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Engaging the Millennial Student: A Conversation about Philosophy, Theory, and Pedagogy

November 17-18, 2006
University of the Sacred Heart and the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Sonia V. Gonsalves, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Institute for Faculty Development, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Tim Haresign, Associate Professor of Biology, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey


One important aspect of any conversation about effective educational practice is the extent to which we need to know the students and, once we know them, how much their expectations should drive our instructional strategies. What and how students learn in college will be heavily influenced by their prior knowledge in its broadest sense. The impact of their earlier learning experiences will be more pronounced at the start of their college career than it will later, because there is much greater diversity in the pre-college learning environments than there is during college. The more faculty know about students’ perspectives of themselves as learners and their expectations of faculty in the facilitation of their learning, the better we will be able to do our jobs of designing appropriate learning experiences for them. Many college courses have explicit prerequisites, the completion of which provides the instructor with a set of reasonable expectations for the knowledge base and/or skill level of the students in the course. In the absence of clear prerequisites, faculty are not well placed to predict anything about students’ abilities and challenges as learners.

While we can make some very basic assumptions about the educational backgrounds that students bring to the classroom, there are many areas where we have no basis for such judgments. Affective, metacognitive, procedural, and social variables all have some bearing on learning and performance. Faculty will do the best job of organizing for learning when they have answers to questions about students’ skills and the ways in which they are most comfortable communicating among themselves and with faculty. Additionally, we will be challenged by questions such as how students gather and evaluate information. How do they use and organize their time? What are their motivations for learning? These are just a few of the variables that have, or may have, an effect on educational outcomes. While it is important to remember that every student has a unique and individual background, we can make some useful generalizations based on demographic data. For the rest of this paper we will discuss the background of the millennial generation, and how these specific qualities might impact their learning and, by implication, our teaching.

Millennials are the confident, self-assured, sheltered, team oriented, technologically dexterous children of the baby boomers who were born between 1981 and 2000 (Howe, Strauss, & Matson, 2000). These students have had unprecedented access to information through the use of the internet. They are consumer-oriented and consumer-savvy. Through the internet, cell phones, and other wireless technology they have different and new patterns of social connections. Parents of Millennials have been dubbed ‘helicopter parents’ because of their extremely close relationship with their children. Millennials have been, by all accounts, more monitored, scheduled, surveyed, and referenced than earlier generations of students. These students, more than any other generation, have been bombarded with messages that say they should all go to college. College is seen as a means to socioeconomic success. College graduates earn more, and are more successful by most social and economic indicators than high school graduates and those without a high school diploma. For many Millennials, college is another extension of compulsory education. Some enter college with questionable motivation to pursue more education; they just succumb to the ‘go to college’ messages.

Do these oft cited modal characteristics translate into different learning needs in the classroom on the part of students or faculty? Many educators propose that the life and learning experiences of this group of students are so different from those of previous years that faculty need to review their pedagogical toolkits and rethink their philosophies in order to connect with Millennials. Others would argue that part of the learning experience in college is for the student to adapt, and that most of the responsibility for change falls on the student. After all, the students have come to college seeking experiences to increase their knowledge and skills and the guidance of faculty in setting standards for this intellectual growth. The learners, therefore, should make most of the effort to move towards those goals. One of the questions we have to consider is how to find common ground with students when there are different expectations with regard to learning and teaching. And if no common ground exists, who should be expected to make the greater adjustment?

Millennials, like all previous generations, come to college with a learning culture and history that includes not only what, but also how, they learned in high schools. Perhaps it is important for faculty to be more aware of the pre-college learning experiences of today’s students, and of the ways in which schools have been responding to their perceived needs in order to motivate and retain them. If we subscribe to the continuity perspective of development of knowledge and metacognition, it is always important to consider the history of the students as learners in our plans to engage them. This is especially important early in their college careers, which we know are the most vulnerable time for college students. Success in the first year is the most reliable indicator of success in completing the college degree.

National trends in secondary education have de-emphasized lecture based instruction in favor of strategies that demand more engagement. Collaborative learning and teamwork have been more commonly embraced for their higher engagement quotient, and classroom presentations often involve multimedia devices. Reading assignments tend to be shorter than in the past, so students are less adept at engaging with long texts. Today's college student is part of the most ‘tested’ generation with the students, teachers, and schools being evaluated on a number of different standardized tests. Feedback is often based on high-stakes testing and students have a strong sense of their norm-referenced positions in the class, the school, and the region.

Getting a handle on this information will help to reduce the discrepancy between the expectations of professors and those of the Millennials. This expectation gap often widens as the overlap between the two academic experiences narrows. This mismatch of expectations challenges the philosophical underpinnings of the teaching and learning process and raises questions about the roles that faculty and students should play in college classrooms. Faculty and students may have different expectations about the level of rigor, the quality of research, the out-of-class commitment of time to preparation and study, and any number of other instructional and learning variables. Early career college students often expect faculty to be more involved in managing their planning, monitoring their reading, and encouraging their progress in a much more active way than is typical at most colleges. Among faculty there are widely-differing views of the exact limits of their roles. In an exercise among an admittedly non-representative faculty group, the perceptions of the primary roles of faculty members varied from those leaning more strongly toward intellectual engagement to those more firmly rooted in management of students’ social and cultural differences in their approaches to learning.

