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Tips for Teaching Millennial Students in Your Higher Ed Class 

Jan Richards
National University 

     We live in interesting times!  The students entering our classrooms may no longer be of the “live in the dorm on a college campus” variety where attending football games or acceptance in a fraternity or sorority are of utmost importance.

     In contrast, we may be teaching a very different group. In our current classes, we see recent high school graduates (“Millennials”) who use “texting” as their primary means of keeping in touch with friends or teachers.  We notice the thirty something students (“Generation-X”) who expect a high level of customer service from their college instructors as well as administration.  We may also see the forty something student (“Baby Boomers”) who are now completing a degree after raising children or changing careers and in need of new training. 

     These three groups differ greatly in the way they view life, in their attitudes, and in their goals.  A quick history of our current generations may help clarify our understanding:

From Traditionalists to the Millennials
     Traditionalists (sometimes called the Greatest Generation) were born between 1929 and 1945. Since they were born during the Depression and World War II (a time of national uncertainty), it is not surprising that their general desire is for stability and safety.  Although we do not have these students in our classes, many of the professors fall into this cohort and can relate to this history.  Since the average age of our current faculty and administration is over 50,  our remembered college world was likely much different than the experience of our current students (Oblinger, 2003).

     Baby Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964 and are generally the 40s-50s age group in our class. Theirs is the largest generation, and they have been used to making demands!  Manufacturers learned long ago to pay attention to the expressed needs and wants of these Baby Boomers in order to sell what they produced.   For example, Levi Jeans made great profits selling their products to Baby Boomers as teenagers while Clearasil promised clear skin to 14 year olds.  The marketing shift is now geared toward vitamins that will ensure longevity and increase stamina, cosmetic surgery that promises amazing results, and drugs that address blood pressure and diabetes.

Baby Boomer Generation

     Generation X students were born between 1965 and 1983.  These are generally the 30s -40s age group--sometimes referred to as “Busters.”  This is a group that values relationships over work.  They are often portrayed as having a somewhat hopeless view of the future.  Such negativity is not surprising when we remember the social unrest of the Vietnam War and the deaths of Martin Luther King, President John Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy that depressed the nation. 

During the 1967 Summer of Love, they were the kindergartners who paid the price for America’s new divorce epidemic.  In 1970 they were fourth-graders trying to learn arithmetic amid the chaos of open classrooms and New Math curricula. In 1973 they were the bell-bottomed sixth-graders who got their first real-life civics lesson watching the Watergate hearings on TV. They were the college class of 1983, whose graduation coincided with the ballyhooed A Nation at Risk report, which warned that education was beset by “a rising tide of mediocrity.” (Vien, 2010)

     Millennials were born between 1982 and 2004 and are generally the 18-28 age group who are just entering college.  They are a bunch that seeks opportunities and options.  Millennials are much more optimistic about life and their future than are the Generation X students.  Their attitude might be expressed as, “Life is a cafeteria.” They see themselves as the “US” generation (as opposed to the “ME” designation of the Boomers) (Howe, 2002).

A closer look at the Millennials—our newest group of university students
The Millennials (those born in or after 1982) exhibit the following characteristics (Oblinger, 2003):

  • They gravitate toward group activity
  • The identify with their parents’ values and feel close to their parents
  • They spend more time doing homework and housework and less time watching TV
  • They believe it’s “cool to be smart”
  • They are fascinated with new technologies
  • They are racially and ethnically diverse
  • One in five had at least one immigrant parent

“Their learning preferences tend toward teamwork, experiential activities, structure, and the use of technology.  Their strengths include multitasking, goal orientation, positive attitudes, and a collaborative style” (Oblinger, 2003).  Howe makes an astute observation about the characteristics of Millennials:

“Late Boomers and early Gen Xers, who grew up with the insecurity of divorce and parents who put careers ahead of kids, naturally compensate by lavishing attention and security on their Millennial children.  So, early Millennials grew up riding in minivans, the quintessential family cars, with bumper stickers touting, “Baby on Board.” (Howe, 2002)

Millennials developed seven generational characteristics as a result of this style of upbringing (Howe, 2002): 

     Special.  Their parents worked on the self-esteem of their children, who now express high self confidence and efficacy in their ability to  make improvements in society when they take over.  Their “helicopter parents” promoted their sense of capability all through their school experience.

