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Millennial Perspectives and Priorities

Tomorrow's Academy

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Authors Note: This study sought to provide indications as to what millennial students want to experience from instruction when they undertake an undergraduate degree. Via our findings and presentations to faculty across the United States, it appears that generating ways for students to care more about and to intensify their efforts at learning may be linked to key, atypical teaching behaviors.


The posting below looks at ways to incorporate the “voices of undergraduates,” in designing effective teaching and learning experiences.  It is by James A. Therrell1 and Staci K. Dunnebackand is an abridged version of the article that appeared in Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, [ ], Vol. 15, No. 5, October, 2015, pp.49-63. doi:10.14434/josotl.v15i5.19068. 


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Academy

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Millennial Perspectives and Priorities



Through prioritizing student voice, this study investigated the perspectives of millennial students in relation to their preferences and priorities for how they desired to experience teaching and learning. [E2] Our assumption was that, while not experts, undergraduate students, because of their relatively long experience as students, would be closely in touch with how they preferred to learn. Employing a mixed method study, randomly selected students (n = 291 of a total N = 2,993) completed a brief online survey, and we followed with qualitative focus groups and individual interviews in order to confirm the quantitative data and deepen our understanding of the student perspective. Findings, with indications for relevance to future generations, pointed toward particular student preferences and priorities for: teacher behaviors such as caring, passion, and enthusiasm, the communication of clear expectations, course alignment between course content taught and tests, a desire for more real-world examples and applications, and active learning opportunities, all of which, in turn, were generally linked by students to their improved attention, intensity of focus, and ability to engage both in the classroom and during homework.

Teaching and Learning: Context and Direction

Many college students are “Academically Adrift” and have been for some time (Arum & Roksa, 2011). Today, student opinions on teaching and learning, while gathered, are either not valued or do not instigate significant changes in curriculum or instruction. One typical exception may be an instructor’s mid-term request for students to offer formative, anonymous feedback to questions such as: 

·      Thus far, what specifically is helping you learn in this course? 

·      What specifically might be hindering your learning in this course? 

·      What specific suggestion do you have for providing a better learning experience in this course?”

Even in this context, schools often suggest, but do not require teachers to work toward improving their teaching practices, and so teachers may lack a motivating reason to pursue improvement or to risk trying new approaches. Furthermore, while administrators may evaluate the “overall” score of teachers, they may only require that a minimum average number is met. By exploring what students prefer, faculty may better understand how to direct their teaching or course design efforts, potentially reducing inefficient or ineffective directions, methods, or investments of their time and energy. 

Literature: Emotions and Student Motivation

The literature has achieved some consensus about effective teaching approaches, namely, teachers should use a variety of motivational strategies to reach different segments of the student population (Nilson, 2010). Via stories, for example, students associate prior knowledge and emotions from their own personal experiences with the emotions that people in the stories may be feeling, enabling them to create “memory hooks” with the content in a lecture, discussion, or lesson. So: “It’s not about pushing people’s emotional buttons, like some kind of movie tearjerker,” but rather, “the goal of making messages ‘emotional’ is to make people care” (Heath & Heath, 2010, p.169). 

Emotion-based inspiration to take action may also be fostered and sustained with a teacher’s passion and enthusiasm. From a synopsis of learning research, one bottom-line is that: “Feelings inspire people to act” (Heath & Heath, 2010, p. 169). Research also distinguishes and indicates how enthusiasm for teaching, rather than enthusiasm for the subject matter, may be more important to student motivation (Kunter, et al, 2008). Brophy (1986), in his review that still maintains currency, identified teacher enthusiasm as one of the main keys for promoting student motivation.

