A Generationally Intelligent Return to Campus

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Tuesday, October 12, 2021
By Megan Gerhardt, Zach Russo
Photo by: iStock/izusek
As administrators plan the best way to return to in-person learning, they should take student perspectives into account.

A year and a half year ago, higher education was called to view the pandemic as a crucible moment: a traumatic and stressful experience that has the potential to strengthen, rather than destroy. To survive a crucible, we must demonstrate what is known as “adaptive capacity”: the ability to understand the context surrounding change, and the strength to do what is needed to move forward. If business schools are going to build back a stronger educational experience after the pandemic, we must develop the capacity to adapt to the changing world of work and the specific needs of the students we are preparing to face it.

We have seen a great deal of analysis about the changes that will be needed in the coming months. Most of this speculation has come from those in charge—administrators and faculty reflecting on what they have learned in the past year, what they themselves have missed the most, and what they want to bring back. But if we’re going to successfully navigate these changes, we need to add the voices—and data—of Gen Z students to our conversations.

Like faculty, these students have had to continuously adapt over the past 18 months, and not just in their classrooms. They also have had to adjust their expectations about the opportunities and realities they will face in the entirely new world of work. If business schools truly are going to exercise adaptive capacity, we must understand the concerns and needs of our students. If we are going to respond to our crucible in a way that strengthens us, we must leverage a deep understanding of generational identity.

This generationally intelligent approach is described in the book Gentelligence, co-written by Megan Gerhardt, one of the authors of this article. The approach integrates research and best practices from diversity and cross-cultural intelligence and applies these insights to generational dynamics. Administrators with Gentelligence base decisions on data acquired through inquiry, not on assumptions and stereotypes—which are often incorrect.

Gen Z Outlook

The importance of doing research is illustrated by what happened when the world shifted to remote work and learning during the spring of 2020. Many assumed that members of Generation Z would make the transition smoothly because they are at ease with technology and possess native digital savvy. We thought the rest of us would fumble our way through Zoom calls and anxiously await the return to normalcy.

We were wrong. Multiple early studies show that Gen Z individuals have struggled the most with the shift to remote learning and work. They don’t necessarily embrace the past norm of sitting at a desk all day to work or attend classes, but they were hit hard when this option was no longer available. Gen Z students have mastered the tech aspect of learning and working from home, but during lockdown they deeply missed the social interactions of in-person events. They are in the stage of life where they are actively creating their social and professional networks, which is extremely difficult to do when working from home.

If universities are going to successfully bring Gen Z students back to the classroom, administrators need to ask students about their learning experiences during lockdown.

If universities are going to successfully bring Gen Z students back to the classroom, administrators need to ask students about their learning experiences during lockdown. We need to find out how their reactions and experiences can help us craft better class experiences this fall.

Two Different Perspectives

At Miami University’s Farmer School of Business in Oxford, Ohio, we have started the inquiry process by collecting data from 325 current Gen Z undergraduate students at our residential university. We compared their responses with those of faculty. The numbers below reflect the percentage of Gen Z students and faculty members who either agreed or strongly agreed with eight statements. Many of the results were surprising.

To complement the quantitative data, we asked Gen Z students to expand upon their responses with qualitative comments. We include some of their comments here to illustrate several data points.

I am excited to be returning to classes completely face-to-face.

  • Gen Z students: 78 percent
  • Faculty: 97 percent

“While I am excited to return to classes in person, I worry that my quality of education and expectations of myself have changed since the pandemic. I am concerned that I will [not] be able to follow and succeed with my old study habits.”

If given a choice, students would prefer to attend class in person.

  • Gen Z students: 76 percent
  • Faculty: 85 percent

“I prefer in-person classes, yet I believe online or recorded lessons should always be available to students. With a variety of learning opportunities and flexible classroom environments, students would be able focus on school and other facets of life without feeling suffocated by rigid class schedules.”

My satisfaction with my classes has decreased since the pandemic began.

