By: Michelle Kruger
Gen Z, born roughly between 1997 and 2012, is a generation that has grown up in the digital age, surrounded by technology and social media. As such, their learning style is influenced by their use of technology and their exposure to a constant stream of information.
Just to put this generation in perspective, for me as a millennial, having computers in the classroom was cool and new, for Gen Z it is beginning to grow old.
Millennials are known for their proactive approach to seeking information compared to previous generations. On the other hand, Gen Z has grown up in a world where they are constantly bombarded with information from various sources. They are used to having information delivered to them in a personalized way, without having to put in much effort. Personalization has become a crucial aspect of Gen Z's learning experience, where they expect to receive content that is tailored to their interests and needs. As a result, incorporating personalized learning strategies into teaching can help keep Gen Z students engaged and motivated (Acer for Education, 2019).
Gen Z and Millennials are two distinct generations with some notable differences in their attitudes, behaviours, and values. It will be helpful to look at some key differences that set Gen Z apart from Millennials:
- They are the OG digital natives: Gen Z was born and raised in the age of smartphones, social media, and the internet. They are true digital natives and have never known a world without technology. Millennials, on the other hand, were born before the internet became widely accessible and came of age during its rapid expansion.
- Diversity and inclusivity: Gen Z is the most diverse generation, especially in US history. They have grown up in a more inclusive society and are more likely to embrace diversity in all its forms. Millennials are also diverse, but Gen Z takes it to the next level with their emphasis on social justice, gender and racial equality, and LGBTQIA+ rights.
- Financial mindset: Gen Z came of age during the Great Recession and witnessed the financial struggles of their parents and older siblings. As a result, they tend to be more pragmatic and frugal when it comes to money and are more likely to save and invest for the future. Millennials, who came of age before the Great Recession, were more focused on living in the moment and enjoying life.
- Self-expression: Gen Z is known for their individualistic and self-expressive tendencies. They use social media to express their unique identities and opinions and are more likely to embrace unconventional lifestyles and beliefs. Millennials are also self-expressive, but Gen Z takes it up a few notches with their emphasis on authenticity and transparency.
- Work ethic: Gen Z is known for its strong work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit. They value autonomy, flexibility, and meaningful work, and are more likely to start their own businesses or pursue side hustles. Millennials are also driven, but Gen Z takes it to the next level with their focus on innovation and social impact.
These are just a few of the key differences between Gen Z and Millennials. While there are some similarities between the two generations, Gen Z is shaping up to be a unique and influential group that will have a major impact on the world in the years to come.
There are a few “ground rules” for understanding these tech natives and it is very important to truly adapt our pedagogical view of teaching to ensure we do not lose student numbers to the vast domain of free education out there.
Gen Z learns on its own, if there is something they do not know they Google it (and they make use of the word Google as a verb). That is not to say that they do not need teachers. They are overflown with an abundance of information daily, and without proper guidance, they will not learn and master the essence of the subject. The numbers support this: 39% of Gen Zs prefer to learn with the guidance of a teacher whereas the Millennial generation only 25% prefer guidance from a teacher (Acer for Education, 2019).
They are “The Tech-Savvy Generation”, harnessing the Power of AI and Digital Tools to Enhance Learning – thus an emphasis on the importance of technology and digital tools in the education of Gen Z students. They are SUPER comfortable with technology and expect to use it in their learning. AI and other digital tools can enhance their educational experience and keep them engaged in their learning journey (Krishna, S. 2021).
Teaching to the Next Generation, we need to understand them and adapt our andragogy – emphasis on the need to understand the unique characteristics and learning preferences of Gen Z students and adapt teaching styles accordingly. For starters, it is crucial to build relationships with these students, provide experiential learning opportunities, and create a student-centred, safe online environment (EdTech Magazine, 2019).
Adapting Your Teaching Style for Gen Z Students: Focus on the fact that Gen Z students represent the future of education and that we as educators must adapt our teaching styles to prepare these students for the challenges of the 21st century. 21st-century skills include teaching critical thinking, problem-solving, and digital literacy skills, the role of technology and digital tools in preparing Gen Z students for the future workforce (EDUCASE, 2022).
Characteristics of how Gen Zs learn
- They prefer visual and interactive learning: Gen Zs prefer to learn through videos, interactive simulations, and other multimedia. They are less likely to engage with traditional forms of learning, such as textbooks (Duffy, 2018).
- They are self-directed learners: Gen Z is comfortable with self-directed learning and prefers to have control over their education. They often seek out information and resources online, and they are more likely to use online tutorials and resources to learn new skills (Buecheler, 2019).
