How to Engage Gen Z Learners
“Why are we learning this? If I ever need to know it, I can just Google or YouTube it.” A common question for Generation Z learners, it often makes a lot of sense. Gone are the days of needing to memorize long lists of facts, dates, and processes to have them available for quick recall. While memorization still has a role in learning, it has changed dramatically with the presence of instant answers at our fingertips.
The prevalence of technology impacts education and learning in a variety of ways. No longer do students need teachers to access information. In many cases, my students are now sharing new information with me! What they do need help with is assessing, processing, interpreting, and applying the information they access. As many proponents of the “flipped learning” model explain, we need to move from being the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side.”
Another effect of technology is that our attention spans have shortened. Many say the average American now has an attention span of eight seconds, less than that of a goldfish! As a result, sitting and listening to a lecture or lengthy presentation is extremely taxing to young learners. They did not grow up watching the cartoon at the date and time the network chose to air it. Rather, they have been choosing, interacting, posting, and sharing according to their preference via screens since early in their learning. They need to engage with content in order to relate to and learn it.
One of the best paradigms I have encountered for helping me design better learning for Gen Z is the EPIC model. This concept was initially introduced by Leonard Sweet, and is further discussed by Tim Elmore in his book, Marching Off the Map. EPIC teaching is a great approach to connecting with today’s students. It stands for experiential, participatory, image-rich, and connected. Here are a few questions to help us think about what this might mean for our teaching.
Does your lesson or presentation allow for students to experience the content? Can they see it, touch it, smell it, feel it? Could you incorporate a simulation, role playing exercise, or experiment? Perhaps a field trip, out-of-class assignment, or even an internship could help students engage the content in an active way.
Are students able to participate in this lesson? Do they have some choice in how they interact with the content? Can they insert their questions, opinions, and ideas about the information into a conversation, chat, or presentation? Discussion, group projects, assignment choices, and online tools are great ways to get students participating with a lesson.
Recently, I sat on an airport shuttle and observed the high school student in front of me communicating with several friends via Snapchat. With great speed and accuracy, she opened each chat, viewed the picture, then took a quick selfie with an individualized expression in response to that specific chat message and sent it in reply. In under a minute, she had read (or viewed) 4-5 messages and responded with pictures she took right then. I was impressed. Gen Z often communicates in images. The more we can incorporate pictures (perhaps even having them take the pictures!), illustrations, videos, or examples into our lessons, the more effectively they will be able to engage the information.
It has been noted that Gen Z often connects in isolation. This is true. They can sit in their bedrooms, and connect with friends, ideas, and information from around the world. They are used to connecting and learning through engaging with others. As a result, we need to ensure that learning incorporates connecting with others, hearing different ideas, and getting input. For some younger students, connecting in person can be difficult. We may need to provide some direction, structure, and coaching for this to occur effectively. As we do so, we are not only teaching the lesson objectives, but also important social and emotional skills that are sometimes getting lost in today’s technologically connected world.
When I am preparing to present to audiences where there are Millennials or Gen Zers present, I assess my lesson through the EPIC grid to ensure I have experiential, participator, image-rich, and connected elements. I want to ensure that younger learners can engage with the material, visualize it, and process it in order to understand, engage, and retain it!
Dr. Jolene Erlacher is a wife, mommy, author, speaker, college instructor and coffee drinker who is passionate about empowering the next generation of leaders for effective service!