     Sheltered. Millennials see their parents’ habit of protecting them as a positive.  They see parental authority and rules, not as “over protection,” but as a sign of care.  While 58% of the parents describe themselves as “sometimes overprotective,” 90% of Millennials see parental rules as “strict and fair.”  A majority of  Millennials in 2002 reported that they  preferred attending a college near home.

     Confident.  The vast majority (90%) of Millennials  see their lives as happy and believe that they will be a success in life.  Not surprisingly, the suicide rate for this cohort has declined as compared to previous generations.

     Team-oriented.   Howe (2002)  found that 64% of Millennials see themselves as the “US generation” in contrast to the Boomers “I generation” focus.  For example, they are in favor of using peer pressure to encourage uniforms or student panels that penalize student misbehavior.

     Conventional.  Millennials hold themselves to a high standard of performance.  They like their families and say they want children who they will raise the same way they were raised.  They grew up with Harry Potter books—popular because values of friendship, structure, and teamwork are portrayed.

     Pressured.  Millennials feel more pressured to succeed than did their predecessors.  They see college as a stepping stone to a good future; 84% of them report planning on attending college.  Security is “very important” in their lives.

     Achieving.  "It's cool to be smart” is the attitude of Millennials, according to Howe.  He further reported that early Millennials had the highest SAT college-entrance scores since 1974.  Their high scores on standardized tests in math and science are impressive.

How do we teach the Millennials effectively?  What do they appreciate?
     According to McGlynn (2005), Millennials in college classrooms want (1) to work collaboratively; (2) structured activities; (3) lots of feedback; (4) involvement in “real life” issues that matter: (5) technology; and (6) experiencing learning as fun.

Millennials want to work collaboratively.  Millennials enjoy interaction with each other.  They appreciate the opportunity of experiencing small groups that discuss and analyze readings or assignments.  They like to share their expertise on subjects and to help their peers.

Generation Y combines the can-do attitude of Veterans, the teamwork ethic of Boomers and the technological savvy of Generation X. For this group, the preferred learning environment combines teamwork and technology. In a classroom with lots of Gen Y's, give everyone a task. When a few have completed it, encourage them to walk around the room and help others. They're used to working this way in school.”  (Coats, 2007)

Example:  Assign writing a lesson plan with another student practicing the state standards.  Create a project that connects with it.  Plan a class activity such as a debate, a panel discussion, or a shared presentation with a partner. 

They like structured activities.
Because Boomers have worked long hours, because of many single parent families, because of an increasing 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 [Millennials] have grown up in a very structure, busy and over planned world. (Coats, 2007)

Having grown up in a structured world, Millennials seek structure in their college classroom experience.  They want clear explanation of assignments and expectations.  Be organized and present materials in a rational way.  Give them clear goals and targets. Presentations need to be highly visual since Millennials respond to visuals more strongly than do other groups.  They also appreciate multiple options for demonstrating their learning.  Millennials tend to be global learners; thus, presenting the big picture followed by the specific details works well for them.

Example:  Provide an agenda that lets students know exactly what will be covered in class.  Use a variety of teaching tools (slides, videos, activities) that enhance your topic and make connections with previous learning.  Avoid any perception of busywork during the class.

They like lots of feedback. 
Millennials appreciate lots of specific feedback so they are assured they are improving and fulfilling class requirements.   Positive reinforcement from both peers and instructors is highly motivational.

Example:  Use rubrics for assignments so students will know what you expect.  Use this rubric for assessing their work, highlighting sections and adding comments.  Here is one I use to assess student Dialectical Journal entries from their text reading:





Below 15

Choice of quote

Significant and meaningful choice of chapter quotation.

Meaningful choice of chapter quotation.

Somewhat meaningful choice of chapter quotation. 

Insignificant choice of chapter quotation.

Personal connection

Includes insightful personal connections and comments.

Appropriate personal connections and comments.

Limited personal connections and comments.

No real connection to the text.

Followed assignments directions

Three or more quotes per chapter.
Chapter and edition noted.  Name on paper. Turned in on time.

Three quotes per chapter. Missing chapter and edition or name. Turned in on time.

Less than three quotes per chapter.  Chapter and edition noted.  Name on paper.  Turned in a day late.

Less than three quotes per chapter.  Chapter and edition or name on paper missing. Turned in more than a day late.

Grammar, spelling, sentence structure

No errors in spelling, grammar, or sentence structure.

Minor errors in spelling, grammar, or sentence structure

Several errors in spelling, grammar, or sentence structure.

Many errors in spelling, grammar, or sentence structure.  Need to spell check more carefully.