  • Gen Z students: 70 percent
  • Faculty: 67 percent

“I would be lying if I didn’t admit that ... I struggled to even click on the Zoom link to class most days. When engaging in a subject you are passionate about, you sometimes want to dive in headfirst and fully immerse yourself. Class on Zoom felt like diving right onto concrete instead of a 12-foot-deep pool. The limitations it placed on connectedness and engagement were too much to bear most days.”

All courses should retain a Zoom/WebEx option for students who need it for medical reasons.

  • Gen Z students: 71 percent
  • Faculty: 25 percent

All courses should retain a Zoom/WebEx option for students to utilize if they choose (for any reason).

  • Gen Z students: 52 percent
  • Faculty: 5 percent

When classes return to a face-to-face format, we should continue to use some of the new technology that was introduced during the pandemic.

  • Gen Z students: 72 percent
  • Faculty: 76 percent

“I will admit, many features of a technologically infused classroom proved beneficial, even outside of a COVID world. Office hours were easier to fit into my daily schedule, especially if I had just a couple questions that didn’t warrant a close to mile walk from a dorm to the business school.”

I have learned to be more resilient as a result of the adjustments we have had to make to learning and teaching during this pandemic.

  • Gen Z students: 71 percent
  • Faculty: 74 percent

All things considered, I think the pandemic has been an opportunity to strengthen how university courses are taught.

  • Gen Z students: 52 percent
  • Faculty: 66 percent

It’s important to keep in mind that our students are part of a residential undergraduate population, and responses might be different for schools that operate commuter campuses or have nontraditional student demographics. Even so, any school can gather valuable information if it surveys students about how they prefer to return to in-person classes.

Research confirms that when groups are involved in the decision-making process, it increases their engagement and results in feelings of trust and engagement.

Research into Gen Z has revealed that they desire dialogue around positions and decisions—but they are willing to be realistic. Other research confirms that when groups are involved in the decision-making process—even if it simply means their opinions are asked for and their voices are heard—it increases their engagement and results in feelings of trust and engagement. Therefore, our Gen Z students are much likelier to accept the new parameters of in-person learning if their opinions are asked upfront.

Three Key Questions

To this end, rather than being prescriptive in suggesting definite solutions, we challenge faculty and administrators to ask themselves and their students the following three questions as a way to plan an adaptive return to the classroom.

What pandemic-era changes should be kept, and why? Given that 72 percent of students and 76 percent of faculty agreed that some amount of the new technology should be retained, where and when does the use of these technologies make sense? Should some aspects of some classes remain remote in nature? If so, which ones?

Where does online technology improve desired learning outcomes, and where does it hinder them? As shown above, only 5 percent of faculty agree that students should be able to join a class remotely for any reason, while 52 percent of students do. This discrepancy signals an area for potential dissatisfaction and conflict as students return to campus this fall. If universities or business school administrations don’t set policies about online classes, individual faculty will make their own decisions.

No matter what they decide, faculty should keep in mind that—more than previous generations—members of Gen Z crave dialogue and explanations. This means that it will be well worth an instructor’s time to take a few minutes to explain why a certain policy is in place.

Given that technology can lead to an “always available” mindset, what boundaries should be set? Because face-to-face classroom time and in-person office hours were nearly impossible during the pandemic, many faculty found other ways to connect with students. Some held virtual office hours, expanded the times they would be available, created Slack or GroupMe channels, or even shared mobile phone numbers so students could text. As more schools open up, faculty need to decide how much—and what kind of—access they want to grant to students. It’s important that faculty create open lines of communication with students while also protecting their own time.

As educators, we have been through a crucible in higher education, and we must remember that our students have been through it with us. We must design return-to-campus strategies that make sense for everyone on campus, from administrators to faculty to students. And we must ask students which of those strategies will serve them best.

Megan Gerhardt
Professor of Leadership and Management, Miami University
Zach Russo
Business Student, Miami University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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