March 18th, 2013

Millennial Students and Middle-aged Faculty: A Learner-centered Approach toward Bridging the Gap


The problem is my age. It relentlessly advances while the faces staring back at me in the classroom remain the same, fixed between late adolescence and early adulthood. In short, I grow old while my students do not. And the increasing gap between our ages causes me some concern, pedagogically speaking.

At the heart of the matter lies technology. My pre-1980 birth date means I do not share my students’ lifelong history with digital technology. Neuroscientists tell us that this history has shaped the cognitive functioning of the millennial generation, strengthening certain neural pathways through repeated use and weakening others through infrequent use. Student comments such as “I don’t like reading” or “I can text and listen to you at the same time” suggest that these strengthened and weakened pathways are the polar opposite of those that exist in my own brain. I am, therefore, despite more than 20 years of postsecondary teaching, sometimes completely confounded by the way my students think— and not always certain that the fault for this confusion is theirs.

To help overcome these differences, I’ve enthusiastically embraced teaching practices that accommodate some of the more highly publicized traits of the millennials. For example, my classes typically revolve around 10- to 15-minute “chunks” of fast-paced activity designed to address students with short attention spans who are easily bored. My extended availability via electronic media into the evenings and weekends targets the preference for constant (but not face-to-face) connectivity. And detailed grading rubrics for every assignment provide a highly structured route to an A paper—a path and outcome that particularly resonate with many of my students. I’ve adopted these practices in the name of fashioning a learner-centered environment.

But recently I’ve begun asking myself a disconcerting question: what if these practices don’t match my course’s learning goals?

For example, I teach writing, a process-oriented subject where progress moves slowly. The essence of good writing is strong thinking skills: the ability to generate a coherent, logical flow of information or ideas, integrating material that, at first glance, resists integration. This takes time. It requires venturing down blind alleys in pursuit of an idea, backtracking when that idea turns out to be weak, and tolerating frustration when another refuses to immediately take its place. It requires faith that blind alleys, backtracking, and frustration can lead to insights. The journey, in other words, is the thing.

“The journey,” however, no longer figures prominently in my classroom.

Gone are the days of reflecting on an assigned reading for an entire class period—or even expecting that the entire class has done the assigned reading. Examining its structure, debating its logic, and savoring its rhetoric would take up time, require sustained focus, and might not necessarily lead to the “right answer”—impediments to busy, parallel-processing students who are anxious to get it right once and for all. These impediments have been replaced with the quicker, more streamlined approach of fast-paced classes, instructor availability “on demand,” and detailed instructions.

But are these efforts shortchanging my students by reinforcing who they are right now — admittedly, as portrayed by media-hyped generalizations—at the expense of who they might become if guided beyond their current comfortable boundaries?

I don’t have a clear answer to that question. I only know that in asking it, I feel less like the teacher and more like the learner — searching for the right path, not always certain of the direction, and sometimes anxious about the outcome. I feel, in other words, just as my young students must often feel.

Perhaps the gap between our ages doesn’t have to distance us after all. In fact, perhaps it can be a catalyst to keep us both learning. The students’ digitally enhanced perspectives have certainly made me venture into new territory, trying to harness—and emulate—their quick thinking, parallel-processing energy. But similarly, my predigital perspective can also open up new territory for them, showing them the surprising amount of ground they can cover by moving slowly and reflecting deeply.

Perhaps figuring out how to honor the two perspectives in the classroom can offer us the best of both worlds: a learner-centered classroom for both teacher and student.

Joan Flaherty is an assistant professor at the University of Guelph.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 26.2(2012): 1, 3.

  • Carol McGregor

    Very well stated. This is perhaps, an example of what it means to make "the journey the thing."

  • K. Dimitropoulou

    Great paper. Thank you for the insights.