Method: Emphasizing Student Voice 

Student voice and their preferences matter. To understand a student, in effect, is to understand a client, and thus it becomes critical that institutions of higher learning carefully consider the preferences and priorities of students. When it comes to how college curriculum and instruction may be delivered effectively, researchers have typically ignored or marginalized the voice of undergraduate students. Even large meta-analytic efforts (e.g., Kyriakides, Christoforou, Charalambous, 2013) have reached conclusions that exclude student voice. By utilizing student voice through in-depth interviews and focus groups, this study sought to identify not just key preferences, but also the current priorities of millennial students in relation to their experiences with teaching and learning. As students expressed themselves during data collection, their excited, intense emotional tones were evident, conveying a craving for more personal, caring, and enthusiastic demonstrations from faculty during a given learning experience.

Because student voice provides a crucial, pivotal perspective, the data and results from current millennial students were aimed at enhancing the current research on course design and instructional approaches that may effectively impact student learning. During the 2013-14 school year, data from 291 students (N=2,992) were collected. Our ultimate intention was to seek data that might lead to, improve, or at least call into question, how faculty go about their teaching and course design. Hence, we asked relatively basic questions about what really mattered to students when it came to how they preferred to be taught, as well as how they thought course design and different teaching approaches could impact their learning. 

Findings: Learning Disrupted

Part of the problem is that students today are widely subject to boredom and a litany of distractions meant to keep their boredom at bay: online video presentations, video games, TV, texting, tweeting, and music, all of which are available 24/7. Focusing young adults on challenging course work presents teachers themselves with a major challenge: to keep students mentally engaged and emotionally involved once they are in the classroom or online. 

Initially, we wanted to understand some of the specific teacher practices and behaviors that students believed to be disruptive to their learning. One key pattern that emerged was reflected in a student’s (8) view of most of his classroom learning: “Boring and not usually challenging enough.” Another student (38) said: “I have trouble paying attention to a teacher who talks the entire class period. I will start daydreaming 15-20 minutes in.” Such a dearth of attention is supported in the literature about the brain and attention span which, in one study, found that a typical student’s attention span ranges between 5 and 12 minutes (Richtel, 2010; Vidyarthi, 2011). 

When it came to how teachers may hinder learning, one student (69) wrote about, “lack of engagement in class, unmotivated professors, constant note-taking instead of conversation, and lack of creativity.” Another student (103) was frustrated due to a lack of feedback from students to instructor: “Professors who do not take the time to question their teaching strategy and if it is actually working,” are typically “not getting feedback from students [which] prevents them [professors] from presenting the material in the most effective way.”

Findings: Learning Engaged

When asked to rank their top two preferred engagement strategies, 76% of students said they benefitted when real-world connections were made in class. With their second and third preferred option, 50% of students chose how the class environment should be stimulating (that is, when they felt more like engaging with given content), and 44% said that they were more likely to feel engaged when the class content related to the real world or their career goals. Of special note, students felt more stimulated and likely to participate in class when it was clear that opportunities to use critical thinking would not be subject to any kind of grading.

The question with the highest consensus was in relation to student focus: “What three things cause you to really pay attention and learn in class?” Four of five students said that enthusiastic teachers motivate them to really pay attention and learn in class. During the interviews, students revealed relatively intense emotions on this topic. When asked what an enthusiastic professor looks like, several students ruled out a need for “edutainment.” Instead, they simply wanted the instructor to show some sincere emotion, reasoning that why should they care about what an instructor is teaching if his or her emotion is flat or there’s no overt indication of caring. Students said hand gestures, body language, tone of voice, pace, facial expressions and upbeat attitude were ways that instructors could display enthusiasm. 

Students were also attracted to enthusiasm because they respected people who put greater effort into their work. In the last open-ended survey question, we wanted to know more precisely what teachers could do to help students learn and get more out of their education, asking: “What specific things make it easy for you to learn?” One student (63) explained: “When a professor is enthusiastic and genuine, my ability to do well in the classroom skyrockets. Nothing means more as a student than to have a professor who truly cares.” This may indicate that students are receptive to an instructor’s energy and are able to notice when a professor is sincerely trying or not. With a slight but significant twist, one student (46) added: “Enthusiastic instructors who really enjoy teaching and really love the subject help me to learn.” This reminds faculty that students can tell if a professor loves what they teach or not. 

