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Teaching iGen Students: It's Not Them...It's Us

It's hard to find an instructor who hasn't, at one time or another, bemoaned the state of the undergraduate students they find in their classrooms. Our iGen students—those born in 1995 and later and who grew up with constant Internet access—frequently seem more interested in their devices than the subject we are covering in class. Indeed, who among us hasn't suspected that sometimes those open laptops and iPhones our students are using to purportedly take notes are in actuality being employed to text, surf the web, or check out the latest Facebook posting?

Your suspicions are probably right. Not only do iGen students, on average check their phones 80 times a day, but they're also doing it during class: research on classroom behavior shows that 70 – 90% of college students regularly text during class, blasting out an average of 12 texts per class period. Those students who bring laptops to class are using them for non-class activities almost two-thirds of the time.1

Short of banning all devices from our classrooms, an effort that seems both unrealistic and ultimately futile, what can we do to address the nature of the students we find in our classes today? To answer this question, let's turn to three key takeaways from the body of research on the characteristics of our iGen students:

  • Self-absorption and narcissism—qualities that endow people with an unrealistically positive view of themselves—are on the rise in our students. For example, psychologist Jean Twenge has argued convincingly that narcissism, as measured by carefully validated personality scales, has increased over the past several decades2. One result is that students undervalue the expertise of instructors (and other traditional experts), with students sometimes feeling that they know as much as their instructors and placing as much credence in their peers as their professors.
  • Our students spend considerable time multitasking—not only when they are studying, but throughout class time, as well 3. And although they think they are proficient at multitasking and can pay attention to our lectures while perusing their electronic devices, the reality is otherwise. iGen students are limited in their attentional capacities to paying attention deeply to just one channel of information at a time. The result is that our students switch from one source of information to another rapidly, resulting in attention spans that, at least according to one survey 4, are shorter than in previous generations.
  • Many of our students have dysfunctional mindsets.5 Rather than believing that intelligence and academic success can increase through effort and the application of targeted strategies (a growth mindset), they instead hold a fixed mindset, believing that intelligence is fixed and cannot be modified. Buying into the concept of a fixed mindset means that the relationship between effort and success, that hard work leads to improvement in academic achievement, is tenuous at best in the minds of our students. It's hardly a recipe for student success.

What to do? It's tempting to blame the victim—our students—for their lack of academic engagement. However, I'd argue that it's not them we should be asking to change…it's us. We instructors are not going to be successful in changing the fundamental nature of who our iGen students are. Instead, we need to take advantage of their strengths and change what we do to meet the needs of our students. We need to build on their considerable strengths and create an environment in which we can capitalize on who they are.

Specifically, consider the following three suggestions, building on the key characteristics described above:

  1. Use technology to personalize the delivery of academic material.

For most iGen students (particularly those who display self-involved characteristics), nothing works better than delivering material that they know is targeted specifically to them. Using proven web-based assignment and assessment systems that adapt to the particular strengths and weaknesses of individual students (McGraw-Hill Education's Connect is one), students can achieve mastery over the material before they set foot in class. For students, the argument that technology is addressing them uniquely is a powerful one.

  1. Throw out your lectures and make active learning the hallmark of our classes.

Traditional lecturing does not keep iGen students engaged. Instead, we need to use a variety of activities that are engaging and involving. Rather than repeating in class what students have studied outside of class, use classroom time for demonstrations, short writing assignments, questionnaires, experiments, and answering questions about the material. If students are interested in what's going on in class, they are going to put down their devices and concentrate on what's happening.

  1. Foster a growth mindset.

There are a variety of well-established interventions that help students develop a more adaptive mindset6. In some cases, simply carefully explaining the concept of growth mindset to students by using the analogy of the mind-as-a-muscle that needs exercise in order to grow is sufficient to help students develop a more advantageous mindset.

So yes…iGen students are not like the students we've taught in the past. But that's okay. By proactively addressing who are students are by changing how we teach, we will be able to maximize their success—and ours.


1 Flanigan, A.E., & Kiewra, K.A. (2018). What college instructors can do about student cyber- slacking. Educational Psychology Review, 30, 585-597.

2 Twenge, J. (2017). iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood--and What That Means for the Rest of Us. NY: Atria Books.

3 Bellur, S., Nowak, K.L., & Hull, K.S. (2015). Make it our time: In class multitaskers have lower academic performance. Computer in Human Behavior, 53, 63-70.

4 McSpadden, K. (2015, May 14). You now have a shorter attention span than a goldfish. Time.

5 Feldman, R.S., Goel, K., Blakemore, A., & Zimbler, M. (2018). Promoting mindset change and student success. In R.S. Feldman (Ed.), The First Year of College: Research, Theory, and Practice on Improving the Student Experience and Increasing Retention. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

6 Dweck, C. S., & Yeager, D. S. (2018). Mindsets change the imagined and actual future. In G. Oettingen, A. T. Sevincer, P. Gollwitzer, G. Oettingen, A. T. Sevincer, P. Gollwitzer (Eds.) , The psychology of thinking about the future (pp. 362-376). New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.

About the Author

Robert S. Feldman is the Senior Advisor to the Chancellor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He also serves as Senior Fellow in the Center for Student Success Research at the University. Prior to serving as Senior Advisor to the Chancellor, Feldman was Deputy Chancellor of the University, and before that he was Dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, as well as serving for a period as Interim Dean of the College of Education. Feldman also was the founding director of Power-Up for College Success, a first-year experience course for students at UMass Amherst. Before joining the central administration, Feldman was Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. He also served as Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department and initiated the Research and Mentoring Program. Feldman also has served as a Hewlett Teaching Fellow and Senior Online Teaching Fellow. A Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Feldman received a B.A. with High Honors from Wesleyan University and an M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Feldman is winner of the College Outstanding Teaching Award and recipient of a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar and Lecturer award. In addition, he was President of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS) Foundation, a coalition of groups representing the behavioral and brain sciences, and is now a member of the FABBS Board. He is also Chief Scientific Advisor for GetSet, Inc. and he is Chair of the McGraw-Hill Education Learning Science Research Council Advisory Board. He is on the Board of Trustees of the Social Psychology Network, the United Way of Hampshire County, and New England Public Radio. Feldman has written more than 250 books and scientific articles. His books include The Liar in Your Life, Understanding Psychology, Essentials of Understanding Psychology, Fundamentals of Nonverbal Behavior, Development of Nonverbal Behavior in Children, Social Psychology, Development Across the Life Span, Child Development, and four versions of P.O.W.E.R. Learning: Strategies for Success in College and Life. His research interests include honesty, deception, and impression management. His research has been supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute on Disabilities and Rehabilitation Research.

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