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Thursday, April 5, 2012
Education Toolbox

To teach millennials, understand them

By Nerissa Young

Journalists who leave the newsroom for the classroom sometimes discover it’s not their own college classroom — or even their mother’s.

“In my day …” and “When I was your age …” don’t cut it with today’s millennial generation. Getting plugged in to today’s students means, literally, plugging in — to Facebook, Twitter and texts. Old-school pros who think they can escape technology by fleeing to the classroom need to rethink.

“When I was 18, people did X. Well, of course, it’s changed,” said Frances Hensley, who taught college students for 13 years before spending the past 15 in the provost’s office. Hensley is senior associate vice president of academic affairs and dean of undergraduate students at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. She teaches faculty development seminars on understanding and working with millennials.

Hensley said new instructors and professors should recognize that working with millennials is only part of the equation. Adapting to the structure of academia is another environmental shift that industry professionals make when entering the classroom.

“Only part of that is interacting with this age group,” she said.

The single largest intergenerational change is technology, Hensley said. Millennials are digital natives; those older are digital immigrants, which marks a profound shift in teaching.

Suggested Reading on Millennials

-“Millennials Go to College: Strategies for a New Generation on Campus” by William Strauss and Neil Howe

-“Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation Is Changing Your World” by Don Tapscott

-“First Time in the College Classroom: A Guide for Teaching Assistants, Instructors, and New Professors at All Colleges and Universities” by Mary C. Clement

-“The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaking Up the Workplace” by Ron Alsop

-“Generational Shockwaves and the Implications for Higher Education” (TIAA-CREF Institute Series on Higher Education) by Donald E. Heller and Madeleine B. d'Ambrosio

-“Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors” (Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education) by Linda Burzotta Nilson

-“Parental Involvement in Higher Education: Understanding the Relationship Among Students, Parents, and the Institution: ASHE Higher Education Report” J-B ASHE Higher Education Report Series by Katherine Lynk Wartman and Marjorie Savage

The constant need to stay connected can cause problems in the classroom when students are tweeting, texting and updating Facebook statuses during class. “It’s changing the way we deliver an education,” she said.

Those who don’t have children or grandchildren may have trouble relating to millennials, she said. Hensley suggested professionals read books that detail characteristics of millennials and strategies for effectively teaching them.

Another characteristic of millennials is their close connection to parents and vice versa. Today’s parents are much more involved in their children’s lives. Hensley said technology promotes that involvement. “Of course they’re involved because they know more.” As a college student, she talked to her parents on the phone once a week.

Details, details, details

Hensley offered a couple of classroom practices to help new instructors make those connections.

The first is a detailed syllabus. The more specific, the better, she said. Millennials like specificity and knowing exactly what professors believe is important. Expectations should be clearly stated.

The second is rubrics for grading assignments. Using rubrics reinforces learning outcomes, the instructor’s expectations and performance standards.

A rubric is a graph of categories with assignment criteria juxtaposed against performance standards. Proficiency of Associated Press style in a news story is a criterion. A student who makes two Associated Press style errors in a story may receive eight points of 10 in performance for that category. A student who makes 10 AP errors may receive two points of 10 for that category. Ideally, students can look at a rubric and write the story to get the grades they want.

“It really saves them from having to sort of ferret out that information,” Hensley said.

New instructors and professors should remain open to how millennials function.

“Differences don’t have to be negative,” she said. “We can learn from those differences.”

Nerissa Young is a member of SPJ’s Education Committee. She is a freelance writer in Huntington, W.Va., and has taught journalism at Oklahoma State University, Shepherd University and Marshall University.

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