Teaching Students Who Are Much Younger Than You: Four Considerations

As I prepared to teach my first-year orientation class this fall, I realized that I am 44 years older than my youngest students. Our window of shared experiences is small. They’ve always had iPhones and been able to text and use Instagram, and most are familiar with Google Classroom. They don’t know that Springsteen is “The Boss,” haven’t heard of Roy Rogers, and never waited excitedly for Saturday morning cartoons. Gen Z or iGen students, as we’ve named them, are now taking our classes. Here are four goals I have for my work with the bright, energetic young people who show up in my courses.

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As I prepared to teach my first-year orientation class this fall, I realized that I am 44 years older than my youngest students. Our window of shared experiences is small. They’ve always had iPhones and been able to text and use Instagram, and most are familiar with Google Classroom. They don’t know that Springsteen is “The Boss,” haven’t heard of Roy Rogers, and never waited excitedly for Saturday morning cartoons. Gen Z or iGen students, as we’ve named them, are now taking our classes. Here are four goals I have for my work with the bright, energetic young people who show up in my courses.

1. Attune yourself to generational differences

No student group should be stereotyped. Nonetheless, many in this group share characteristics, and generational research provides background on this particular student group. As a campus, our faculty read Jean Twenge’s iGen (2017) and discussed it. Another book I found helpful in my attempts to understand those in college is Generation Z Goes to College (Seemiller & Grace, 2016). Events that shaped older generations, such as the September 11 attacks, are not part of today’s 18-year-olds’ lived memory; what these students know of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, decades we may vividly remember, is largely shaped by pop culture.

Interest inventories given early in the semester can provide insights into these students’ interests, knowledge, and experiences. We don’t have to listen to their music or watch their favorite Netflix series, but knowing a bit about their world helps us see things from their perspective. We don’t always speak the same language. I have never once said “my bad” or called a water bottle a Nalgene, but I am a keen listener, and if I hear something I don’t understand, I ask students to inform me. When they see me exercising at the rec center or attending an on-campus event, we have some shared experiences we can build on.

2. Learn technology together

Although Gen Zers have had screens in front of them since preschool, their mastery of technology may not be as advanced as we think. When I told my first-year students that Microsoft Word was very compatible with Canvas and that they should upload their papers in that format, I saw nothing but blank stares. When I asked, “What have you used?” they answered, “Google Classroom. Is that compatible?” Even with search engines, there is a lot that we can teach about how to search and determine whether a site is trustworthy. Amazon.com is not a research site! Baby Boomer and Gen X professors have good research skills, and we should be sharing them with students.

It was several years ago when I finally realized that students’ textbooks were on their phones. Given how tied our students are to their phones, we may as well use them in class. Poll Everywhere is a great way to survey students, and we can also use their phones to teach those valid research skills.

3. Make invisible expectations visible

Did you know that those who belong to Gen Z report higher levels of stress about a range of issues than adults as a whole (American Psychological Association, 2018)? All who work in higher education need to be aware of the emotional needs of these students and their heightened stress levels. That doesn’t mean we water down our material, but our course planning can help students cope with the pressures of college. Allowing ample time for assignments, practicing problems in class, and providing timely reviews support student achievement and reduce their anxiety.

My institution assigns incoming students Teach Yourself to Learn (McGuire, 2018) as required reading. Today I now find myself teaching students how to study, what’s involved with being a successful a student, and how to grow and mature into a responsible young adult. I never dreamed that this would be part of the job.

But I’ve also found that when I make my expectations highly visible, my students are appreciative. They take notes in my courses, and I’m explicit about when and how they should take notes. In lower-division classes, I talk about specific study strategies, such as making useful notecards and what to do with them when studying for exams. My syllabus details how grades are determined, but I also take class time after the first exam or paper to review the grading system, showing students how they can determine their current grade any day of the semester. Clarity on these issues helps students tremendously and keeps more of my office hours free for conversations about course content.

4. Share expertise and experience

As a professor of teacher education, I am often asked why I became a teacher. I answer that it was destiny as I was born the year that Sputnik was launched. Again, blank stares on every face. It’s a teachable moment in a class of future teachers. I explain how the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik spurred the United States to focus more on math and science education, getting schools to jump-start what we now call STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math. I talk about the New Math books I used throughout elementary school because of Sputnik. My experience and expertise are there for students to learn from.

Today’s college students want to be successful—in their classes, in their future jobs, and in life. Because I am 44 years older than them, I can mentor, counsel, advise, and guide them toward these goals. I have worked with other professors who taught well past age 70. They are my role models. By accepting the next generation of students, learning about them, and growing with them, we can enhance their college experience and our teaching expertise.

References

American Psychological Association. (2018). Stress in America: Generation Z. Stress in America™ Survey. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2018/stress-gen-z.pdf

McGuire, S. Y. (2018). Teach yourself how to learn: Strategies you can use to ace any course at any level. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Seemiller, C., & Grace, M. (2016). Generation Z goes to college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Twenge, J. M. (2017). iGen: Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy—and completely unprepared for adulthood. New York, NY: Atria Books.

Mary C. Clement, EdD, is a professor of teacher education at Berry College. She is the author of First Time in the College Classroom (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).