- They value collaboration: Gen Z often prefers to work in groups and collaborate with their peers to learn. They are comfortable working online and are more likely to use social media and other online platforms to work with others (McCrindle, 2017). Here are some examples of collaboration activities for Gen Z college students (McCrindle, 2017):
- Group Projects: Group projects are a classic collaboration activity that can help Gen Z students develop teamwork and communication skills. Educators can assign group projects that require students to work together to complete a task or solve a problem and provide opportunities for group members to give each other feedback and evaluate their own and others' contributions.
- Peer Review: Peer review involves having students review and critique each other's work. Educators can assign writing assignments or presentations that require peer review and provide guidelines and rubrics to help students provide constructive feedback to each other.
- Group Discussions: Group discussions involve having students share and exchange ideas and perspectives on a topic. Educators can facilitate group discussions by posing open-ended questions or providing prompts that encourage students to reflect on and share their experiences and insights.
- Collaborative Writing: Collaborative writing involves having students work together to write a document or produce a piece of content. You can assign collaborative writing projects that require students to work together to research, write, and edit a document or presentation.
- Role Play: Role play involves having students take on different roles and interact with each other in a simulated scenario. Assign role-play activities that require students to work together to solve a problem or negotiate a situation and provide opportunities for students to reflect on and discuss their experiences.
- Debate: Debates involve having students present and argue different sides of an issue. You can assign debates that require students to work together to research and prepare arguments and provide opportunities for students to reflect on and evaluate their own and others' arguments.
Overall, collaboration activities for Gen Z university students involve providing opportunities for teamwork, communication, and critical thinking and can help students develop skills that are valuable in both academic and professional contexts.
- They have a short attention span: Gen Z has grown up in a world of constant stimulation and is easily distracted. They prefer learning experiences that are short, engaging, and interactive.
Gen Z students generally have a shorter attention span than previous generations and therefore may benefit from shorter, more focused lectures. Research suggests that the ideal length for a lecture or presentation is between 10-20 minutes, as this is the amount of time that most people can effectively concentrate and retain information.
However, it's important to note that the length of a lecture should ultimately depend on the content being presented and the needs of the students. If the material requires more time to cover in-depth, it may be appropriate to extend the lecture. Conversely, if the material is simple or straightforward, a shorter lecture may be more effective.
To keep Gen Z students engaged, it's also important to incorporate interactive and experiential learning opportunities into lectures, such as group activities, discussions, and hands-on projects. This can help break up the lecture and provide opportunities for students to apply what they have learned in a practical and engaging way (Manasrah, A. et al., 2021).
- They value authenticity: Gen Zs are more likely to engage with content that feels authentic and relevant to their lives. “Authenticity is the most important value for Gen Z – even beyond future plans and being rich” (EY, n.d.). Here are some examples of authentic and relevant learning experiences that may be particularly effective for Gen Z students (Miranda, C. 2020):
- Project-Based Learning: Project-based learning involves students working on real-world projects that require them to apply their knowledge and skills to solve complex problems. This type of learning can be particularly engaging for Gen Z students, who value hands-on and experiential learning opportunities (Pappas, C. 2015).
- Service Learning: Service learning involves students engaging in meaningful community service projects that are directly related to the course content. This type of learning can help students see the real-world applications of their learning and can help them develop important skills such as empathy, leadership, and teamwork (Barton, 2020).
- Gamification: Gamification involves incorporating game-like elements into the learning experience, such as points, badges, and leaderboards. This approach can help increase engagement and motivation among Gen Z students, who are often drawn to gaming and other digital experiences (Acer for Education, 2018).
- Internships and Apprenticeships: Internships and apprenticeships provide students with opportunities to gain real-world experience in their field of study. This type of learning can help students develop important skills and connections that can be valuable in their future careers (Maxwell, n.d.).
- Digital and Social Media Learning: Gen Z students are often comfortable using digital and social media tools, and incorporating these tools into the learning experience can help increase engagement and relevance. For example, instructors can use social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram to share news articles, videos, or other content related to the course material, and encourage students to discuss and engage with the material online. Additionally, instructors can use digital tools like interactive simulations or virtual reality experiences to help students visualize complex concepts (Vander Linde, Weatherly, n.d.).
- Problem-Based Learning: Problem-based learning involves presenting students with real-world problems or scenarios and asking them to apply their knowledge and skills to come up with solutions. This type of learning can help Gen Z students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, while also increasing their engagement and motivation (Seibert, 2020).
- Personalised Learning: Personalised learning involves tailoring the learning experience to the needs and interests of each individual student. This can be achieved through approaches like adaptive learning, which uses technology to personalize the learning experience based on each student's strengths and weaknesses. This type of learning can help Gen Z students feel more engaged and invested in their education (Pappas, 2023).
