Don’t Generalize Generations

In this day and age, it seems you can’t read the Internet without coming across some kind of attention-grabbing headline about how Millennials are destroying an industry, or changing how employers are hiring, or how they present some other obstacle to keeping the world the way it should be. Higher education isn’t any different. In fact, if you were to perform a Google search for “teaching Millennials,” the top article in the search is entitled How Millennials Learn: The 5 Rs and goes through five distinct issues that differentiate Millennials from previous generations, and how a teacher’s pedagogy needs to be adjusted. The problem with the article and generational generalizations (yes, I said that) is that they’re just not true. The article breaks down the strategy as such: teaching needs to be research-based, relevant, rationalized, relaxed, and relatable. All things that are true, but in very different ways than what so many pundits are trying to attribute to Millennials.

Jon Laskaris’ article starts out with quite a statement: “The concept of learner-style is more pronounced in this generation. They prefer materials that are delivered to cater to their visual, auditory, and even kinesthetic needs.” Combine that rationale with the idea that Millennials’ attentions spans are shorter–all in bold–and that is the research the authors cite. Problem is, it’s not what the research actually says. The idea that there are visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners is one of the greatest myths in education. It’s just not how the human brain works. Throughout the 21st century, articles in Science Daily (2009), Educational Research (2008), Journal of Neuroscience (2009), and Journal of Educational Psychology (2006), to name just a few, all found that human beings combine all of these modes simultaneously when learning. When you read, your brain is also “playing” the words to you, spoken in your head, while simultaneously registering the tactile feedback of the book or keyboard. It’s the same with audio-based strategies. Anyone who’s listened to an audiobook can vouch that they “see” the scene in their mind’s eye. So, why do we continue to believe that we need to make separate learning activities to cater to each sense? As for attention spans, why blame Millennials when it was the Boomers and Gen X-ers who invented all of the technology these same generations claim to despise. In her book, Minds Online, Michelle Miller simply sums this up by pointing out that these shorter attention spans are linked to us as a species, not to a certain age group (2014, p. 45). As I like to tell anti-Millennial critics, the 24-hour news cycle wasn’t created by 20-year olds.

The second “R” is relevance, and the article states, “Millennials are aces at ‘googling’ and discovering information. They do not value a piece of information for its own sake, rather for its relevance to their lives.” Well, did you know Iceland declared itself a republic on June 17, 1944, but was its own sovereign state under the Danish Crown since December 1, 1918? Probably not, because that kind of information likely doesn’t have direct relevance to your life. The article got it right about relevance, but this is NOT a Millennial issue. In fact, problem-based learning (PBL) has become very popular in recent years and serves, as Michelle Miller puts it, “to integrate knowledge — that is, build meaningful connections as opposed to just learning collections of disjointed facts” (Minds Online, 2014, p. 139). It’s a strategy that is rooted in the learning sciences and has even spurned its own peer-reviewed journal, Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning. Because human beings naturally gravitate towards applying new information into their pre-existing scaffolding, making things relevant is not just a Millennial strategy.

The next “R” according to the article is a real head-scratcher to me: “Baby boomers or generation X-ers respond well to an authoritarian teaching style. They follow orders for the sake of complying with commands. On the other hand, Millennials were raised in a less authoritative environment – where decisions and actions were constantly justified.” I can attest to my own experience teaching faculty here at Emerson that telling people to learn something “because that’s what the administration says you need to know” and leaving it at that would NOT foster a positive learning environment. The statement that ANY generation responds well to authoritarian teaching styles is pseudo-science at its worst. Now, remember that we’re talking about generational generalizations here. Telling someone to learn something because they need to can work for individuals on a case-by-case basis. But, the research on what motivates students to learn has been pointing to three distinct and basic things: competence, relatedness, and autonomy (Miller, 2014, p. 169). Psychologist Edward Deci began researching motivation in the 1970s, and his work laid the ground for self-determination theory (SDT), which contains the three aforementioned basic pillars of learner motivation. To learn more about current SDT research, be sure to look up Deci’s work in the American Psychologist and the Educational Psychologist.

I’m going to group the final two “R”s, “Relaxed” and “Rapport,” together since they make equally laughable claims. First, let’s tackle the statement that “eLearning course mentors need to create a warm, empathetic, ‘no wrong answers’ collaborative environment.” Again, there is truth to this, but not because Millennials are special “snowflakes.” While many teachers are already familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy of learning, Dr. L. Dee Fink pioneered an additional taxonomy called the taxonomy of signification learning, which has “Caring” as one of its cores. Empathy, values, feelings, and interests have been found to tether learners to the subject matter and create stronger memory bonds. Interestingly, the more negative the emotion, the more it accentuates memory (Miller, 2014, p. 97). Luckily for teachers, positive emotions also help memory encoding. So, there’s no reason to emotionally torture your students, and the article’s advice isn’t terrible. Just remember that calling out a student for a wrong answer in class will lead to embarrassment, which will have a much better chance of solidifying the correct answer in their long-term memory. As for “Rapport,” the article positions that “[w]hen being raised, [Millennials] had complete attention from their parents. They are used to older adults showing more interest in their lives.” What this means, of course, is that the upper-middle class, privileged, two-parent household, white Millennials had complete attention from their parents. Even then, the demographics are spotty. According to the CDC (based on 2014 data), 38 percent of all marriages end in divorce in the United States. Statistics are not on the side of Millennials. Furthermore, from a purely mathematical view, the concept that Millennials need special attention from “adults” is absurd since Millennials now consist of people in their 30s. Treating every student, no matter what their age, as an individual with unique backgrounds is the only reliable way to make sure you connect with them.

