Tools and techniques to engage Gen Z students

To resonate with Gen Zers, act as a facilitator of knowledge.

By Anslee Wolfe and Anita Dennis

Though Generation Z college students share many characteristics with their predecessors, the Millennials, it’d be a mistake to treat the two generations as identical — or to assume that they prefer to learn in the same ways.

Like Millennials, members of Generation Z are fluent in technology, and they are redefining learning because of it, said Claire Madden, a Sydney-based social researcher, keynote speaker, and author of the book Hello Gen Z: Engaging the Generation of Post-Millennials.

“The use of smart devices and the internet is ubiquitous for Gen Zs today,” she said. Their technology use, she said “has shaped their thinking, facilitated communication, redefined what community means to them, become core to their learning, and become almost like a companion to them.”

Students have traditionally depended largely upon teachers and textbooks, but Madden said that’s not the case with Gen Z.

“With the democratisation of information in today’s digital age, there’s been a dramatic shift in how students learn,” Madden said. “The smartphone — almost guaranteed to be within arm’s reach of a Gen Z at any point — has provided much quicker access to a much broader world of information” than a teacher can.  

Gen Zers tend to be more independent workers and learners than the collaborative Millennials, said Ryan Jenkins, US-based author of The Generation Z Guide. “They have a DIY attitude and, through tools like YouTube, they find the resources they need to do things on their own,” he said.

They also have “much higher expectations around the integration of technology” in the classroom than Millennials did, said Jason Dorsey, US-based speaker, researcher of generational issues, and co-author of the new book Zconomy: How Gen Z Will Change the Future of Business — and What to Do About It.

“Gen Z students expect to access classroom learning outside of the classroom, on-demand and unique to them,” he said. “Our research shows they expect faculty to integrate the latest technology, from adaptive learning resources to video collaboration and knowledge-sharing tools. We’re seeing the highest student engagement when faculty members leverage mobile learning, interactive learning experiences, and individualised assessment to keep students on track.”

As a result of these differences, faculty may need to adjust and build on the approaches they developed when teaching Millennials. Here are some teaching methods and tactics to help reach this new generation:

View yourself as a facilitator of learning — not a source of knowledge. Gen Zers are accustomed to finding information on their own, and not having educators deliver it to them, Madden said. Faculty might benefit from viewing themselves as facilitators of the learning process rather than sources of information, “guiding students as they navigate data, and ensuring that students are effectively processing and comprehending the information”.

Utilise video and other interactive technology. Accounting faculty at the University of Pretoria in South Africa use YouTube to their advantage, said Marchantia Pollock, a senior lecturer of accounting. Faculty post YouTube videos for students to watch before class, and students also create their own videos explaining the material they learn in class. Video topics include revaluation of depreciable property, plant, and equipment; unused tax losses; borrowing costs; and intragroup sale of inventories.

Often, students come up with “new and innovative ways” to present the material, Pollock said. “It really enables them to engage in it on a much higher level than what we’ve seen in the past,” she noted.

The video assignments benefit students in other ways as well. “What’s amazing with this is that they are developing their communication skills and their presentation and oral skills,” she said. “And they love the fact that they are able to be creative, which is big.”

Other popular technologies used at the university include Flipgrid, a video discussion platform where teachers post short discussion-style questions that students respond to in short videos, and iPeer, which allows students to review peers who are participating in group assignments with them and encourages collaboration, Pollock said.

Skype has been a big hit in the classroom for Alan Jagolinzer, Ph.D., a financial accounting professor at the University of Cambridge and director of the Centre for Financial Reporting & Accountability. He schedules video calls with CFOs, accountants, and other professionals, and students interview them about their experiences, giving them real-world connections to the field.

“I can get anybody in the world to come in with Skype,” Jagolinzer said. “We literally have global resources.”

Keep class active. Experts warn that a stagnant classroom won’t resonate with Gen Zers. “The standard PowerPoint presentations won’t cut it anymore,” said Jenkins.

Jagolinzer suggested energising the classroom with more interaction, more questioning, more problem-solving, and fewer lectures. Even incorporating more movement during class such as walking around can be helpful, he said.

“I view [faculty members] as being part of an entertainment business, and I know a lot of my colleagues don’t like that framing,” Jagolinzer said. “But I think we need to think as entertainers do in some regard because we are competing for the student brain with a lot of extremely compelling and arguably addictive elements” such as social media. “They can’t learn if they don’t engage.”

Jenkins recommended using storytelling — perhaps in the form of case studies — to capture students’ attention, as well as incorporating visuals and polling resources such as PollEverywhere.com into lectures to engage them.

Flip the classroom. Using the “flipped classroom” technique is one way to make class more interactive. Unlike in a traditional class, where students are first exposed to material in the classroom and complete activities and homework outside of class, students in a flipped class first encounter the material before class, largely online, said Madden. Then, when they come to class, they perform activities in class that help cement their understanding of it.

“Students are doing the foundational levels of cognitive learning, including remembering and understanding, in their own time outside of class,” Madden said, “and the classroom is being transformed into a learning hub where the application, analysis, evaluation, and creating occurs with the teacher and peers present.”

Brad Potter, Ph.D., an associate professor of accounting at the University of Melbourne and director of the school’s Centre for Accounting and Industry Partnerships, said using a flipped classroom frees up some of the face-to-face time that he would normally spend delivering information to students. Now students have more time in class to focus on problem-solving and more in-depth examples, discussing, debating, and presenting their views, and in doing so, they develop skills that will help them on the job.

“Students seem more discerning than ever before, with greater access to more information,” Potter said. “As such, I have really focused on reducing the technical content of lectures and moving as much of that material as is sensible online.” He uses short videos and PowerPoint presentations combined with online discussion boards to give students a basic understanding of the material before they come to class.

Focus on the why. Jagolinzer has also found that discussions that focus on the reason the class is studying something resonate with Gen Z students. For example, students seem much more likely to internalise the tedious accounting for defined benefit pension plans if they understand, beforehand, that some institutions risk default to retirees because of the magnitude of underfunded debt. This, he said, flips the context to a public policy discussion that relies on accounting.

“They’re not used to thinking that way,” he said. “They’re used to thinking of [class] as a mechanical exercise, almost like they’re doing a mathematics problem. So when you can show how accounting maps directly to societal impact, it will draw them in more than your more traditional lecture.”

Anslee Wolfe and Anita Dennis are freelance writers based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com