- Cross-Curricular Learning: Cross-curricular learning involves integrating multiple subjects or disciplines into a single learning experience. For example, an MBA can incorporate aspects of healthcare systems, elements of politics or law, and historical decisions by focusing on a particular time period or cultural context where these aspects influenced the economy and/or world of business. This type of learning can help Gen Z students see the connections between different subjects and can increase the relevance and authenticity of the learning experience (Mitchell et al., 2019).
Authentic and relevant learning experiences for Gen Z students involve providing opportunities for hands-on, experiential learning, incorporating real-world problems and scenarios, and using technology and digital tools to increase engagement and relevance.
Gen Z learns best through interactive and visual experiences that are authentic, collaborative, and self-directed (Schrader, J. 2022).
- Now we know that Gen Z is the OG tech natives, they have all the information in the world handy in their hands (devices) and can find anything they want to learn online by verbing “Google it”. Extremely successful entrepreneurs like Elon Musk have been recorded saying that a degree is not needed to work at Tesla (Matousek, 2020) and he is basing this on the tech-sumptuous Gen Z’s capabilities to learn anything online.
Question: A higher percentage of Gen Z (39%) prefer to learn with guidance versus the generation of millennials (25%) (Acer for Education, 2019). Although the numbers went up, it is still a “fail”. Can this be because educators have not yet adapted their pedagogical/ pedagogical methods? If this is the case, then a red flag should be popping up in the back of our heads. We need to adapt our teaching method ASAP.
Let’s take a look at some grand examples of online learning activities that are popular among Gen Zs to keep them engaged and focused (Panopto Team, n.d.).
- Online Courses:
Gen Z is known for their self-directed learning style and often take online courses on platforms like Coursera, Udemy, edX, LinkedIn (Budnike, 2022) and Skillshare to learn new skills or enhance their knowledge but they also take formal degree online courses, like a Postgraduate or an MBA. The key takeaway here is the SELF-DIRECTED learning style.
- YouTube Tutorials:
YouTube is a great platform for Gen Z to learn new things. They often watch tutorials on a variety of topics like cooking, makeup, coding, and more. If the content is already there, make use of it as additional teaching resources or ask them to search for online videos, summarise the main ideas and share that with their videos (Duffy, 2018). Recently, a module author I worked with made use of short movie clips to demonstrate the art of negotiation (which he found on YouTube). Now who doesn’t love a good movie?
- Virtual Reality Learning:
Many Gen Z learners prefer immersive experiences, so virtual reality (VR) learning is becoming more popular. With VR, they can explore new environments, practice new skills, and experience new perspectives (Wertz, 2022). While COVID was devastating, it did allow for some great immersive experiences to see places you might have never seen before, like a virtual tour of a museum in Italy, an Aquarium in Vegas and even 360 panoramas of cities and natural landmarks.
- Podcasts: Podcasts are a great way for Gen Z to learn on the go. There are many educational podcasts on various topics that they can listen to while commuting, exercising, or doing chores (Crespo, 2023). Even as a millennial myself, I prefer listening to an interesting podcast instead of watching a video or even a movie.
- Social Media Learning: Gen Z often uses social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter to learn new things. They follow experts and influencers in their areas of interest and learn from their content. The good thing about social media is that it is unabridged with real people, gives real advice, and teaches good and proper techniques on various topics (Olipas, 2022). Start your course with a list of social media influencers they can follow to keep that constant flow of incoming knowledge relevant (and positive).
- Interactive Games: Interactive games are a fun way for Gen Z to learn. Many educational games like Kahoot, Quizlet, and Duolingo are designed to make learning more engaging and interactive, BUT the good news is YOU can also make your own “game” experience using a tool as simple as PowerPoint pre-loaded templates (Fisher, 2022) OR make a branching scenario from scratch (Ivec, n.d.).
- Online Discussion Forums: Online discussion forums like Reddit and Quora are great for Gen Z learners who want to ask questions and get answers from experts and peers (Yu et al., n.d.). And luckily for us, most Learning Management Systems (LMS) have these as a built-in option. As long as you include questions that allow for a true and real in-depth discussion among students you are ready, set, go!
These are just a few examples of the online learning activities that are popular among Gen Z learners and loads more will be invented as we engage more and more with this generation in the years to come.
At the start, I mentioned that it is crucial to ensure you have built a relationship with your students. If you are a Baby Boomer, you might consider changing some communication tactics and learning some slang to ensure this relationship is, for the social part, solid. Slang words like “Glow-up” (meaning someone grew from where they used to be, “Slay”, roughly translated to doing something well, “Bet” meaning yes or OK, and “Vibing” can best be described as you are cool ✌🏻 or you are on fire – fire being a good thing 🤔.
It’s not only the slang words but the communication is way more informal, Emojis and GIFs are standard languages that are fully understandable by them as if they were back in 300 BC drawing images in Tombs.
