assessment, clearly defined grading or performance rubrics
  • Investigate varied groupings, even consider giving group testing options


PDF version download of this page  Teaching Today’s Students (2)

***Watch this video. Vision of today’s students


Brown, John Seely (March/April 2000), vol. 32, no. 2 Growing Up Digital, Change, 10–11.

Fraud, Jason, (September/October 2000), The Information-Age Mindset: Changes in Students and Implications for Higher Education, EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 35, no. 5, pp. 15–24.

Lancaster, L. C. and Stillman, D. (2003) When Generations Collide: Who They Are. Why They Clash. How to Solve the Generational

Puzzle at Work. New York, NY: HarperBusiness

Martin. C. A. and Tulgan, B. (2001) Managing Generation Y. Amherst MA: Human Resource Development Printing.

Oblinger, Diana. (July/August 2003) Boomers, Gen-Xers, and Millennials: Understanding the ‘New Students,’ EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 38, no. 4.

Raines. C. (2002)  Managing Millennials. www.generationsatwork.com/articles/millenials.htm

Strauss, W. and Howe, N. (2000) Millennials Rising : The Next Great Generation. New York, NY. Vintage Books.

Strauss, W. and Howe, N. (1998) The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Zemke, R., Raines, C. and Filicpzak, B. (1999) Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters in Your Workplace. New York, NY: American Management Association