How Wide Is the Generation Gap Between Students and Teachers

Are millennials really that different than the rest of us?

Posted May 13, 2016

As a college professor, despite the fact that I am not that much older than my students, I still find myself marveling at what feels like wide differences between our experiences, particularly our frame of references. For example, I have used pop cultural references before that have fallen flat—one time I mentioned Brooke Shields in class, only to have one student quip, “who?”

The most obvious gap between us is that my students are far more technologically wired and immersed in their digital gadgets than I ever was or am. They use acronyms that I don’t understand, they raise their screens to take pictures of the white board in lieu of traditional note taking, and their phones often seem to be like additional appendages, seemingly fused to their hands or on top of their desks as if it is the most natural attachment in the world for them.

This week, however, I had a student come into my office with a question that I had never been confronted with before. I was writing a letter of recommendation on his behalf, and I requested that he bring me signed and stamped envelopes for the institutions where I would be mailing the letters. He brought all the paperwork, although the envelopes he brought were bigger than they needed to be and I replaced them with standard ones bearing our college’s letterhead. After I placed the letters inside and sealed each envelope, he seemed flustered. He didn’t know where to put the address on each envelope, how many stamps to use, or where to affix the stamps on each envelope.

In other words, he didn’t know how to properly address or mail a standard letter.

This is when the potential differences between our generations really struck me—are our students today learning different skills than the ones we acquired at their ages? Or, in this particular case, are millennials (and post-millennials) just not acquiring certain skills that we developed and now take for granted? Isn’t it “commons sense” to know how to address or mail a letter? Well, maybe such a practice isn’t as common or sensible for young people today.

The truth is, the younger generations are being raised in a culture vastly different than the one the rest of us were raised in. The obvious technological advances are just the most glaring or observable difference one could point to. The widening gap between the rich and poor in our country and the economic downturn is another significant factor to consider. For example, I was astounded to learn this week that a new study revealed that “only 10 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds have a college or advanced degree” (as reported by Cohen, 2016, para 5).

It appears that perceptions of certain behaviors among college students also vary depending on the generation of the student. For instance, while one study found that generally there were no significant differences based on generation regarding college student perceptions of cheating as it pertained to exams and papers, differences did exist in other areas. For instance, “significant differences did exist among generations in the evaluation of activities of fabrication, taking shortcuts, and making excuses, with millennials rating activities less strongly as cheating than others” (Wotring & Bole, 2011, Abstract).

How this translates to their professional lives is also problematic, as research suggests that young workers are lagging behind in basic skills when entering the workforce (e.g. Zinshteyn, 2015). While pointing out these differences between our generations doesn’t necessarily solve any problems, maybe it is the first step in recognizing that there are significant cultural forces undermining the retention of basic skills our young people need to succeed and thrive. Any educator will tell you anecdotally that the students they encounter today are more apt to multitask, less likely to be reading novels or newspapers, and less skilled, generally, in writing for an academic setting.

This isn’t because the younger generations don’t have the capabilities for these skills, they just haven’t been in an environment conducive to developing and cultivating such skills. I do what I can in my classes, but by the time students get to the college level, it becomes more challenging to work with them to develop skills that earlier generations acquired a lot sooner in their educational paths. Yes, they can live their lives without knowing who Brooke Shields is, but not being able to mail a letter on their own? I don’t know what to do with that.

Cohen, P. (2016, May 10). It’s a tough job market for the young without college degrees. The New York Times: Economy. Retrieved on May 13, 2016 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/11/business/economy/its-a-tough-job-marke...

Wotring, K.E., & Bol, L. (2011, August 3). Generational differences among community college students in their evaluation of academic cheating (Abstract). Community College Journal of Research & Practice, 35(9). Retrieved on May 13, 2016 from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10668920802095910?journalCode...

Zinshteyn, M. (2015, February 17). The Skills Gap: American Young Workers are Lagging Behind. The Atlantic. Retrieved on May 13, 2016 from: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/02/the-skills-gap-amer...

Copyright 2016 Azadeh Aalai

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