Images from: BuzzFeed
I imagine them projecting an emoji into the night sky like Batman back and forth to communicate with each other.
Image created by Picsart, an AI Image generator.
Orait, orait, orait! So, let’s see how they communicate.
Gen Z prefers to communicate using a variety of digital and online channels. Here are some common ways that Gen Z prefers to communicate (Dagostino, 2021):
Instant messaging: Gen Z is known for its love of instant messaging. They prefer to communicate using platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, iMessage, and Snapchat. They use these platforms to stay in touch with friends and family, share photos and videos, and send quick messages.
Social media: Social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and Snapchat are also popular among Gen Z for communication. They use these platforms to share updates, connect with others, and stay informed on current events.
Video conferencing: With the rise of remote work and online learning, video conferencing has become an important way for Gen Z to communicate. Platforms like Zoom, Skype, and Google Meet are commonly used for online meetings, classes, and social events.
Email: Although Gen Z is known for their love of instant messaging, they still use email for more formal or professional communication. Email is still a common way to communicate with teachers, employers, and other professionals.
Emojis and GIFs: Gen Z is known for their use of emojis and GIFs in their digital communication. They use these visual elements to express emotions and convey messages in a more playful and engaging way (thus my Batman signal of emojis in the night sky).
Overall, Gen Z prefers to communicate using digital and online channels that are quick, convenient, and interactive. These are advantageous because in online teaching we communicate digitally as far as possible.
Easy peasy lemon squeezy, just keep them ENGAGED AND MOTIVATED!
But how? How do we keep this generation engaged AND motivated? Below are some ideas paired together, one for engagement along with its companion on motivating them. You can make use of the following in your online course design:
Purpose-driven work (Motivated): Gen Z wants to positively impact society. They are motivated by work that has a sense of purpose and meaning, and they want to feel like they are making a difference. Give them a task that addresses these needs, one that allows them to create something or solve a problem of something that matters (to them as well) (Yu et al., n.d.). This then links to what’s next:
Make learning relevant (Engaged): Gen Z is motivated by purpose-driven work, and they want to understand how the knowledge they gain will apply to their future careers. Educators can make learning relevant to Gen Z by showing how the material they are learning can be applied in real-world situations (Afshar et al., 2019).
Autonomy and flexibility (Motivated): Gen Z values autonomy and flexibility in their work. They want to have control over their schedules and work on their own terms. They are motivated by the freedom to pursue their passions and interests, and to work in a way that suits their lifestyle (Yu et al, n.d.).
So, we Use Technology (Engaged): Gen Z is digital natives who have grown up with technology, and they expect to use it in their learning. Incorporate technology into your teaching, such as using interactive online tools, virtual simulations, and multimedia content (Afshar et al., 2019).
Personal growth (Motivation): Gen Z is a generation that values personal growth and development. They are motivated by opportunities to learn new skills and take on new challenges. They want to feel like they are constantly growing and improving, both personally and professionally (Yu et al, n.d.).
Then, let's provide feedback (Engaged): Because Gen Z values personal growth and development they want to know how they are progressing in their learning. You can provide regular feedback and assessments to help Gen Z track its progress and identify areas where they need to improve (Afshar et al., 2019).
Diversity and inclusion (Motivated): Gen Z is a highly diverse and inclusive generation. They are motivated by work environments that celebrate diversity and foster inclusivity. They want to work for companies that prioritise diversity and take meaningful action to create a more equitable workplace (Wondergem, 2017). This means you need to:
Be inclusive (Engaged): Gen Z is a highly diverse and inclusive generation, and they expect you as their educator to be as well (Afshar et al., 2019).
Technology and innovation (Motivated): Gen Z is a generation that is highly tech-savvy and innovative. They are motivated by work that involves cutting-edge technology and allows them to be creative and innovative. They want to push the boundaries of what is possible (Liebenberg, n.d.).
Encourage collaboration (Engaged): Gen Z is social and collaborative learners who thrive in group settings. Professors can create opportunities for Gen Z to collaborate with their peers, such as group projects, online discussions, and peer-to-peer feedback (Wondergem, 2017).
In a nutshell, Gen Z is motivated by work, projects, assignments, tasks and activities that are purpose-driven, flexible and foster personal growth and development. They seek diversity and inclusion and are at the forefront of innovation and technology (Yu et al, n.d.). Technology forms part of their ‘matter’ of existence. To see a Gen Z not making use of technology is like discovering an animal 20 years after declared extinct – possible but rare. And with the influx of new tech tools daily, especially Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools, we might as well jump on board that ship. “The ship is leaving, if you are not onboard, you get left behind.” - King George, Australian Survivor, 2023.
Image created by Gencraft
Something cool to read about: Don’t Ban ChatGPT in Schools. Teach with it (Roose, 2023).
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