Teaching Across Generations

by Joshua Fleming, Pharm.D., PGY-2 Ambulatory Care Pharmacy Resident, The Johns Hopkins Hospital

“There are three things to remember when you are teaching:  know your stuff, know who you are stuffing, and then stuff them elegantly.” – Lola May

When you take a look at many pharmacy schools, you’ll notice students from different generations present within each class.  We are likely to see the middle-aged adult who has decided to go back to school. This middle-aged adult has made pharmacy their second career.  And they are likely to be sitting next to a 20-something student. This younger student has gone straight from high school, to college, and now pharmacy school.  This presents a challenge to us as we face a student body from multiple generations.  Their expectations in terms of preferred learning methods and teaching styles are often different. 

The generations we are most likely to encounter in our teaching careers include Generation X and Millennials.  Each of these generations differs slightly in their preferences and overall attitudes toward assignments.  In order to understand some of the differences between each generation, it is important to take a step back and review the events that shaped each generation.

Generation X (1964-1979)1:  People from this generation are the product of the work-driven Boomer generation.  They experienced single parent homes, the advent of MTV, the Challenger explosion, and were the first generation of latch-key children.  This is the first generation to use computers in their homes and to experience the Internet.  Gen Xer’s are driven by money, crave balance in their lives, are self-reliant, and value free time. 

Millennial (1980-2001)1,2:  This generation is also known as the “Nexters” or Generation Y.  This generation encompasses the majority of the pharmacy students today.  The events that shaped this generation include the Columbine shootings, Oklahoma City bombing, and September 11th tragedy.  This generation has grown up with technology and expects it in every aspect of their daily lives.  Millennials are self-reliant, mobile, addicted to media, brand-conscious, and family-oriented in times of crisis.   

A study that examined the attitudes of Generation X students in pharmacy school found that these students have a higher preference for professors that are friendly and warm.3  They also believe that grades should be based on knowledge and performance of a subject, and believe that the average grade for a course should be a B.  In a follow up study, researchers found that Generation X students were:  technologically literate, independent problem solvers, and more likely to believe that learning should be fun, crave stimulation, personal contact, follow rules after explaining significance.  Moreover, they were more likely to desire learning relevant to work, experiential leaning, feedback, evaluation, and expect immediate answers.4  The authors then designed a course that would meet many of these desires.   During the course the used games, engaged the students in small group and individual activities, provided an online site to support the course, learned students’ names, communicated via email, and provided ways for students to obtain instant feedback.  They then evaluated their performance in the “re-designed” course and compared the results to a traditionally designed course.  They found that when the course met as many of these expressed desires as feasible, the students performed better and student feedback was more favorable.

A meta-analysis published in 2009 focused on the challenges of Millennial students in the classroom.5  Millennial students have a slightly differing attitude towards learning and formal education.  These students have high expectations and have a tendency to be over-confident. They have been told to “shoot for the stars” by their parents and may come to class with a sense of entitlement.  Millenials have a strong desire for connection and will generally “multi-task” through assignments and during lectures.  Strategies used to reach this generation in the classroom include adding more hands-on learning activities, delivering lectures in short chunks, and using technology such as YouTube.

In a study by Borges and colleagues, a 16 personality factor assessment was given to 809 medical students at a single institution.6  The students’ responses were compared based on their generational cohort.  Millennial students scored higher in areas of rule consciousness, social boldness, and perfectionism.  Generation X students scored higher in self-reliance.  An additional study by Borges and colleges focused on the differences in motives of Generation X and Millennial medical students.7  In this study they found that Generation X seemed be driven more by power.  Millennial students were driven more by achievement and affiliation.

So, how can we best approach different generations of students and achieve our desired educational outcome?  Unfortunately, there is little literature about how best to meet the needs of a generally diverse classroom, but its seems wise to make sure that rules (e.g. course policies) are clearly defined and learning objectives are measureable.  Both Generation X and Millennials are comfortable with technology and expect to use it in the classroom.  On demand podcast lectures (and vid-casts) have been used at some universities followed by classroom case discussions.  This would meet the desire for technology and independent learning as well as giving the student an opportunity for social learning in the classroom.   Both of these generations have a strong desire to succeed.  As future educators its going to be challenging to provide the best education to students that have demanding expectations, but if you “know who you are stuffing”, it makes the task much easier. 

1.  King D. Defining a Generation:  Tips for Uniting Our Multi-GenerationalWorkforce. Career Planning and Management, Inc. Accessed 20 November 2011.
3.  Romanelli F, and Ryan M. A Survey and Reviewof Attitudes and Beliefs of Generation X Pharmacy Students. Am J Pharm Educ. 2003;67(1):72-79.
4.  Ryan M, Romanelli F, Smith, K, and Johnson MMS. Indentifying and Teaching Generation X Pharmacy Students. Am J Pharm Educ. 2003;67(2):1-6.
6.  Borges NJ, Manuel S, Elam CL, and Jones BJ. Comparing Millennial and Generation XMedical Students at One Medical School. Acad Med. 2006;81:571-576.
7.  Borges NJ, Manuel S, Elam CL, and Jones BJ. Differences in Motives between Millennial and Generation X Medical Students. Med Educ. 2010;44:570-576.