Hopefully, you now have some additional vocabulary and concepts to apply to what some effective teaching strategies are for all human beings. As we are on the cusp of the next generation of young adults entering college, let’s strive to reflect on the scapegoating of Millennials, and let’s work to stave off the same mischaracterizations going forward.

Incorporate Video Feedback in Teaching

In traditional educational contexts, providing meaningful feedback to students can enhance their learning and improve their learning performance. In online teaching contexts or in response to assignments submitted for formal assessment, providing written feedback is considered to be the most commonly used format.

Research shows that video feedback can effectively enhance students’ engagement. For example, Crook & Park (2012) showed that video feedback enabled the provision of rapid, accessible and engaging, generic feedback, and most staff and students agreed that video enhanced their feedback experience.

In online classes especially, students find it difficult to engage with course content, assignments, and their instructor and classmates. Video feedback allows instructors to “help students take in feedback as part of an ongoing conversation about their work instead of a personal criticism” (Thompson & Lee, 2012, p.14).

There are different formats when using video feedback:

  1. Voice-over with screencasting/screen-recording: For some complex assignments, using screencasting together with spoken commentary allows instructors to provide students with in-depth feedback and/or evaluation with a demonstration. For example when instructors use video comments for response papers and written assignments, they can zoom in and highlight the portions for discussion while scrolling through the document.
  2. Using video commentary as the feedback: Different than written feedback, the organized voice feedback with or without the instructor’s facial expressions transform  feedback into an ongoing conversation. It is easier for instructors to show appreciation, introduce new ideas, ask questions, and provide suggestions for next steps in this dynamic format.

Although video feedback has a positive impact on students’ learning, it requires that instructors spend additional time at the computer and find a quiet place to record the video. Here are some tips to mitigate those technological challenges:

  1. Become familiar with the online teaching platform and video recording devices available.  Research and test the steps to record video and upload to the platform as feedback.
  2. Prepare/organize the narration by drafting an  outline before recording the video.
  3. Review the final version of the video, and edit if necessary.

In Canvas at Emerson, instructors can add a video comment directly to an assignment submission. Here are the instructions:

  1. Click on the assignment and go to “Submission Details.”
  2. On the right side of the screen, under the “Add a comment” box, either click on “Media Comment” to record a video or audio, or click on “Attach File” to choose pre-recorded media files from your device.
  3. If you want to record video or audio, click on “Media Comment” and then click on either “video” or “audio” icon to enable the recording device. If the request for access pictured below appears, click “Allow.”
  4. Click on the red dot to record media.When finish recording, you may review and click on the “Save” button to send the media comment.




Reading and Remixing: Teaching the Self-Generating Poem

One memorable afternoon in my Digital Literature class from a couple of years ago, I introduced my students to Nick Montfort’s digital poem “Taroko Gorge.” The students watched, enchanted, as the poem’s text cascaded down the forest green page. The gentle pacing created by the gradually revealed text, together with the poem’s description of hauntingly human-like natural forces, was hypnotic. Here’s a sample of what we saw:

Shape ranges the rippling.
direct the encompassing fine cool clear —
Forests command the stones.
Ripplings hum.
Coves hold.
Stone commands the rippling.

The text continued to scroll…and scroll…and the students sensed something unusual, but couldn’t put their fingers on it. Finally, one asked if the poem has an ending at all. It does not: “Taroko Gorge” is a self-generating poem. It’s created by a single page of HTML that can run in most browsers.

This revelation—that Montfort’s text is infinite, generated by the computer from words and formulas chosen by Montfort—prompted all sorts of the questions we humanities people love. Is the poem really by Montfort? Can a computer be creative? Is the poem itself the generated words, the HTML, the interaction between the browser and the code, or the entire package? Is one instance of the generated text the same poem as another instance? Can a poem be a poem without an ending?