Students need to feel that the material is important to the instructor, generally ascertained through his or her degree of passion or enthusiasm. Asking questions and collaboratively working through appropriate challenges were important to students, one (198) saying that what helps is: “Engaging teachers that ask questions through the class so you have to pay attention.” In order to gain further elaboration, students in a focus group queried: “Why wouldn’t you have to pay attention otherwise?” Their input indicated that often times an instructor will try to fit too much information into one lesson plan, and then ends up talking the entire class period, which then leads to weakened attention and students who let their minds wander. 

Students wanted to participate in a lesson plan that was more “engaging and challenging, but not too challenging.” When it came to likeability, one student (48) said, “I like when a professor is personable and tries to tailor the class to the specific group of individuals in that class instead of having one way to do things for everyone.” In a focus group, when asked what difference it made if a teacher is personable or not, and more precisely what personability has to do with learning, students claimed that all it took was an effort to get to know them personally “before cramming information down their throats.” Students viewed instructor personability as a sign of respect, like getting to know their names or favorite songs, and were more likely to reciprocate with greater effort during the semester. Students said they were more willing to work with a professor rather than to work for a professor.


Students appear to want teachers who teach with heart, that is, with passion, enthusiasm, and caring, which may in turn be vital practices for increasing student motivation to learn. Overall, without prompting the students, 42% of the responses from the open-ended survey questions included at least one of the following words: care, passion or passionate, enthusiasm or excitement, energetic or fun, and interaction or involvement. Students appear to need and want these things in order to better engage in their classes and coursework.

By extending the work of Noddings (1998, 2002) and her ethic of caring, we may also conclude that teaching is never a choice to focus on either curriculum or instruction. Students want a curriculum that is challenging and that makes real-world connections in order for their learning to become more meaningful. Students also want a teacher who does not merely deliver the curriculum with a pro-forma approach. They want a teacher who cares, learns their names, who is personable, passionate, makes course expectations clear, and who challenges their thinking through active learning.

When students elaborate, they indicate that teachers who exhibit positive energy are motivational, that body language or facial expressions indicating passion start to capture their attention and tend to increase their responsiveness. Teachers might do well to reflect upon this student perspective and ask: “Would I want to take my class? Am I creating a culture in the classroom that increases motivation and at least potentiates improvements in student learning over the course of an entire semester? Could I make my expectations clearer, provide more real-world connections with more active learning methods, and approach teaching with greater passion, enthusiasm, and caring?”


1Director (retired), Faculty Center for Innovative Teaching, Central Michigan

2Student (2010-2013), Central Michigan University.


Arum, R., & Roksa, J. (2011). Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Brophy, J. (1986). Teacher influences on student achievement. American Psychologist, 41, 1069-1077.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2010). Switch: How to change things when change is hard. New York, NY: Random House.

Kyriakides, L., Christoforou, C., & Charalambous, C. Y. (2013). What matters for student learning outcomes: A meta-analysis of studies exploring factors of effective teaching. Teaching and Teacher Education, 36, 143-152.

Kunter, M., Tsai, Y., Klusmann, U., Brunner, M., Krauss, S, Baumert, S. (2008). Students' and mathematics teachers' perceptions of teacher enthusiasm and instruction. Learning andInstruction, 18(5), 468-482.

Nilson, L. B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (3rded.). Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.

Noddings, Nel (1998). Philosophy of education. Dimensions of philosophy series. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Noddings, Nel (2002). Starting at home. Caring and social policy. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Richtel, M. (2010, November 21). Growing up digital. Wired for distraction. The New York Times. Retrieved from[E13]


Vidyarthi, N. (2011, December). Attention spans have dropped from 12 minutes to 5 minutes:  How social media is ruining our minds. Retrieved from