Generation me: Understanding and teaching today’s students

Two young women posing together and taking a selfie picture

There’s a new generation of students entering our classrooms. Born after 1995, they have never known a world without the Internet. They’ve had smart phones since they were barely teens. I think we should call them iGen (for the iPhones and iPads they use), and their arrival is changing the way we teach.

My research on generational differences compares today’s high school and college students to previous generations when they were the same age (usually based on large, nationally representative surveys going back decades). iGen – and the Millennials born in the 1980s and early 1990s who preceded them – also differ from previous generations in their values, attitudes, and self-views. Today’s students have very positive views of their abilities and often have unrealistically high expectations (thus the title of my book on Millennials: Generation Me). Compared to previous generations, they are more focused on the outcome (a degree, a job) than an intrinsic interest in the course material. They want to know how the material is relevant to them and their goals. iGen in particular is very concerned about getting good, stable jobs. Many take equality based on race, gender, and sexual orientation for granted. Yet they have seen the results of income inequality and have a deep distrust for societal institutions – everything from government to religious institutions to the news media. They arrive at college less likely to have tried alcohol (good news) but also less likely to have read books and magazines on a regular basis in high school (not so good).

For faculty, this means we have to meet these students where they live – while still teaching them the material they will need to succeed in the workplace and be informed, well-rounded citizens. First, we have to tell them why the material we’re teaching them is important and worth their time. How is it relevant to their lives? How will it help them in their jobs? Second, they need textbooks and reading material that recognizes how they have learned to absorb material – not in long, text-heavy static books, but in short, readable passages interspersed with interactive activities and videos. For example, our new textbook Personality Psychology: Understanding Yourself and Others (co-written with W. Keith Campbell) includes 25 personality questionnaires students can take to learn about themselves. These are also the same questionnaires used in research studies, so they are also getting a glimpse into how personality research is actually done. We include chapters on how personality relates to the things students care about the most, such as relationships and the workplace – also hot topics in personality research right now.

So: Yes, it’s tough to keep up with all of the generational changes, especially since they seem to be happening faster than ever. But the good news is we can often find ways to give our students the relevant, engaging material they want while still teaching them what they need to know.


About the Author
Jean Twenge

Jean Twenge, Ph.D.

Dr. Jean M. Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, is the author of more than 100 scientific publications and the books Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before and The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (co-authored with W. Keith Campbell). Dr. Twenge frequently gives talks and seminars on teaching and working with today’s young generation based on a dataset of 11 million young people. Her research has been covered in Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, USA Today, U.S. News and World Report, and The Washington Post, and she has been featured on Today, Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, Fox and Friends, NBC Nightly News, Dateline NBC, and National Public Radio. She holds a BA and MA from the University of Chicago and a PhD from the University of Michigan.