Published on 2012/10/05

Overlooked Cross-Generational Issues in Academia

Co-written with Debbie Nogueras | Coordinator of the DNP Program, Northern Arizona University

With four generations of students all simultaneously taking classes, educators must take extra steps to ensure all their students are getting the most out of their educational experiences.

Every generation has different characteristics, as well as differing values, which can lead to conflict in the workplace and classroom. With four generations of learners now working and taking online and on-ground classes, educators of adult learners must be aware of the challenges that can arise in mixed-generation cohorts. These challenges can be a source of growth or cause conflicts that limit learning and discourage learners.

The first challenge is that of questioning. Older generations (e.g. Baby Boomers) were taught not to question authority, while younger generations have a more relaxed approach, questioning everything and everyone. Often, educators comment that they would never have dared to question their instructors.

In the online classroom, the biggest challenge is the opinion that younger generations “can’t write.”  Sentences often are the equivalent of sound bites, fitting into the word limits of such technology as Twitter, and full of abbreviations. For many of the younger generations, it would be acceptable to say “C u, hagd.”   Older learners find this distracting and rude.

Gratification is part of several of the generations’ belief systems. “I want it now and I want what I deserve,” is an often-heard theme from younger generations. The grade is more important than learning for these adult learners, and educators are faced with learners who “deserve” a better grade, but do not produce work that earns a higher grade. Impatience goes along with gratification as some younger learners only want content applicable to work or life and find more abstract, theoretical knowledge unnecessary. This entitlement is commonplace among members of the generation born between 1979 and 1994, who believe they are owed certain rights and benefits without further justification.

So, how does the educator deal with this shift and mixing of the generations? How does the educator make the classroom meaningful for generations that span from the Silent (1925-1943) to the Millennial Generations (1982-2000).

The educator must find the positive outcomes in the conflicts that can arise. For older generations, pointing out how questioning leads to meaning for the learner is paramount. For younger generations, showing how the written word is often the first and only impression someone has of a writer can help them towards a more polished writing style.

Furthermore, a paradigm shift must occur in the educator’s approach to teaching. A constructivist foundation enhances learning for all generations. In a constructivist approach, the educator becomes a facilitator, grounding education in the learners’ needs and guiding learners to construct their own meaning of the content based on their life and work experiences. Content, even theoretical, must be made relevant to a learner’s life and work. These changes can help educators overcome some of the greatest challenges that may arise when teaching mixed-generation cohorts.

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Readers Comments

Charles Adams 2012/10/05 at 9:25 am

This is very true; I find older students are typically very alienated when they decide to return to university and since so much of higher education is geared towards youth (from teaching practices to class scheduling) they are made to feel separate from the experience.

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