Teaching the Millennial Generation

Published: April 12, 2006 in Knowledge@Emory

In the Forties, the GI Bill changed higher education in very tangible ways. In the Sixties, the expansion of opportunity to more women and minorities changed it again. Today, some educational theorists suggest that colleges are undergoing yet another sea change almost as profound, as the Millennial Generation – often defined as anyone born between 1982 and 2002 -- begins to fill college classrooms all across the country.  Some professors at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School say today’s students really are different than students they’ve taught in the past and that as a result, they’ve had to develop new teaching strategies to better serve their needs.

Several professors say that they find today’s students are different in a number of ways. Reshma Shah, a professor of marketing, says that she finds they often are more confident, articulate, experienced and knowledgeable than they were just a few years ago.

They seem more informed, she says. Often, they have taken courses on economics and marketing in high school. They’ve also had greater opportunities for learning offered by the Internet. “If I want to learn more about something, I used to go to an encyclopedia and I would have to get what I could get. Well, nowadays, the sky’s the limit in terms of what you can learn,” she says.

Millennials are much more aware of current events as well, Shah says. “ They’re very smart, very savvy,” she says. “They know a lot about what’s going on out there, more so than I’d say the group before them. News is everywhere, so  that they are able to understand the impact of events better than even 5-10 years ago when it was still largely TV-based…” At the same time, the greater availability of information has made them more suspicious of the integrity of particular sources of information.  “ they’re more informed, but at the same time  they’re much more cautious about trusting every single source of information that was out there,” she says.

The Millennials are also bringing much more real-world experience to class than students did in the recent past, according to Shah. In one of her classes, for example, out of 12 freshman in the class, three of them have already run their own businesses – a consulting company, a web-design company, a resume-writing company. Serious internships in the corporate world are also much more common at earlier ages than they once were, she says. Ten years ago, she says, many students worked over the summer but few had any serious corporate internships. “ What you’re finding is that most companies are opening to have younger students do internships and students are definitely jumping at it.”

One case in point:  one of Shah’s former students, Caren Kelleher, a May 2005 Goizueta BBA graduate who now works in marketing for Paste, a popular culture magazine based in Atlanta, says that she had five internships before she graduated – and that many in her generation have had a similar amount of work experience even before they get out of school.

But the Millennials aren’t just happy worker bees.  “I have noticed that they’re much more about, `hey, customize for me.’ And that means if I can get away with it or if I can ask, I might as well just ask because what’s the harm in asking?” Shah says.

Shah’s experience is not unique. Molly Epstein, a communications professor at Goizueta, has also noticed that students seem different now in a number of ways.

The kinds of differences Shah noticed have struck Epstein as well, so much so that she began her own research project about them. Fascinated by the observations about Millennials drawn by William Strauss and Neil Howe in their book Millennials Rising, yet frustrated by the lack of empirical evidence about Millennials in the existing literature, Epstein undertook her own survey of Millennial students.

Using Strauss and Howe’s observations as a starting point for her questions, and then adding some of her own, Epstein surveyed  more than 1000 students over the past year. She asked members of the Millennial Generation and Generation X (people born between 1961 and 1981)  --–enrolled at Emory and four other institutions for their attitudes towards education and a variety of other subjects. Now the survey is almost complete, and Epstein says she has discovered that Strauss and Howe were right – the Millennials really are measurably different. "I'll be honest, I wasn’t entirely convinced until my data proved that Strauss and Howe were correct,” she says.

Even in the classroom, Millennials exhibit some attitudes that are different from those of the preceding generation, according to Epstein’s survey. For example, her survey found thatMillennials were much more comfortable speaking with their professors than GenXers-- 60% of Millennials felt comfortable speaking with their professors, compared to a little less that 40% of GenXers. One particularly striking statistic: Nearly 60% say they feel comfortable asking for special treatment, compared to 29% of GenXers.

Shah says she has often seen this tendency firsthand. Sometimes, for instance, a student might come up and ask her, “Hey, listen, my boyfriend’s coming into town, is it ok if I take the exam the next week?” (Shah says that of course she has to answer, “uh, no.”)

That might sound a little like something you might hear from yesterday’s slackers, but today’s college students are actually quite anxious about their grades. “Grades are an unbelievable source of anxiety to this population,” says Andrea Hershatter, associate dean and director of the BBA program. 

One measure of how important is the fact that although Millennials place a higher value on authority figures’ setting boundaries than GenXers do – nearly 70% say authority figures should set and enforce rules, whereas only 40% of GenXers agreed with the statement – they are also quite ready to challenge professors’ authority when it comes to grades. According to Epstein’s survey, 60% of the Millennials felt comfortable challenging professors on grades, compared to 35% of GenXers.

Sometimes, students will even try to pit one authority figure against another as they try to improve their standing.  “I’ve had students say to me, I emailed my paper to my dad and he’s a CEO of such and such and he disagrees with your comments. He thinks you graded me too low,” Epstein says.

