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Teaching Generation Y – A Brief Guide

I wasn't sure whether to call this post teaching Generation Y - these buzzwords aren't always useful, and I consider all students nowadays pretty much digital natives.

This blog post is an attempt to provide a quick overview followed by 5 tips on how to teach students who are digitally native (in this case, in a Higher Education environment). Since the term Gen Y is not just used by the media but also by social scientists, I'll adopt it in this post. Let's start by looking at a common definition of Generation Y.

What is Generation Y?

Econsultancy, in a recent blog post on web design for different generations, split different (digital) audiences into the following categories:

  • The Silent Generation (born in 1929-1945) lived just after World War II
  • Baby Boomers (1946-1964) during the economic recovery
  • The sceptical Generation X (1965-1979)
  • The more technologically savvy Generation Y (1980-1999)
  • Finally, the immersed Digital Natives (from 2000)

Here is some more information on Gen X vs. Gen Y - the most relevant segments for my argument - I'm assuming that many, if not most teachers and lecturers will be Gen X.

Generation X (1965-1979)

Generation X, which I'm part of, largely enjoyed a childhood without modern digital technology (internet, smartphones) and grew up with far less media consumption overall. Digital came gradually but steadily, but wasn't yet all-pervasive (I've previously written about some 90s technologies that I used back in the days).

Generation Y (1980-1999)

teaching generation y
CC image courtesy of Erik Tjallinks on Flickr

Generation Y had more technology and earlier on - for instance, this generation has the first children with mobile phones, and they likely encountered the internet or rather, the WWW - in their teens.

The World Wide Web was invented in 1994, and Gen Y grew into adults with social media growing around them (e.g. MySpace 2003, YouTube 2006).

As for their relationship with technology, Generation Y are  more technologically savvy, and more impatient. They have a more proactive approach and, according to econsultancy, focus on

...what they can do with technology, instead of what it does for them. As serial multi-taskers, they expect the technological environment to be interactive, quick, and accessible across devices.

Sounds familiar?

I'm technically a Gen X, but find I have much in common with Generation Y. I'm certainly a serial multi-tasker, and need my information quick and easy to understand. In digital across devices, I expect stuff to work, and efficiently so, in as short a user journey as possible. For instance, I'll leave a website where I can't find what I'm looking for within a few seconds or where I have an overall poor user experience (clutter, navigation, etc.). Apps that are clunky get uninstalled straight away. And don't get me started on text walls!

Teaching Generation Y - 5 Tips

University education traditionally relies heavily on lengthy written texts. The format frequently consists of lectures that broadcast knowledge to students, and tutorials where this knowledge is embedded through exercises and case studies. Students typically have to write a few lengthy pieces of texts (e.g. reports, essays, dissertations). Knowledge exists primarily 'out there' in books - and students are expected to acquire it through reading.

This approach may have worked in the past (it did for me), but what about in 2014? Is this method really appropriate to teaching Generation Y? Are there more effective ways of generating knowledge in digital natives, and engaging modern students?

To answer these questions, I've experimented with various approaches over the last year. I've been at the receiving end of heavy text-based, 80-slides PowerPoints both at Uni and throughout my career (think  endless, pointless meetings). These things simply don't engage and no one takes in any information. There's a reason why T&Cs are text walls - so that you don't read them.

Here are my top tips then on how to teach Gen Y -  a mix based on insight, others' research, and my own experience (of what works).

1. Content should be useful, or entertaining

This is probably THE most important point, and will be familiar to anyone working in social media / content marketing.  Content (in this case, teaching material) has to be either useful or entertaining, otherwise it won't get attention. No walls of text please - TL; DR. Instead, add images and multimedia. 80-slides lectures are out.

Why? Generation Y are much more likely to respond to well-structured, easy-to-scan content.  Break it down into smaller pieces.

2. Microlearning

Use microlearning instead of a few lengthy assignments and tasks.

Why? A quick, impatient Gen Y mind responds much better to many small tasks rather than a few big ones. Big ones can look insurmountable and don't naturally sit with an impatient, multi-tasking digital native mind. Some students don't tackle large assignments until it's too late and then panick. With many small ones, you are more likely to keep them on their toes and engaged throughout.

3. Active learning

This is related to point 2. above. The goal is self-direction, or a self-service approach to learning - one that is proactive and agile. You want them to become pretty autonomous early on and take responsibility for their own knowledge and skills development.

Why? Generation Y are more proactive and have higher expectations - use that to your advantage. These guys are already good at developing new digital and media skills. They know how to multi-task, and are likely very familiar with trouble-shooting (in a digital / tech context). Tap into that mindset and attitude: Give Gen Y problems that they need to solve, and tools to solve them with. Then let them figure it out - don't give them all the answers. Don't give them a fish - teach them how to fish (so they can do their own fishing, when they leave).

4. Use digital tools and devices

This one doesn't need much explanation. I've previously written about digital tools for education and won't replicate the content here. Use the medium most native to them.

Why? Digital is Generation Y's most natural, most comfortable environment. It's where they thrive, and where they are happiest to engage.

 5. Be a coach - don't 'lecture'

The paradigm shift from knowledge as pre-existing (20th century) to knowledge-as-action (21st century) means that teaching Generation Y can't be done from some high pedestal or ivory tower. Yes, you must be a credible subject expert and have knowledge - if you're research-focused, you'll have huge amounts of conceptual knowledge, and as a practitioner you'll be well-versed in the latest industry trends and techniques. But don't just recite that knowledge - or you'll be just giving them fish (see point 3.).  Instead, encourage them to question everything (including yourself) and reward self-management.

Why? Gen Y live and breathe two-way conversations. They are less trusting of authority and used to being spoken with (engaged), rather than being spoken to / at.


The digital age has upgraded teaching and learning and made it more exciting (albeit more challenging), and it has also changed student expectations. I hope that this guide and my 5 tips for teaching Generation Y contain useful advice to adopt for your own teaching practice.

As for me, I'll keep testing and refining my approach, and  I'm looking forward to implementing some of the above tactics in a few weeks' time for our new MSc Digital Marketing.









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