5 Ways We Can Engage Millennials and Gen Z Learners in the Classroom

By Dr. Rob Konopaske


March 26, 2018

5 Ways We Can Engage Millennials and Gen Z Learners in the Classroom

My Fellow College Educators:

While lecturing, do you ever get tired of seeing students’ foreheads as they frequently (and not so furtively) look at their phones? While trying your best to deliver engaging lectures, do you get the impression that your students are tuned out and bored? As a caring, proud, and well-prepared instructor, do you ever feel frustrated that even though you bring your A-game to each class, you’re no longer as motivational or impactful to students as you were in the past? You’re not alone!


Is it us or them?

It’s both. Most of today’s college students are either Millennials (born 1980-1995) or Gen Zers (born after 1995) who have grown up as “digital natives.” Their smartphones and other devices are much more than mere communication tools or entertaining gadgets; they view their devices as necessary technological appendages. Not surprisingly, many Millennials and Gen Zers seem to prefer self-directed, online learning as opposed to the more traditional instructor-led, lecture-based method. Why should students bother paying attention to a single expert standing in front of the classroom when the world’s knowledge is literally at their fingertips? How can a college instructor possibly compete with the “edutaining” and often edgy nature of online information from the likes of Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram? YouTube has become a major stage for (sometimes questionable) influential online celebrities like PewDiePie with over 54 million followers. Last time I checked I didn’t have any followers…how about you? But I did receive an email from a former student a couple of days ago thanking me for helping him get into graduate school.


My influence isn’t online but rather personally engaging and inspiring students in the classroom, and mentoring them one-on-one during office hours. I’m very passionate about this part of my craft and do not want to see it slip into online oblivion. It’s not just me who thinks this way. Many of my colleagues agree. Also, several of my students in recent years have told me how motivated they get when they come to my lectures. I’m sure you have received similar reinforcement from your students.


So…shouldn’t students adjust to us like we did to our instructors back in the day?

Excellent students will sit quietly, pay attention, take notes, keep their phones packed away, and ask informed questions. Let’s face it, there are always going to be some students who probably don’t want to be in your class for many reasons. But what about the aspirational or struggling students? Or first-generation college students? Many students come to us needing a bit of inspiration and encouragement, and most importantly guidance. Guidance on how to become motivated, self-directed, and high-achieving students. I have to admit that I take a lot of pride when I see students transform before my eyes and become engaged in the course material as the semester unfolds.


What are some ways we can engage Millennial and Gen Z learners in the classroom?

You’ve probably experimented with myriad techniques and methods to engage your students during class so that they listen actively, apply the required material, and engage in meaningful discussions. But as every educator knows, sharing best practices amongst academic colleagues is the lifeblood of education.


Below are some of the ways I engage my students:


  1. Carrot and the stick. The stick is a clause in my syllabus that states that I can reduce students’ final course scores by 20 percent if they engage in behavior that is distracting, including having their phones out, texting, surfing the web on their laptops, incessant chatting with fellow students, and so forth. I use a 2-step progressive discipline method where I first give the offending student a verbal warning (and record his/her name) and if the behavior continues, I inform them that their final grade will be reduced by 20 percent.

    The carrot is what I call an “active listening/focus” bonus which is 5 percent the total points that can be earned in my course. All students who don’t receive a verbal warning earn this bonus at the end of the semester.


  2. Classroom Assignments before lecture. A few years ago, I started having my students complete online Connect Learnsmart© modules before they came to lecture. This pre-lecture immersion into the content resulted in much better class room discussions and group exercises. We know some students wait until a day or two before exams to crack the book. By assigning Learsmart before each lecture, all students have been exposed to the chapter content.


  3. In-class exercises (ICEs). During most of my lectures, I assign an in-class exercise or ICE. Each ICE is worth 1 percent of a student’s final grade and I assign 12 of them in a semester. While going through my PPTs, I ask students to answer about 5 questions which they write down on a half-sheet of notebook paper (turned in at the end of class). My goal is to help students apply the chapter content to their personal lives or careers.

    For example, when I was covering a chapter on leadership I asked them to identify their favorite leader and explain why they chose this particular person. I then tied their responses to several leadership theories so that the ICE resonated both personally and with the chapter discussion.


  4. PPT slides with blank lines. I only provide partially compete PPT slides to students. On each slide of a given lecture, there is a blank line or two. I have the master deck with complete slides. I find this modest amount of writing during lecture helps keep students more focused as they need to find the word to fill in on each slide. A simple technique, but it works.


  5. TED talks. Like many of you, I’m a fan of TED talks. This semester, I showed Dan Ariely’s talk about irrational behavior while discussing the lecture on planning and decision making. Depending on what course you teach TED talks may not be appropriate, but there are many good videos out there that may be worth showing to your students.


Keep up the great work in the class room, colleagues!


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Rob Konopaske

Dr. Rob Konopaske – Texas State University

Rob is the Director of the Institute for Global Business and an Associate Professor of Management in the McCoy College of Business Administration at Texas State University. For the past ten years, he has been the core course coordinator for the undergraduate management principles course and has taught numerous other courses, including: Organizational Performance and Competitive Advantage, International Human Resources Management, and Cross-Cultural Management. Rob earned his doctoral degree in Business Administration (Management) at the University of Houston, a master in International Business Studies (MIBS) degree from the University of South Carolina, and a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree from Rutgers University where he was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, the country’s oldest academic honors society for liberal arts and sciences founded in 1766.


Rob is a co-author of two best-selling management books with co-authors Tom Bateman and Scott Snell, Management: Leading and Collaborating in a Competitive World (13e) and M: Management (5e). Also, Rob is co-author of Organizational Behavior and Management (11e).


Rob’s research focuses on intergenerational differences in the workplace and emerging global assignments. His research has been published in such outlets as the Journal of Applied Psychology, Academy of Management Executive, Management International Review, Business Horizons, Human Resource Management, Journal of Business Research, Journal of Management Education, Nonprofit Management and Leadership, Journal of Managerial Psychology, and Human Resource Management Review.