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Teaching and Learning

5 Simple Ways to Reach Gen Z

Even though technology seems to rule the lives of this newest generation of college students, engaging them doesn't require you plugging in to deliver high-tech touch.

Generation Z — that group of people born roughly between 1995 and 2010 — has been identified, studied, compared, surveyed, analyzed, blogged, Snapchatted and infographicked to within a data point of their short lives. What have we learned about these individuals?

  • Their world has always had the internet and devices, and they prefer those devices (preferably more than one at a time) for all means of communication;
  • They thrive on visual media and, in particular, YouTube and Instagram as their go-to apps;
  • They're always a link or an app away from whatever they want to know — time, directions, how-to;
  • They like anonymity while also hungering for social endorsement; and
  • They appear to have short attention spans, expect instant access and need constant feedback.

As generalizations go, this list of traits may be informative, but what's more useful is figuring out how to make the classroom resonate for today's students. That was the goal when a group of eight "emerging leaders" at the University of Hawaii system set out to understand how teaching needed to change to accommodate the Gen Z college student. The output included a report, a website and a presentation given at last year's NASPA conference for student affairs administrators in higher education — a session that drew 700 attendees wanting to know the secrets of reaching this generationally unique creature.

Jeff Stearns, the division chair of language arts at Honolulu Community College and a participant in the research project, took the findings of the report to heart, evolving his own instructional practices to address what he perceived as a better way of reaching Gen Z.

"Most faculty have gotten into a routine, and they teach the way they learned back when they were going to college. A lot of it is lecture — standing at a lectern, telling the students what they should do and what they should know, then testing them on it to know if they've absorbed as much as they've been told or read," Stearns said. "We have to rethink this. That's not the way young students really take information and use it. What we really want is to get them to think and to use information." Stearns is in a continual process of tweaking his approach, but here are five ways he's modified his instruction to reach Gen Zers.

1) Give Instant Feedback

Instructors need to "surrender the soapbox," according to the report. All that requires, said Stearns, is working directly with students and "valuing what they do." In his composition class, for example, instead of issuing an assignment ("Read this author, then go home and write a paper"), Stearns has students begin their writing right in class. Then he works the room. He checks in on the students and asks them to show him their progress. He has brief one-on-one conversations about what he's seeing: "OK. You've got a thesis. What are you going to do now? Why don't you think of it this way?" Stearns uses class time to allow students to do their work.

The result: The instructor demonstrates on the spot how he values what students do and they get instant feedback they crave.

2) Make the Classroom a Social Environment

Stearns said he's seen a qualitative difference in enthusiasm for students coming to class by adding this activity on the first day of the semester: Each person writes up a quick-and-dirty résumé, "right there in class." Then during the next one or two sessions, he pulls students into groups to share their résumés with each other. They bond over music, art and other interests. "Pretty soon," he suggested, "you've created a dynamic of students who are interested in each other, and therefore they don't mind coming to class because they have friends there — [people] they know who probably respect what they do."

The result: Students get real-life endorsements in a social setting akin to the virtual ones they are accustomed to.

3) Create Content Kibbles

Stearns used to hand out assignments on a piece of paper, tell students to read it and consider his job done until the work came back in for grading. No more. "What I found is that it's better for me to take little chunks and put those up on a PowerPoint," he said. The use of bullet points forces him to explain the material and it provides his Gen Zers with visual clues for the discussion. This isn't the same as lecturing, Stearns insisted. It's simply providing a paragraph worth of explanation that helps the students gain a better grasp of the topic that can't be relayed "in one sentence."

The result: "Chunking up" the content highlights what's most important for the learners and appeals to their perceived shorter attention spans.

4) Put on a Good Show

The report Stearns helped produce refers to this as tapping into "your 'rock star' qualities." The best performers know how to get their fans to participate and not simply observe. In the classroom, that calls for the instructor to demonstrate a personal interest in the topic and come up with ways to engage students. "If you walk into a class and you say, 'Let's work on the paper that we did last week,' you've lost the class," he said. "Anybody likes a little bit of entertainment, and a lot of it has to do with the enthusiasm the instructor has."

For his part, Stearns makes the work more engaging by finding ways to relate assignments to his students' lives. For example, he pushes for compositions in which the thesis ties to "something they really believe in. It's amazing what kind of great ideas they come up with. They get really involved in what they're writing — and their writing gets better."

He also brings in the unexpected as a form of "play." During a class covering Shakespeare, for instance, he pushed students to find the humor in the first scene of Hamlet. In another class he asked them to describe the clothes and equipment of soldiers during the French Revolution. Those are "different ways of trying to understand something," he suggested.

The result: Instead doing assignments that can be easily looked up online, students are challenged to bring their creativity and imagination to the work they're doing.

5) Wear Your Wingsuit to Class

Not that long ago, Stearns would write something up as an example before class to be ultra-prepared. Now, he's far more comfortable just getting up in front of students and winging it. That means he'll walk to the whiteboard and say, "Let's do a paper." He'll point to a student and ask for a thesis, which he'll write on the board and then ask for improvements. Once that opening line is done, he'll move on to the second sentence, and the third, and the fourth, until an entire paragraph has been written. Along the way, he'll point out repetitive words and have the students suggest alternatives, and the students handle the writing exercise as a group.

"Many students say this is really valuable, because once they got that [first] sentence out, they didn't know how to do the second one or the third one," Stearns said. "They would give up after the two sentences and say, 'Well, I don't know what to say.'"

The result: This kind of risk-taking and experimentation not only models techniques for good writing, but it provides step-by-step guidance not so different from a YouTube how-to.

The Real Target for Gen Z Teaching

Years ago, said Stern, "if you didn't listen to us, you'd get an F in class. Now students are our clients at college. You want them to improve and you want them getting better." And it isn't just the Gen Zers being served. The many non-traditional students showing up in class are in tune with the same practices. They want their content delivered with bullet points and more interaction. They want more creativity in how they learn. They want more continual feedback.

So perhaps the biggest impact of the U Hawaii study for Stearns is the realization that it isn't just Gen Z that learns better with these basic changes in instructional practices — it's every student. It's not that Gen Z has a short attention span. It's that "the more I improve my teaching and the more I make it for Gen Z's focus, the more I believe that I should have been doing this 10 years ago, 15 years ago," he observed. "It would have been better teaching for everybody. Gen Z is just making us rethink this."

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