[Miscellany] Students these days

  1. Differences between generations

Now and then, when I am talking with colleagues who have been teaching in the University environment for… some time (almost 20 years, like me), one of us will end up reminiscing about the “good old days” when we would do X or Y, which worked well with students. We will wonder whether we could – or should – try to do that, again. And, often, we end up concluding that the answer is no.


Because higher education is not what it was those (almost) 20 years ago, when I first started teaching; and even less what it was when I was in education, myself. 

Nowadays, I have large classes and my classes are also quite diverse in terms of students’ backgrounds and learning experiences. However, strict quality control systems mean that I need to prepare detailed module guides and assessment briefs 5-6 months in advance, which limits my ability to respond and adapt to the group of youngsters in front of me.

And students changed, too. I only paid symbolic fees for my undergraduate studies. So, I never had to worry about debt or the job market. However, my students now face large debt and a very competitive job market, at the end of their degrees. As a result, they tend to be very instrumental about what they learn and what they do as part of a module, and they have very little appetite for exploration or risk taking. I had limited access to information resources, and limited opportunity to express my opinion. On the other hand, I never had to question the quality of the resources in front of me, or fear that something silly that I said would be shared with everyone in seconds or be used to embarrass me many years later. That’s very far from the situation faced by students these days. Indeed, even those students that I met when I first started teaching faced a very different environment and set of expectations of those youngsters, in my class, today. 

Recently I attended a training session led by Julie Hardy, from the University of Central Lancanshire, which included a discussion of the differences between the students that are now in higher education (Gen Z), and those that we taught just a few years ago (Millennials). It’s a gross generalisation, of course. But I am leaving it here as a reminder that teaching these days is not at all like it was 20… 10… or even 5 years ago.

Image source: “Great Expectations: the student psychological contract (and what that means for us)”, by Julie Hardy

2. Differences within generations

While Gen Z “kids” might have some commonalities across them, it is also important to recognise that there are many nuances within this group. For instance, students living at home and students in ethnic minority groups are less likely than their peers to have a placement year (which, in turn, is highly correlated with being able to secure a graduate level job).

Differences within group also seem to have had a dramatic effect on students’ experience of online teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic. That is what Frank R. Castelli and Mark A. Sarvary found, and reported in a paper published in Ecology and Evolution, entitled “Why students do not turn on their video cameras during online classes and an equitable and inclusive plan to encourage them to do so”. For instance, Castelli and Sarvary found that the main reason given by students for not turning their cameras on, during classes, was that they were concerned with their appearance (41%); with ethnic-minority students 18% more likely than non-minority ones; and female students 19% more than male ones, to say so (and, before you think that this is vanity, remember that turning the camera on may be the difference between a female student having to cover her head, or not). Other interesting differences noted in this survey include: 

  • Others in the house  – 58% more likely for minority students; and 60% for female ones
  • Poor internet connection – 7% more likely for minority students; and 80% for female ones
  • Appearance of physical location – 100% more likely for minority students; and 133% for female ones.
Image source

3. Employability skills

The one thing that is getting more and more difficult with time is the job market. Employers are increasingly expecting work ready graduates, and not willing to invest in developing their skills. And the situation is even more dire for those students entering the job market in the wake of this pandemic. 

I have been thinking about what activities I can design within the institutional constraints that I face, and taking into consideration the students’ expectations and attitudes, as mentioned in point 1 above. For instance, students don’t really engage with group presentations if they are not assessed; but it’s really difficult to assess students via group presentations, in a class of 100+. So, I have been toying with the idea of short video presentations. I can see the benefits… but I am really worried about going down a rabbit hole of answering technical questions, or dealing with technical difficulties of uploading / playing the videos, etc… But, most importantly, I am really worried about accentuating within group problems, such as the ones mentioned in point 2.

What are the reasons why I should NOT go ahead with video presentations? And, if I were to go ahead with this, what advice or resources should I share with my students to make this a productive and positive experience?

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