Understanding & engaging today's learners

Who are today's learners? "They display ambition, confidence, optimism, and a capacity for high-level cooperative work. At the same time, they measure high on scales of stress, conventionality, and over-reliance on parents" (Wilson & Gerber, 2008, p. 29). The techniques below are just a few strategies that instructors have used to engage today’s learners.

Create understanding & build rapport

  • Start creating a positive classroom environment on the first day. Smile and look at the class while talking.
  • At the beginning of the year, ask students to share their name and their passions; write it down.
  • Group students by their interests and give them differentiated assignments more relevant to those interests if the opportunity arises.
  • Address students by name.
  • Take time to learn about students’ values by asking questions and engaging in discussions that may not be part of the planned lecture.
  • Share your own values, interests, and experiences as today’s students respond to and respect the voice of elders.
  • Students want to know what to expect and how to succeed. Be clear about course goals, targets, and purpose in order to avoid any misunderstandings in the future.
  • Provide feedback on observations and class assignments. Avoid direct criticism that may be taken personally.
  • Offer opportunities for interpersonal involvement through regular office hours.

Challenge students to be analytical & creative

  • Pose questions that gauge student learning of terms, concepts, and principles and allow them to apply their knowledge to real-world situations.
  • Millennials are accustomed to a more supervised and structured environment. Provide occasional indeterminate problems and case studies that challenge students to evaluate different methods that yield different solutions—have them share their thinking with the class.
  • Create guiding questions for students to answer on their own or in groups and explain or provide a list of appropriate academic resources. All students today are capable of learning course material using internet, libraries, or course technology if given direction.
  • Students grew up using computers and internet, so utilize their talents and knowledge. Don’t be afraid to ask for help with technology or to co-create assignments and projects.
  • This generation thinks in many dimensions at once. Provide opportunities for students to be creative in how they approach assignments.

Engage students with technology

  • Integrate technology into course lectures (i.e. PowerPoints, Poll Everywhere or iClicker Student Polling, YouTube, etc.) where appropriate. This will help meet students' needs for variety, stimulation, and access to information.
  • Today’s learners are always connected. Capitalize on social networking sites and technology such as Skype to connect students with professionals working on pressing issues in today’s world or with other students living near affected areas across the globe.
  • Incorporate computer games and design programs as an instructional technique. Contact the Center or your department to see what programs are being used and are relevant to your course.
  • Create a digital learning environment by using online technologies such as bulletin boards, blogs, or Canvas where students can interact, ask questions, and share information relevant to the course at any hour.

Create opportunities for active learning

  • Break up the class time into 20-30-minute segments with activities such as small-group discussions or five-minute reflection papers and quizzes to maintain student focus and assist with processing and assimilation of information.
  • Students today are group-oriented and demand interactivity in the classroom. Creating ongoing opportunities for peer instruction and evaluation engages students deeper in the material, reduces lecturing, and minimizes the amount they rely on peers in group work.
  • Don’t be afraid to break from the curricula to discuss current events. Capitalize on this opportunity for students to apply course material to the real-world.
  • If the subject matter has several clearly defined and/or opposing views, split the class into two or more groups and simulate a formal debate, providing sufficient time to discuss, present, and rebut ideas.
  • For individual or small-group exercises, have students work at the blackboard or create visual lists on poster board.
  • Develop opportunities for experiential learning such as service learning and community field experiences.

Some thoughts for understanding today's learners

“Gen Y members have come of age in a very child-focused world. Many of them had Boomers as parents, and Boomers are as competitive for their children as they were for themselves. Boomers are used to getting their way, and they have been strong advocates for their children. Because Boomers have worked long hours, because of many single parent families, because of an increasingly violent world and because of the desire for their children to “get ahead,” Boomers have made sure their children participated in all forms of lessons and activities. Thus, Gen Y has grown up in a very structured, busy and over-planned world” (Coates, 2007, p. 113).

“According to Ron Zemke, Generation Y combines the can-do attitude of the Veterans, the teamwork ethic of Boomers and the technological savvy of Generation X. For this group, the preferred learning environment requires teamwork and technology” (Coates, 2007, p. 113).

General characteristics of today's learners

  • Consumer orientation
  • Entertainment orientation
  • Entitlement
  • Instant gratification
  • Short event horizon
  • Adaptability & pragmatism
  • Excellence
  • Skepticism
  • Cynicism
  • Intellectually disengaged
  • Safety issues
  • Stressed
  • Civility issues
  • Diverse

(Taylor, 2006)


Coates, J. (2007). Generational learning styles. River Falls, WI: LERN Books.

Frand, J. L. (2000). The information age mindset: Changes in students and implications for higher education. Educause Review, 35(5), 15-24.

Howe, N., & Strauss, W. (2000). Millennials rising: The next great generation. New York, NY: Vintage.

Meyers, S. A. (2009). Do your students care whether you care about them? College Teaching, 57(4), 205-210.

Prenskey, M. (2005). Listen to the natives. Educational Leadership, 63(4), 8-13.

Taylor, Mark L. (2006). Generation NeXt comes to college: 2006 updates and emerging issues. InSusan E. Van Kollenburg (Ed.), A collection of papers on self-study and institutional improvement (Vol. 2) (pp. 48-55). Chicago, IL: Higher Learning Commission.

Wilson, M., & Gerber, L. E. (2008). How generational theory can improve teaching: strategies for working with the “Millennials.” Currents in Teaching and Learning, 1(1), 29-44.

Woods, T. A., Wilson, T., & Walkovich, D. E. (2011). Targeting instructional strategies to address gen Y learner characteristics. The Journal of Physician Assistant Education, 22(2), 38-41.

Zemke, R., Raines, C., & Filipczak, B. (2000). Generations at work: Managing the clash of veterans, boomers, xers, and nexters in your workplace. New York, NY: Amacom.