Hershatter says their concern is unsurprising, given that for this group, performing well by some objective measure has always been the key to getting ahead. As a generation raised to believe that each goal is achieved step by step, by passing standardized tests and earning specific marks, grades are perceived as an absolutely necessary condition of success, according to Hershatter. Tellingly, students complaining about a grade will often say not  “`I really deserve this A,’ but ‘I really need this grade,’” she says.

This need for such outward signs of achievement is both a plus and a minus for educators, professors say. “The upside of that is they are willing to work very hard to earn any kind of credential you make possible,” Hershatter says. For instance, she says, enrollment in optional classes offered by the business librarians on research methods climbed dramatically after the school initiated a business research certificate. “The dark side of the orientation towards external validation is it is incredibly difficult to get them to do something just for the sake of doing it,” she adds.

Such a focus on credentials may have also helped give them a dislike of ambiguity. When it comes to their education, 80% want a clearly structured academic path, compared to 60% of GenXers, according to Epstein’s survey. Even in the classroom, Hershatter says, they want more clarity in their assignments than their predecessors did, especially in terms of what is required for exams.

Hershatter speculates that the current high level of anxiety about achivement grew out of the way the Millennials were raised. Some writers, she notes, have called the generation raising Millennials “helicopter parents” because they are constantly hovering around them, watching their every move and assuring that they have everything they need to move forward at every level.  “This puts an incredible amount of pressure on this generation to achieve,” Hershatter notes. 

Even in college, the apron strings are still staying tied fairly tight. In the Wall Street Journal on March 3, writer Sam Schulman noted that one college survey has reported that parents of college freshmen were in contact with their children as often as 15 times a day – and that more than one university “has been forced to station security guards outside freshman orientation sessions to keep anxious parents out.”

Hershatter fears that this level of anxiety has sometimes interfered with the development of the students’ level of personal responsibility. “If you’ve always had your parents and your teachers and whoever else giving you a second and a third or fourth opportunity to do what it is that needs to be done or at least to remind you of what needs to be done, you never learn to do it on your  own.  I hate to sound like I walked 50 miles in the snow when I was a kid, but when I went to school, assignments were on the syllabus or on the blackboard, you copied them down and you knew when the tests were. That never got brought up again, period. Now, it’s not at all uncommon to have teachers and parents checking assignment books. Did you get your work done?”

To teach these new students, some professors have made major changes in both the content of their courses and their teaching style.

For Shah, a course called Dynamics of Advertising and Promotion has proven a successful way to reach Millennials. In teaching this popular course, which is open to 60 non-business majors, Shah sets up a real advertising agency in class to work on a campaign to sell Suburu cars to college-age people. Students like the fact that their work is going toward a real promotion –  the agency program is part of a program an advertising agency runs on a number of college campuses around the country – and the fact that the company uses the course as a way to find talent for their summer internship program, according to Shah.

Epstein also now incorporates some real world experience in one of her management communications courses. Instead of an advertising agency, however, she has her students write grant proposals on behalf of a local nonprofit organization called Park Pride, to raise money to renovate an Atlanta-area park in a low income neighborhood. She says this is appealing to her Millennial students in a number of ways. They like the real world aspect of the project, the fact that grant proposals are very structured. They also like the fact that its results will be measurable, and that it appeals to the value they place on social activism, she says.

The changes professors have made have extended beyond their choices of assignment. For example, Hershatter finds that she needs to direct her students more in class discussions than she once did. “My personal experience is they are very, very happy and do a wonderful job if you have a set of questions for them to answer.  They are much more reluctant to participate if you  just say, ‘analyze this,’” she says. 


Millennials also seem to thrive on constant feedback, and Epstein now tries to provide that in her classes.  “The students want transparency and constant communication,” she says. To let them know where they stand, she always posts assignment results online, along with the grade spreads, the mean, the median, and running point totals for the semester.  “Because they get this information, they feel very connected, very in the loop. They have what they need.  I’m not thinking about individuals when I’m running numbers on Excel, but to them it sends a very different message,” she says.

To foster a greater sense of connection with her students, Epstein also uses online message boards. “Because they are so comfortable with the electronic format, they felt very connected if I would simply post a message after class with some of my insights with what we as a group had learned,” she says.

“I also started to meet with them in their team, have coffee with their team,” Epstein says. “My goal in meeting with the teams was to not talk, but to let them interact, and listen and observe… They felt a connection with me just because I did that, even though I never said anything  -- or tried not to.  Millennials place a powerful value on being heard, so I created the venue in which I could listen.”

Epstein’s research may also shed new light on how to reach her students as well. Now that the survey is nearly complete, she says that she intends to start looking at the data from different angles, to see for instance whether there are differences in response depending on gender, or whether they grew up in or outside the U.S.

Regardless of whatever else she learns, however, the core insight Epstein now brings to teaching Millennials seems unlikely to change. Ultimately, she says, the key to instructing Millennials has turned out to be “taking a personal interest, connecting with them one on one, being open.  And frankly, that’s rather counter-intuitive for someone from Generation X, because we don’t trust anyone.  We wouldn’t think you would care. But this generation cares, and their optimism is refreshing, inspiring, and – fortunately – contagious.”


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