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Teaching Fellow Millennials: Structured Flexibility and the Immediacy Question

July 16, 2012

Last month, while others who had just finished coursework were eagerly (or anxiously) awaiting their grades, I was eagerly (and a little anxiously) awaiting student course evaluations. I even checked the evaluations site every few days to see if they were available yet and then they finally were!

Honest, thoughtful feedback may not always allow us to pat ourselves on the back (as educators or in any other sort of position), but I take my teaching seriously (even when I’m only a TA) and I know that student perspectives can help provide some direction on areas for improvement. So, according to my most recent TA evaluations, I’m definitely on the right track – particularly with providing useful feedback on papers, productive comments in class, and knowledgeable guidance (with extra resources) over email. However, students would like it to be easier to meet with me in person, would like a speedier turnaround time on assignments (faster than a week?!), and they wouldn’t mind if I spoke up even more during class. Okay, I can do that! Those are all pieces of reasonable and constructive criticism and they are all consistent with many findings in postsecondary research on teaching the generation(s) largely referred to as ‘Millennials’ (the ‘Net Generation’) and the up-and-coming ‘Neo-Millenials’ (the ‘Mobile Generation’?).

In the past, I have primarily held office hours “by request,” as many TAs do when there isn’t a separate discussion or lab section for the course. I also imagined, perhaps erroneously, that this would make it easier for students to request times that were better for them, rather than trying to work around a possibly inconvenient, fixed schedule. It may, however, be better to have standard office hours (especially if it can be right after class for a few hours), which might encourage more students to “drop in,” rather than rely on email (or other technology) and their ability to match their schedules with mine during a very narrow window of time (typically students have requested to meet within a 48 hour window, e.g. before the next class or assignment due date). In this way, the structure of office hours might, counterintuitively, create a kind of flexibility that students can leverage in addition to the freeform “by request” type appointments.

Similarly, although in my experience a one-week turnaround time for grading is on the swanky end of standard, students seem to prefer a grading cycle of five days or less. Depending on the schedule and type of assignments, as well as the size of the class, a five day turnaround could be incredibly challenging for those of us who have a detail-oriented grading/feedback style, but it’s definitely a preference worth noting. In fact, studies suggest an orientation among millennials toward immediate feedback and various forms of interactivity in the evaluation process. It makes me wonder if there would be a way to schedule and structure assignments in order to optimize feedback cycles and methods. Maybe you could have students sign up to complete assignments in different/staggered weeks, so you know that you will only receive a portion of grading work at each session and can provide rapid (perhaps even in-person or otherwise interactively planned) feedback. I would be deeply curious to know what kind of tone it would set for a course if every student knew that within the first three or four weeks of a course they would each have a set-aside time, specifically for them, to discuss feedback for at least one assignment with an instructor/TA (on top of optional engagement through office hours).

Would designing courses with more immediate and interactive feedback, especially early on, foster a different sense of commitment or engagement among students? Would they feel more respected, valued, and assisted in their personal/professional development? Would they think it was completely ridiculous and that, really, we should just ask an artificial intelligence program to analyze it and suggest a grade for each of them? That would likely be faster, but it doesn’t seem that ‘faster’ is the only thing millennials want. I’d love to see a workshop on campus about teaching the Net Generation and the Mobile Generation. How can we truly think outside the box of traditional course structures and teaching/assisting styles to foster deeper, broader, more critical, and more professionally useful learning for the current and upcoming college generations? Would some of these fresh arrangements be fruitful at the K-12 level as well?

Additional Resources:
Educating the Net Generation (Presentation PDF), by Diana G. Oblinger
Educating the Net Generation (Book/Article Collection), edited by Diana G. Oblinger and James L. Oblinger
Planning for Neomillennial Learning Styles, by Chris Dede
Why You Should be Hiring Millennials, by Matt Miller

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