They like being involved in “real life” issues that matter. 
“The use of examples which students can relate to and asking students to develop their own examples are ways to create meaning between students’ life experience and the material which we want them to be learning” (McGlynn, 2005).  Make learning relevant by connecting activities and assignments to real world problems.  Experiences such as debates, service learning, developing simulations, or field experiences make this kind of important connection for Millennials.

Example:  Bring in a professional in your field to talk to your students.  I invite a principal who comes in to speak about interviewing procedures for new teachers, or I bring in a student who has just finished the program and can share tips for success.  Observing a classroom and writing a paper on classroom management ideas is another valuable way to connect my students to the real world.

Millennials: The New Brand of Creatives

They are comfortable with technology.
“Members of Gen Y cut their teeth on computer keyboards, and to them, computer technology and the Internet are as natural as breathing. This generation's members know more about digital technology than their parents or teachers, and this promises to change not only the way families interact and communicate, but also how young people relate to school and learning.” (Coats, 2007)

Millennials are comfortable with technology. They prefer email or texting to using a phone.  They have what Frand (2000) calls an “information mindset”:

  • Computers aren’t technology.  These students have had access to computers and the internet their entire lives.  Computers are just an assumed part of life.
  • The Internet is better than TV. These students spend many more hours on the internet than they do watching TV.
  • Doing is more important than knowing.  Since the availability of information is growing exponentially, results and actions are considered more important than acquiring facts.
  • Multitasking is a way of life. These students are comfortable doing many activities at once: listening to music, doing homework, texting.
  • Typing is preferred to handwriting.   These students have spent much of their time on the keyboard while less and less emphasis has been placed on the teaching of handwriting.
  • Staying connected is essential.  These students are connected by cell phone, PDAs, and computers anytime and any place.
  • There is no tolerance for delays. They have a strong need for immediacy with little tolerance for delays.  This trait is important as it relates to professor feedback and explanation.

Use technology in your classroom often to meet student needs for variety, stimulation, and for accessing information.

Example:  Create a brochure, timeline, or calendar of famous people that connects to the lesson topic.  Ask students to create a webpage of pictures that represents their interests or share their favorite websites.  Put their pictures into slides and use that presentation for introductions the first class.  I use the same pictures at the end of a class and include short quotes from each of their papers—all of which are shown with music playing.   

They want learning to be fun!
Millennials want learning to be “fun.”  They learn best when they are entertained!  Games and creative hands-on activities are appreciated.  Incorporate music, art, or role playing when appropriate.

Example:  One instructor in our teacher education program dresses up in various guises (the Frenchman, the old grandfather, the Crazy Scientist) and teaches math or science tricks to our preservice teachers.  This approach is not for everyone, but if you have a secret “performer” personality, you might pull if off as successfully as this instructor does.

     We look at the mix of Boomers, Generation Xers, and Millennials in our current college classrooms and need to be aware of the differences of preference and learning styles if we are to keep them all engaged.  Some prefer to work independently.  Some prefer group work with lots of interaction.  Some expect you to be the expert who is ready to explain concepts.  Others are happiest when they can “discover” underlying concepts themselves.  Since more and more of our future students will be the Millennials, however, a particular focus on their characteristics will increase our level of happiness and effectiveness as professors.  In particular, if professors can meet the following basic needs, benefits will surely follow:

  • Include opportunities for lots of interaction
  • Be structured.  Give clear directions and examples.
  • Give lots of feedback
  • Emphasize how the class will benefit them in the real world
  • Use technology
  • Make learning fun!

Enjoy the enthusiasm and positive energy of these newest players on the academic stage!  They are our future.


Coats, J. (2007).  Generation Y—the Millennial Generation.  Published by LEARN Books, a division of Learning Resources Network (LEARN).

Frand, J. (2000). The information age mindset: Challenges in students and implications for higher education. EDUCAUSE REVIEW, Vol. 35, (5); p.15-24.

Howe, N. and Strauss, B. (2002). Millennials rising: The next great generation. New York: Vintage Books.

McGlynn, A. (2005).  Teaching Millennials, our newest cultural cohort.  Education Digest. Vol. 71, Is. 4: p. 12-16.

Oblinger, Diane (July/August, 2003). Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials: Understanding the new students. EDUCAUSE REVIEW, Vol. 38, (4).

Vien, C. (2010). The “slacker generation” comes of age: Generation X in the workplace. UOPX Knowledge Network.

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