Gen Z in Higher Education

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Wednesday, September 21, 2022
Understanding several key norms and trends of Gen Z can help business educators best engage and teach learners in this generation.
Megan Gerhardt, Professor of Management, Farmer School of Business, Miami University
  • Gen Z does not look to authority figures for information; instead, they need educators to serve as connectors and facilitators, providing context and challenging their assumptions.
  • We must reevaluate how we present information to Gen Z, whose members have increasingly shorter attention spans, and help them sort through the daily barrage of information they receive.
  • Gen Z is more willing to open up about their mental health struggles and shares them openly, whereas previous generations were socialized not to do so.


Megan Gerhardt: [0:13] When we think about the key distinguishing characteristics for Gen Z, there's a few important things to talk about.

[0:19] First of all, we want to make sure we're not stereotyping. That's a big emphasis in the work that I do. That oftentimes, when we're talking about generations, we fall back on stereotypes, clickbait, and all of those things that make it hard to have a productive conversation.

[0:34] I'd like to talk about norms and trends. We can look at the data, which is, of course, the smarter way to do it. We can see a few key things we do want to be paying attention to. Similar to our millennials, Gen Z doesn't look to whether it's a professor or a boss for information.

[0:54] They can get information a lot faster through the Internet, through a Google search probably than they can from us, which didn't use to be the case. Certainly, we relied on "authority figures" for information. What we need to provide to them is context and the ability to be good consumers of that information. They're overloaded with input from a lot of different sources. 

[1:18] This is a generation that's grown up in the era of fake news. Where a lot of us had the news. Whether or not it was accurate—is a good question—but the news. They have 50 different sources of information.

What we need to provide to them is context and the ability to be good consumers of information.

[1:32] Our role is to help them make connections to help challenge assumptions that they're making because they are being inundated with a lot of information and to help connect with them to help them understand why that information might be relevant to them.

[1:48] That's one key role shift that we're seeing. That they need us to be almost facilitators and connectors for them, in terms of how to think about information and apply it. Something else is also, we're seeing differences in attention.

[2:05] The pandemic has created some interesting shifts. Our data is showing things like even more short attention spans, leading to questions on two sides. One, how do we deliver content in a way that's going to keep attention?

[2:22] This isn't coddling or trying to make sure that we're necessarily spoiling this generation. It's just being aware of the fact that they're going to consume information maybe in shorter bits. We've known this for a while.

[2:35] What does that mean for us in higher ed, in terms of things like maybe is an hour and 20 minutes the right class time? What proportion of that class time do we want to use more actively versus for information delivery?

In this generation, we're seeing significantly more be willing to be open about mental health struggles.

[2:50] Also, how do we prepare Gen Z with tools to help them with this challenge of being shorter-attention span learners, but also, inundated with information? Helping them focus. How do we teach them things like time boxing or techniques that allow them to have concentrated periods of focus to push out the work that they're going to need to do? Those are just some strategy changes.

[3:18] The third trend would be increased interest in mental health awareness. Mental health stigma, thankfully, has gone down quite a bit with each generation. In this generation, we're seeing significantly more be willing to be open about mental health struggles.

[3:37] I'm seeing students who are emailing me and saying, "I just wanted to let you know I won't be in class today. I'm having a lot of trouble with my anxiety. I will get the work done, but I didn't want you to think I was just skipping class," which is something I never would have seen even five years ago, probably.

[3:52] Certainly, they were having the anxiety but were socialized maybe not to be talking about it at work or in the classroom. Our awareness of how are we going to respond in higher ed to that in a way that is constructive, helpful. Also, signaling maybe to the workplace what they need to be thinking about in terms of how they want to meet those needs.

The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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