Designing learning for millennials

by Damien Joash Poon

Damien Joash Poon graduated with first-class honours from NUS in 2012. He now teaches at CJC.

There is a healthy curiosity about millennial learning needs and strategies to engage with them. A casual search online yields a variety of results: Forbes offers Nine Tips for Managing Millennials; Stanford lists on its Teaching Commons site a concise writeup on Millennial Learners, with pragmatic suggestions for the classroom, backed by recent research from Stanford and Dalton College academics; and Goldman Sachs has an infographic on this age group, with beautiful typography and animated pictures—an infographic which would surely appeal to its subject. Turning to databases like Google Scholar and ProQuest, one finds even more sustained discussion. Dissertations have been written, pedagogies prescribed.

With all this attention, one might imagine that millennials were another species altogether. Yet any educator who has struggled with inter-generational differences would appreciate the care taken to understand how to connect with such learners and would intuitively recognise traits frequently associated with millennials. These may inevitably be generalisations but remain useful as a starting point for thought.

Common among the many articles is a definition of millennials as ‘individuals born between 1980 and 2000’, though for purposes of discussion the more relevant sub-category is ‘neomillennials’, or ‘second wave millennials’: this covers those who are still students at the point of writing. Traits cited often for these younger millennials include the following: they have grown up with digital technology and rarely live without it—multitasking thus becomes the norm, and singular focus on a given task a greater challenge; they are more connected through social media, which shapes tastes and expectations; and they have grown up in a time of rapid change and instant gratification, which influences notions of achievement. Crudely generalising though these points may be, they capture some of the immediate challenges for educators: how can these learners be engaged meaningfully and be prepared for the society of the future?

When I was first approached to contribute some thoughts to this article, my concern was what value I could add in response to this question, given the considerable amount of research already done on millennial learners. I was reminded, however, that since I encounter them at an earlier formative stage of their ‘millennialism’ as a Junior College teacher, observations of their learning needs at a pre-university stage may prove useful for discussions at tertiary level. Indeed, pre-university teachers share similar concerns about the changing profile of students and what it means for our teaching.

For a start, reshaping perspectives on this changing profile creates space for innovation. Traits perceived as weakness, for example, can be seen as a potential for strength. While auditory learning may be a diminishing feature of today’s learners, making sitting through even a one-hour lecture a challenge for many, the digital immersion of younger millennials is an opportunity to engage them in a multi-modal manner, and with digital learning platforms. In fact, such a learning context may encourage richer learning, through transference of learning across media, encouraging wider literacy. The desire for quick success, on the other hand, can be managed as a motivational force, in classroom environments where success is designed, for example through smaller but more frequent tasks, and a wider array of opportunities to demonstrate one’s learning. Reflecting on the value of such curriculum design, I have been more intentional in setting regular and bite-sized writing tasks as a mode of formative assessment, and as preparation for full-length essays that are part of their summative assessment. Micro-successes in weekly tasks sustain motivation and are more easily achieved than a good grade for a full essay. Yet I remain bound by immovable demands of external standardised testing—I need to prepare them for the A Level exam, the format of which I cannot change. Howsoever I attempt to innovate, the final assessment mode looms on my imaginary horizon, and form the limits of my world. The university, on the other hand, has fuller control over assessment modes and far greater freedom and flexibility to assess learning in a variety of ways. Doing so creates more opportunities for students to experience success and its attendant motivational force, while maintaining high standards of learning. The point of commenting on assessment in relation to pedagogy is to say: both are, ultimately, mutually influencing. A change in pedagogy alone is less effective without a corresponding change in assessment modes.

A related idea to educators believing in the strengths of learners is helping them to believe in their ability to succeed. Too often what comes across as self-entitlement or a refusal to learn is actually symptomatic of a fear of failure, or a refusal to believe that one can succeed. This is a dangerous disposition to learning, and sadly not uncommon. Helping learners to believe in their ability to make that leap needs to be part of the instructional strategy, alongside facilitating subject mastery. This can be nurtured through purposeful collaborative peer work that reinforces one’s belief in the ability to be a self-directed learner; rewarding improvement not just achievement; and visible learning strategies, particularly those that help learners achieve a higher degree of meta-cognition—understanding not just what they need to know, but how they are wrestling with what they are learning. When the frame of thinking is understood, thoughts become clearer. In a recent lesson on unseen poetry, for example, I spent more time showing students how they have improved in their thinking than teaching them about the poem, going through in detail two sets of their writing produced at the start and at the end of the lesson. Quietly, I experienced some discomfort, from the nagging need to unpack the poem with them. But there was value in persevering: I saw that students appreciated understanding how they were doing better, and what moves they could repeat, to reproduce similar success in writing. This reflective approach is a luxury I cannot afford weekly, of course. But timed well, it augments learning by encouraging student belief.

One needs, however, to discern what is a (late-)millennial problem, and what is simply a problem for students in any era. Younger millennial learners are also very much like students in any other age: studying is often a pain, to varying degrees. These learners are, however, products of their age: this is an age of quick gratification, of posting rather than writing. Learning styles are changing. Fewer students would be willing to sit through an entire lecture of talk alone, with skeletal slides; note taking is a dying art; auditory learning is a rarity. In the face of these changes, the invitation is for educators to change with them. But, equally, it takes some discernment not to be swept away by the millennial zeitgeist. The university is the last stronghold for intellectual maturation; struggle is part of that maturation. Ministering to today’s learners cannot come at the cost of removing that struggle entirely—that would be counterproductive to authentic learning in the long run.

And, ultimately, learning and growth require collaboration—require not merely the yielding and trying on the part of the educator in response to the various needs of learners, but movement from these learners to encounter new learning on its own terms. An anecdote from my undergraduate days comes to mind: a professor mentioned to our class that he had received grumbling feedback that he murmured and could not be heard. “Well I can do one of two things,” he said, “I can speak louder, which will strain my voice, or you can move nearer to the front.” He had a point. The first few rows were often empty. In straining to speak across the distance of a generation, inviting our students to move from their place of static comfort to a place of productive discomfort is equally important. It is with this two-way effort that a communion of thought and learning is both productive and possible.

| The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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