Lecture-taught faculty question how much of an ‘entertainer’ they are required to be for the multi-media-taught students. Curriculum-driven faculty question how much time they can devote to time-consuming collaborative work, but feel pressured to do it because the literature says Millennials work well collaboratively. The overall philosophical position on education will, to a large extent, determine the path that faculty take to engaging Millennials, and the depth of engagement that faculty will deem acceptable. A faculty member who foregrounds broad learning outcomes (the development of evaluative and analytical skills and the ability to deal with uncertainty, or working collaboratively) will use different engagement strategies and assessments than one who takes a more focused view of his role (for instance, the preparation of students for the workforce, the development of particular quantitative competencies, or procedural abilities). Faculty members will need to come up with their own solutions to how best to meet these students, and they will need to do so in ways that are consistent with their learning goals and their ability to employ multiple modes of teaching.

The clarification of a philosophy of teaching leads logically to a consideration of the adequacy of our understanding of the theories of learning and instruction for the students who are entering colleges. Contemporary theories of learning stress the following factors as vital for effective instruction: relevance, building on students’ prior knowledge, the importance of social factors, motivation, and reinforcement. All these approaches rely on faculty knowing something about the students in their classes. Students have substantively different knowledge bases than the majority of faculty. Students and faculty often do not watch the same news reports, read the same sections of the newspapers (if they read the newspaper at all), see the same movies, or read the same books. These diverse and non-overlapping knowledge bases make it very difficult for faculty to guess at what students do and do not know. Some assessment of learners’ prior knowledge is an essential step in engaging Millennials in the classroom. It is only by knowing what our students know, what they do not know, what they misunderstand, and what their perceived strengths and weaknesses are, that we will be able to construct for them the most effective bridges between what they know and what we want them to know. If we are to make our curricular materials relevant to the students, it is important to find ways to connect it to things that are familiar to them and important in their lives. Linking new information to existing information is one of the most effective methods of building knowledge.

In motivating and reinforcing Millennials, the assessment of prior knowledge is also very important. Although grades are the most important long-term reinforcers, faculty employ other interim reinforcers during the instructional process. If we do not know enough about our students, we run the risk of missing the mark when we attempt to reinforce them. We can employ ineffective and sometimes undermining strategies in the absence of adequate information about what our students value and want. By providing relevant links to familiar touchstones, the students can feel more confident as they venture into new territory. Dynamic formative evaluation that clarifies areas where the students have made progress and where they have made wrong turns will help streamline the path to desired learning outcomes.

Students’ concepts of learning are often different from professors’ concepts of learning (Fink, 2003). College students report that learning means increasing knowledge, acquiring facts, and memorizing. Most college faculty want to foster students' ability to relate theory to practice, to abstract meaning, relate concepts from other courses, and to transfer their theoretical work to real-world situations. Here again, in the understanding of what is required of a learner, there are differences in conceptual understanding and expectations between students and faculty. Concepts of learning can be so discrepant that students may not be aware of how much progress they are making as learners without an explicit discussion about learning goals and objectives in particular courses. It is a simple, and yet probably much underused technique of teaching, to have several straightforward discussions with students about the learning objectives and goals and about the progress that learners are making towards them. These discussions can be useful in not only making the goals explicit, but by involving the students in monitoring their progress and in making a connection between pedagogy and outcomes.

Ultimately we do not need a new pedagogy for the Millennials. Engaging and inclusive pedagogy and the scholarly practice of teaching, learning, and assessment will be effective for all learners. This would include prior knowledge assessment, constructivist theoretical underpinnings for the instructional practices, collaborative work so that students can scaffold one another in their learning experiences, and appropriate attention to procedural and metacognitive knowledge as well as to the knowledge of concepts and facts. The success of this approach does depend heavily on the willingness of faculty to review and retool in an ongoing reflective teaching practice that takes into account the characteristics of the learners they serve. The summary recommendations for teaching Millennials are good practice for teaching in general. Perhaps that is the lesson that faculty will take from examining the adequacy of their practice in the light of the changes in the student characteristics. Keeping current with theory, technology, the popular culture, and the advances in your subject area will only make you a more effective facilitator of learning and a better designer of learning experiences.

Although it may be appropriate to describe Millennials in general terms, they are probably more diverse in their skills, characteristics, and experiences than previous generations of college students. There is also great diversity in their levels of academic preparation. The challenge of engaging the Millennials is one of connecting with a diverse group of learners with a wide variety of strengths and approaches to learning. To keep them interested and motivated we need to have many different approaches to connect to their experiences and interests, multiple modes of assessing their progress, and relevant ways to reinforce their successes.


Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Howe, N., Strauss, W., and Matson, R. (2000). Millennials Rising: The Next Generation. New York. Vintage.

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