Rich philosophical ground aside, I want to share a particular practical benefit of exposing students to simple computer-generated texts like “Taroko Gorge.” By clicking “File,” choosing “Save page as,” and selecting HTML (or webpage) as the format, the reader of “Taroko Gorge” can download the poem’s source code. (This should be the same in just about any browser.) Open this HTML document in any text editor, and voila: you’re looking at the poem’s guts. Here’s a taste:

function cave() {
var adjs=(‘encompassing,’+choose(texture)+’,sinuous,straight,objective,arched,cool,clear,dim,driven’).split(‘,’);
var target=1+rand_range(3);
while (adjs.length>target) {

If you’re unfamiliar with code, your first thought is probably “this looks terrifying. Why would I ever show my students this?”. You may wonder how you can teach this poem when you can’t even explain how its magic is made to work. The secret? It doesn’t matter. If you bring yourself to look at the code, you’ll notice that the words meant to be inserted into the poem are fairly apparent: “sinuous, straight, objective,” etc. All that’s necessary to alter the poem is to replace these content-words with others. By doing so, you can transform the text from an ethereal nature poem to an urban wasteland, a candy kingdom, or whatever you can imagine. Yes, knowing how HTML works would allow you to understand how the poem’s syntax is generated, and even allow you to change details like font and the page’s background color. But by simply substituting some words for others, and then opening the HTML document in a browser, students can watch the new version of the poem they’ve created. On the right side of “Taroko Gorge” is a list of such remixes, which are definitely worth checking out and demonstrating in the classroom.

By showing your students that they can remix this self-generating poem, you’re not teaching them computer science. However, you are planting the seed that maybe this technology isn’t so scary after all. Maybe, just maybe, some of your students will be inspired to google HTML and learn their first few words of coding vocabulary, the better to play with the poem. This encounter with a digital text—not just looking at it, but helping create and recreate it—opens the door to a relationship with technology that is not based on fear of what seems inscrutable, but excitement at what might be possible.

One iteration of Montfort's "Taroko Gorge"
“Taroko Gorge” by Nick Montfort, 2009

Thanks to Dan Anderson at UNC-Chapel Hill for showing me and my fellow grad students “Taroko Gorge,” which inspired me to show my own students 30 minutes later.

Faculty Spotlight: Jon Honea


In this first of a series of interviews with Emerson faculty, we talk with Jon Honea about how he uses technology to enhance his teaching…

What courses do you teach?
Ecology and Conservation, Science and Politics of Water, Energy and Sustainability, Science in Translation: Environmental Science, and Too Thick to Navigate, an environmental economics course I teach with Professor Nejem Raheem.

How long have you been at Emerson?
About 9 years.

How do you use Canvas (or other technologies) in your teaching?
It holds my syllabus, course schedule, readings, and assignment descriptions, and is where students submit assignments.

What’s an example of one of your favorite assignments where you incorporate technology?
One of my favorite assignments using technology is one that I developed with other science faculty when we were participating in the Iwasaki Library’s PLANS program to promote information literacy. We focused on science literacy. I put the students in teams of about 3 and assign each team an article from a general audience publication such as a newspaper, Time, Grist, Treehugger, etc. I ask them to read the story and briefly describe it, use their favorite search engine to try to find the original science publication that was the source of the assigned article, and then evaluate whether or not the assigned article adequately represented the source publication. The groups work together on a Google Doc shared within their group and with me and then they report their conclusions to the class. I deliberately assign them publications that correctly represent the original material as well as some that don’t. I also include some that refer back to poorly executed science articles–for example one claiming that water has “memory” and holds clues to its previous environments and another that makes conclusions about human health based on a small sample size. Some originals are peer reviewed science articles, some are government agency reports, and some are studies produced by NGOs. We discuss the vetting process for publication of each type.

Kahoot! also seems to really engage the students, especially when there’s some reward for the person who ends with the highest points. It seems to motivate them to do the reading and quickly lets me know who is doing and understanding the reading.

What has been the biggest challenge in incorporating Canvas (or other technologies) into your teaching?

Canvas does not make it easy for students to see my annotations on the assignments that they submit there. I think seeing them should be an intuitive process, for example they click on their assignment and just see my comments. Instead they have to first go to the Grades section, then click on the assignment name, then click on View Feedback. I’ve found that if I don’t stop class and have a 5-10 minute tutorial, most students can’t find the feedback that they need for revising the many iterative assignments I have in my courses.

Note: There is a feature request in the Canvas Community to fix this. We encourage you to vote it up to improve the process for viewing instructor feedback in Canvas!

How does Canvas make your work easier as a teacher?

It’s useful to have a central location for class policies, assignment descriptions, and readings. It also calculates overall course grades for me. That can be tedious in a spreadsheet when I weight assignments differently.

screenshot of Jon's grading groups

Canvas Grades setup happens through the Assignments tab. Jon uses Canvas Assignment Groups to organize and weight different categories of assignments.


What’s your favorite Canvas feature?
Discussions. I post all course readings on Canvas and ask that students comment on each reading, or respond to another student’s comment, before class. This is an credit-no credit assignment that’s due before class and helps ensure students do the reading and can better participate in the class discussion.

An overview of Jon’s reading discussions in Canvas

screenshot of Jon's reading discussions

Is there anything you used to do face-to face or on paper that Canvas has made easier?
Because students submit all their assignments there, I don’t have to carry around giant, loose piles of paper anymore.

Do you have any low-tech (or no-tech) tools or activities that also work really well?
Field trips! Examples include viewing dam sites on the Shawsheen River in Andover, floating the Mystic River, and a walk from Emerson to the South End documenting differences in street tree health and numbers in different neighborhoods.