  • Good thought – I highlighted and bookmarked this article at

    Unfortunately, at many schools, the age many, many of the faculty is more like the students' grandparents than their parents. Tpo many of these faculty are fearful of change and they:
    – continue to lecture 50 minutes or more, rather than chunk and give students activities to DO
    – insist on office hours rather than email or texting
    – don't fashion learner-centered environment.
    – feel like the teacher and rarely like the learner rather than less like the teacher and more like the learner
    – have not tried DIYPD – Do It Yourself Professional Development like reading Faculty Focus regularly

    Please keep this fine FF emails/blog posts coming – I will keep forwarding them.

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  • Karl Schnapp

    I noticed this issue years ago: I keep getting older (more mature and wiser… I hope), but my students never grow up. I’d say they are like Peter Pan, except Dorian Gray is probably a better fit. They sell their souls, but their sins are visited upon me, not on a portrait. Alas!

  • A key here is "comfort zone." It is a fair thing to expect them to leave their comfort zone as all learning requires this. And the ironic thing is you can accomplish this on their turf. If you teach writing, try having them write a blog or create a well-researched digital video. You will quickly find they are comfortable with only the digital tools they are accustomed to and challenged by tools they are not.

    • Chuck

      That's a great suggestion biilgx!

  • mergil

    How many professors, did we, as students adapt to so that we could learn from them and isn't that a part of the learning process? Perhaps having the professor adapt to the student's learning style shortchanges the student?

    • Old School

      I agree. Many students need to learn that the world won't always accommodate their desires and preferences. Sometimes, the job requires a set of skills or a process they're not comfortable with. If effective writing requires a lengthy process of revisions, edits, etc., then students need to learn how to do that. while we strive yo better teachers, we are the experts, not the students.

    • Steve

      Agreed. No longer are students required to adapt to the standards set by the teacher as the inverse is the current pattern. Not everyone can climb Mt. Everest, so should it be cut in half to accommodate more people just to build their self-esteem? Catering to the students rather than the students confronting the challenges in the classroom is backwards and reveals a propensity to use gimmicks to expand education and teach students to learn how to learn on their own.

  • RMS

    Very interesting indeed! I love the phrase "learner-centered classroom for both teacher and students".

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  • Shelley

    I teach an undergraduate class in educational psychology to students thinking about becoming teachers and find that the issue isn't about how the mind of these (mostly) young folks (18-25) processes information, or the differences in the way we look at the world (I'm 62), but in how relevant I make the material. While I agree that it is important to keep the lecture to a minimum (makes good pedegogical sense), it is most important to show the students how what I'm teaching has meaning for their lives, whether they become a teacher or not. I do this through asking tough questions upon which they reflect individually and with their classmates in discussion, in their reflective writing assignments and in our whole class conversations. When they believe that what I am teaching can make a positive difference in their lives, they are totally engaged and excited.

  • M.Pilakouta

    very interesting description of the "problem"…

  • D. Cabaniss

    Even the most hard-core, code-driven techies living out on the keen edge of the digital avant-garde tend to agree on this: content is king. Our students' technical abilities and predilections (and our own, such as they may be) should be indulged, celebrated, analyzed, parodied, and, where necessary, rigorously critiqued, but they remain tertiary to what has always been, for all serious students everywhere, the central concern that Shelley identified above–what has meaning for their lives. Many of my most successful teaching colleagues embrace technology in the full welter of its contemporary forms, while other, equally successful colleagues eschew anything much beyond the No. 2 pencil and the chalkboard. The one indispensable quality of good teaching, as we all know, is that elemental bond of trust between student and teacher; and the one requirement in the classroom is content that links our students with the profound questions that have always engaged humankind. Thanks to Joan Flaherty for the provocative post.

  • Vivian Chavez

    I appreciate the bidirectional model of learning prompted by this article. Like the author, I also want to be relevant and update my pedagogy accordingly. One thing I notice is my colleagues tendency towards monocultural universalism. While “minorities” now account for 36.6 percent of the total population, racial and ethnic minorities for the first time made up more than half of all children born in the USA, totaling 50.4 percent. These demographic shifts as well as the economic disparities in our society need to be underscored in Teaching and Learning.