Generation Z, or Gen Z for short, is quickly beginning to represent the largest cohort of students at universities around the world. Chloe Lane finds out whether this new batch are snowflakes, tech-addicts, or simply just misunderstood.
Addicted to technology, low attention spans, snowflakes: these are just a few ways Generation Z have been described in the media recently. However, according to the lecturers who teach them, these labels couldn’t be more wrong.
“It’s intensely annoying to see phrases such as snowflake bandied about,” says Professor Paul Wiltshire, a journalism course leader and senior lecturer at the University of Gloucestershire in the UK.
“In the last two years [throughout the COVID-19 pandemic], this generation has shown huge creativity, resilience and sacrifice.”
Generation Z, often shortened to ‘Gen Z’, are those born between 1997 and 2012. Currently, this includes university students aged between 18 and 24.
Professor Sunita Malhotra teaches the CEMS Master in International Management (MIM) at Louvain School of Management in Belgium.
Gen Z’s values are extremely close to mine.
“I love teaching Gen Z students and hope I never have to stop teaching them,” she says. “As a truth-seeker myself, I want to make the world a better place and believe in individual expression, so Gen Z’s values are extremely close to mine.”
Engaging Gen Z students
According to Vision Critical, the average Gen Z student has an attention span of just eight seconds. Despite this, Pew Research has found them to be the most educated generation yet, with around 57 percent of university-age students enrolling in higher education, compared to 52 percent of Millennials and just 43 percent of Gen X.
With such a supposedly low attention span, teaching students to the expected high standard should pose challenges, but Professor Malhorta believes this statistic doesn’t account for student engagement.
Gen Z students want to be engaged, valued, and listened to as individuals within their learning
“Gen Z students want to be engaged, valued, and listened to as individuals within their learning,” she says.
Dr Louise Robson, a senior university teacher at the University of Sheffield’s School of Biosciences in the UK, also challenges the statistics on attention spans. She tells QS-GEN that in her 25 years of teaching experience, she’s found Gen Z have a similar attention span to any other generation of student.
“If a lecture involves an academic standing at the front of a large lecture hall and talking at a group of students for 40 minutes, the attention span in the room will understandably wane, whether the students are Gen Z or not,” she says.
Using digital teaching methods
To avoid drops in attention spans, Dr Robson uses technology alongside traditional lectures to encourage students to play an active role in the learning process. As class sizes continue to increase year-on-year, she’s found using technology helps large groups of students to feel more engaged and creates a supported learning community.
Professor Malhorta has also made the switch to digital learning, finding it a much more effective and interactive method of teaching than traditional lectures.
“I rarely use slides and if I do, it is just a few to introduce the concept. Quizzes, collaborative whiteboards such as Miro, and resources that are colorful, visual, and engaging also work brilliantly,” she says.
Professor Wiltshire often uses social media platform TikTok in his journalism lectures, as well as online learning tools such as Padlet and Socrative to collaborate, seek opinions, and reinforce learning. The length of TikTok’s videos are 60 seconds or less, but Professor Wiltshire and his colleague Sophie Flowers often use them in modules as explainer videos and in their news day social media output.
“We also get our first-year students to look at how journalists use TikToks as virtual CVs,” he said.
Changing the way students are assessed
It isn’t just lectures that are becoming more technological. The pandemic has encouraged change from the traditional exams and essay assessment methods, reveals University of Sheffield’s Dr Robson. As a result, assessment methods are now a lot more diverse than they were 10 or 20 years ago.
Dr Robson explains that the type of assessment she sets depends on the year-group of the student. For first year students, lectures involve multiple choice quizzes, data-analysis tasks, or oral presentations, which help them assess the basic subject knowledge and understanding. In second and final years, lecturers look for a higher level of critical analysis.
“We find open book problem solving assessments are a great way to ensure students have developed the key skills they need to use to succeed in their chosen fields once they start their careers,” says Dr Robson.
While teaching his journalism students, Professor Wiltshire tries to move away from academic writing as much as possible, preferring to encourage journalistic writing instead.
Instead of traditional essay assignments, many of Professor Wiltshire’s assessments involve building students’ portfolios, with online stories, social media shorts, videos, podcasts, and presentations. He also uses quizzes as part of the formative assessment.
Helping students find solutions to complex global issues
“Gen Z students have a keen interest in finding solutions to many of the world’s greatest challenges, from climate change to sustainability, equality, and diversity,” says Dr Robson. At the University of Sheffield, sustainability has been embedded into the curriculum as a direct result of conversations with students. Dr Robson encourages higher education professionals to talk directly with students about what they want from university curriculums.
Gen Z also has a stronger interest in certain subjects, such as technology, climate change, social justice, and world issues, adds Professor Malhorta.
It is rare I sit with a Gen Z student and do not have a philosophical discussion of some kind.
“It is rare I sit with a Gen Z student and do not have a philosophical discussion of some kind. The key if you are preparing something as a teacher is to make sure you add in cases that address the issues of today,” she says.
As with any generation, there is a tendency to generalise and stereotype. In reality, each student is different and will learn in different ways, explains Professor Malhorta.
“Every individual is different based on upbringing, culture, and values, so it is not as simple as dividing generations into categories according to year of birth,” she says.
Although certain generations can share certain interests and views, it is only by spending time with each student that you can find out who they are and how they like to be taught.
This article was abridged from QS-GEN 6. Download the full edition.