Y Gen Z are Next title

How Do You Engage Your Gen Z Students?

Gen Z, those born in the mid 90s to early 2000s, are likely to make up a large proportion of your current and upcoming cohorts. How can you gain and keep their attention? 

I recently attended a Vivid Ideas talk held by Junkee about the media habits of Generation Y and Z. As an educational media producer, this topic greatly interested me in my quest to learn about the ways in which to better engage audiences.

Junkee’s head of insights, Stig Richards, presented their 2017 study (with research partner Pollinate) of over three thousand young Australians titled “Y Gen Z are Next”. Gen Z (unsurprisingly) are described as heavily media-driven and media-savvy. There were some similarities drawn between Gen Z and their predecessors Gen Y (or, “Millennials”); both have grown up in environments of rapid technological and cultural change, and are adept at filtering out the massive amounts of information constantly vying for their attention that are not relevant or bear little interest to them.

Three ideas that I found pertinent to educational media from the presentation are:

Gen Z are “Mobile Natives”
In the same way Millennials were called “Digital Natives” (suggesting their lived experience has been primarily in the presence of digital technology), around 67% of Australian students are likely to be “Mobile Natives” – those who were born and raised with smart mobile devices in their lives and rely on them heavily. They live with mobile devices as extensions of their being, the lens through which they view, communicate and receive information.

Gen Z think and communicate in images and video
The popularity of apps like Instagram and Snapchat among the youth are a testament to the rise of a new visual language (yes, emojis included). There is a swift revolution in personal media production and consumption, and it’s vastly different to what older generations have been taught for many years (and I’m ‘only’ Gen Y). There’s a reason why the screens at the Hub are vertical; it mimics the orientation of a mobile device. As an educational media producer, I can either close my eyes and pretend it will go away (*gasp* vertical video!), or accept and embrace the exponential rate of change.

You need to be able to “stop the thumb scrolling”, and with good reason
Do you teach with masses of text? That’s not going to set your students’ imaginations alight. Death By Powerpoint exists, accompanied by its friend Loss of Attention. Even the New York Times has adopted media-rich longform articles in favour of nondescript blocks of text. Gen Z are visual aggregators by nature, and are used to scrolling past or filtering out anything that does not catch their attention. Be aware that if your content (online or otherwise) is not engaging, it may be challenging for your students to hold focus.

Tech Takeouts - Vivid Ideas
‘Tech Takeouts’ from ‘Y Gen Z are Next’, Vivid Ideas 2017

These insights into the media consumption behaviours of Gen Z can form a picture (pun intended) of what it’s like to be a young person today, and can give clues to what might stick during their time at university. Of course, it’s not to suggest that an over-abundance of media and memes directly improves teaching practice, however these insights can be used to augment and strengthen a learning experience.

Rather than trying to change or challenge the culture of ‘distraction’, additional approaches may be needed if you seek to better engage your Gen Z students. Here are three approaches you can try:

Use a variety of media
Speak in your Gen Z students’ language, engage your students using a variety of media. Source relevant images, audio and video and include them in your presentations and online course content. Aim to engage the senses, and avoid creating and reading text-heavy powerpoint slides to your students.

Be social
Show your students you’re a real person! Consider producing a DIY unit introduction video for your iLearn unit. Play an active role in communicating with your students within iLearn. Embrace the use of social media to engage with your students; in reply to a student’s complaint on Facebook about the cost of uni parking permits, I’ve seen Prashan Karunaratne, an MQ lecturer, use the opportunity to demonstrate a key concept taught in one of his Economics classes.

Prashan Student Engagement Social Media
Prashan used Social Media to engage Students and the public.

Show your enthusiasm for your discipline
Who are you and why should your students care about what you’re teaching? An effective way to get your students on board is to show them you are passionate about what you’re teaching, so be open to sharing your knowledge both inside the classroom and beyond. If you’re an active practitioner in your chosen field, show it. Present your documentation and research processes in a blog or on social media. Invite them to your public teaching engagements. Learning does not only take place in the confines of the university environment. Inspire them to engage with your field of study!

How have you modified your teaching in order to better engage your young students? Please share in the comments below!

One thought on “How Do You Engage Your Gen Z Students?”

  1. Hey Mike,
    Thanks for a great post. Researching student groupwork, I analyse what students focus on, what they make and use, in project work. Sometimes problems can come from a lack of signal – no hints or scaffolding on what to do, or why the project is important. It can be a pragmatic decision on where to place focus and time – and the decision may not take long to make.

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