X, Y, and Z : And it’s not just Algebra!

African American male helping an white female while working on a desktop computer

As a “math person,” I love X’s, Y’s, and … Z’s?! What’s this with a Generation Z? You’ve most likely heard references to that by now. If you read the NY Times earlier this year, researchers were summarizing what it means to be a Gen Z member. As one 18-year-old said, they are the “… first true digital natives.” Students in Gen Z have brains that are highly wired, and they are used to their smartphones at their fingertips. How does that affect the world of education? It’s a far cry from when many of us were in college and voicemail didn’t even exist!

Time Magazine reported at the beginning of 2015 that Generation Z students learn differently because of their exposure to technology. Will we as professors need to  re-think/re-shape how we present course content?  In a recent blog, an educator and parent of a Gen Z student has some tips: become a learning guide, embrace technology, allow educational freedom, teach students the benefits of taking risks, and consider the speed of access of material.

Thinking about Gen Z brings new meaning to the concept of “digital native;” today’s students have had smartphones, tablets, and other such gadgetry at their fingertips ever since they could reach out and touch someone! I wonder sometimes, though, if the ubiquitous technology is more of a hazard than a help. Enter a classroom, and you’re likely to see students glued to their phones, reading text messages, shopping online, browsing Facebook….while there’s instruction going on. I had to laugh when I read one article from Inside Higher Ed; the professor wrote, “But it seems to me that a disturbing tendency to zone out has become the norm among undergraduates. No wonder video games featuring zombie apocalypses are so popular.”  

We’ve all had those students who are disconnected from the learning in our classroom; and we’ve had focused, successful, hard-working students as well. What kind of tools do we have to help connect with all of our students? Browse some case studies in your field, and you may find some common themes. Some I’ve recently reviewed included:

  • Use of personalized learning options to help students more efficiently utilize study time. These include resources such as  Dynamic Study Modules, Companion Study Plan, SkillBuilder, and Personalized Homework.
  • Required use of ‘student notebooks’ or “guided notebooks,” “video notebooks,” etc. One college reported a significant increase in pass rate in developmental math when the only primary change was the requirement of the notebook.
  • Embedding “soft skills” and/or “student success tips” in the course. Helping students improve meta-cognition skills not only supports academic growth but self-awareness. Learning design shows us the critical import of this. It’s not enough to simply make that material available; students “don’t do optional.” Faculty have to be creative in engaging students in exploring those concepts and strategies proven to be effective.
  • Use of Learning Catalytics. I joke with my students, if they want to be on their phones, I’ll be sending them some questions to keep them on task. Many freely admit it makes them pay attention. I get immediate feedback on where they are struggling, and they can review the questions/answers/feedback later after the session as well. The volume of available questions in Learning Catalytics has grown dramatically.
  • Innovative course designs/course deliveries. Faculty across the country have experimented with different modalities in teaching their courses. Some have invested a lot of time in customization of their course materials.
  • Use of pedagogical strategies like low-stakes quizzing, interleaving of concepts, scaffolding, etc. I’ve blogged before about some resources such as Make It Stick: the Science of Successful Learning; tools such as this book are easy to read in small chunks, and have practical tips for your classroom.
  • Professional development! Most case studies mention the importance of the planning process, training, getting support from key constituents, etc. There are excellent free webinars as well as online articles in addition to regional and national conferences.


As frustrating as it can be sometimes, it’s also an opportunity for growth–a positive professional challenge. I didn’t choose education because every day would be “easy.” I chose teaching because no two days are the same. Things are not dull. And I love that “aha!” look on my student’s faces, or captured in emoticons in my emails.  Whether we’re talking face-to-face with a student or reading that 2:00 a.m. email, we are connecting with them.  Remember the idea of “productive struggle?” It applies to teachers, not just students. Challenges are part of learning… and teaching. In being creative and trying new strategies, we are modeling how to be “Always Learning.”


About the Author
Diane Hollister

Diane Hollister

Diane Hollister has been teaching college courses since 1992. In June 2015, she resigned from her full-time position at Reading Area Community College in Reading, Pennsylvania, where all the math courses have undergone some level of redesign. She still teaches online there and now is part of Pearson’s Efficacy team, helping instructors to implement programs and strategies that bolster student success.

She is intrigued by neurobiological research and learning theory, and she was quick to adopt adaptive learning as a new tool in her courses. Not only does she strive to help her students succeed, but Diane enjoys the collaboration with her peers. She has taught a variety of courses and loves learning how new technology and resources can help students be more successful.