5 Key Thoughts for Developing Engagement in the Classroom

The student sitting in the back of your classroom, you know the one with the smartphone out beside the opened laptop tuned to Facebook - Introducing our Gen Y students. A leading question in classroom management right now is “how do we engage and hold the attention of these modern learners?”

As a Gen Y faculty member I'd like to share with you 5 Key Thoughts for Developing Engagement amongst these learners. I also hope that this post will be a catalyst for a larger discussion on Gen Y engagement.

The generation to which I belong understands the value technology adds to our everyday lives. It lets us download and listen to music anytime we want; we can connect with friends and check the status of upcoming social gatherings all without missing a beat on our way to morning coffee. Yet, many outside the generation are often frustrated with perception of how we engage or don’t engage with academia, here are a few such observations: We can push our emails to our smartphones yet can’t log-in to check an email from a professor; We can mix, create, and publish some of the most unique content of our lifetime yet we can’t seem to manage posting a 50 word discussion thread on blackboard. What’s going on? Where is the disconnect which divides educator and student? Here are 5 Key Thoughts that I believe are a reflective response to the very questions I pose.

The 5 Key Thoughts are not to challenge the comprehensive research on this generation but to contextualize it in our learning environment.

1. Gen Y students are not gifted at multitasking. 

There are a significant number of people claiming that Gen Y’s are better at multitasking then previous generations. Through years of first-hand experience, I can definitely say that multitasking remains a skill which must be taught and perfected by any individual wishing to be proficient. The students in your classroom are no different. Please don’t assume that just because they are “hyper-connected” or “technologically savvy” that multitasking is a direct result. The number one request from students after week three of an academic semester is assistance with time-management. This is likely to do with the fact that students are not being taught good time management skills which utilizes the technology which they are connected to. From the classroom perspective students can complete singular tasks very quickly and will not ask for more work but rather return to their personal life (text messaging, Facebook etc.). As a result this is why demonstration based classes tend to have a higher level of engagement because the Gen Y student is following along with a professor who is more easily able to maintain the right pace of instruction.

2. There is a clear ideology about the work/life balance. 

The parents of our Gen Y students have raised their children to believe that the family and social life are equally important to a career. Gen Y students are continually questioning the value of what is pulling them out of their psychosocial groupings. For the context of this posting it is going to class or using a service on campus. A student that has gotten up, travelled to campus and managed to put themselves in a seat wants to be in your class. It’s important to recognize that there is already an implied value in the students mind or they never would have shown up. In the early 80s, student involvement theorist Alexander Astin noted that students must be both academically and socially engaged within their institutions if a true level of engagement was to be attained. New research continues to support this and it is certainly reflective in the way Gen Y’s are choosing to live their lives. I have heard of professors having great results in starting the academic year by asking students why they are in the program and what they hope to specifically get out of the class they are teaching. This helps students understand the WHY or the “Value” and how it applies to their personal lives.

3. The WHY or “Value” defines whether or not engagement will occur. 

When a Gen Y is faced with deciding what gets done during the working day, a high amount of focus is placed on the perceived value. The student questions if there is a direct value that benefits them not in days or weeks but in the moment of the choice. This is often the challenge for educators as we are constantly working towards a goal that feels just slightly out of reach or relevance to the first year, level one student. Even in the personal life of a Gen Y, value is the deciding factor. So, how does one motivate a Gen Y to be focused on a goal that is long term? Create a weekly series of short term goals that span over the entire term. Consider this, if your first class outlined why the Gen Y student wanted to be there, the next step would be to explain how the class will add value to what the student is trying to achieve. From here the bridging factor is the context. What will happen through the course of the program to keep the Gen Y reminded and focused on what is considered to be “Valued”?

4. Every aspect of the request must be held in “Context” of the proposed value. 

For the most part Gen Y students operate in the moment for better or worse. Sometimes making a choice that ultimately becomes regret or frustration when they make the connection to the value of what has been happening. Having established both a WHY and a VALUE the next piece is the context. As a generation that does truly sees things in the immediate present every class is an opportunity for creating connections to the value. It’s important to remind and refocus on the value and how that class will build upon what has been learnt while moving the student closer to that final destination. This was the central concept in many of my public speaking engagements referenced at the start of this posting. Gen Y students benefit the most when the professor is both teacher and learning facilitator. This concept is further explained using the idea of the Opposable Mind in the book of the same title by Roger Martin.  

5. Engagement is ever changing and is unique to the individual and their situation.

Growing up in a world that is changing by the hour Gen Y students are an ever changing demographic. Just as with any other person there is a cycle of development. For students I draw from Arthur Chickering’s 7 vectors of development and the student life cycle. Chickering reminds us that every student comes to us at a different point of the development process. Some students, even Gen Y’s, will be ready to self-engage while others will need that earlier mentioned facilitated engagement. But once you have that engagement it isn’t guaranteed to remain. Many students become frustrated and bogged down with classes that start out strong be forget the impact of everything that we’ve talked about so far. The challenging part is trying to establish a level of engagement once a classroom environment has been started. Can it be done? Absolutely! It only takes a moment to pause and start fresh.

There they are, my 5 key thoughts for engaging Gen Y. Some may have left you feeling there is room for more examples and discussion while others might feel strange or wrong to you. However you feel about the above insights, the focus on VALUE and ensuring CONTEXT in our classrooms has become ever critical to our student’s persistence. Gen Y students are in our classrooms and can be an extraordinary source of creativity and ingenuity to our programs, so let’s get together and see how we can engage them in deep and meaningful ways.

Jeremy McQuigge

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada