Students of today fall into two overlapping generational groups that have specific traits when it comes to using digital technology. Generation Y are people born between the 1980s to around 2000, and Generation Z are born between the 2000s to today.
Generation Z has not been as largely studied as the older Generation Y and due to their young age are yet to exhibit many defining characteristics. At sQuizya we have researched both generations, together known as Millennials, detailing their traits and learning styles. The results will assist us in developing educational resources that work well for the cohort as a whole.
Generation Y Learners
Generation Y is the term used to refer to people “who have been raised in a context where digital technologies form an inextricable part of daily life” (Pedró, 2006, p.2). As a result of this immersion in digital technology from a young age and the volume of interaction with it, “today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors” (Prensky, 2001, p. 1).
The heightened digital technology consumption means that the learning differences “go far further and deeper than most educators suspect or realise” (Prensky, 2001, p. 1).
The natural use of technology has given this generation an additional nickname, Digital Natives, which is synonymous with their use of technology.
Generation Y is used to receiving information at a rapid speed while they parallel process and multi-task. There is a strong preference for graphics before text and random access and hyperlinks to additional information (Prensky, 2001). Generation Y functions best when they are networked with their peers and thrive on instant gratification and rewards. This has led to a preference for games over so-called serious work (Prensky, 2001).
Prensky has observed these characteristics in a vast study of the cohort. This means that Generation Y likes to learn at a faster pace, as they want less step-by step instruction. Prensky also states that these learners like hyperlinks so they can learn “in parallel, with more random access” (2001, p.1). This ability to process discontinuous and non-linear information has only been seen in Generation Y, older generations struggle to process information this way.
Sánchez, Salinas, Contreras and Meye agree in their study of the next generation of digital learners. They state that the “new generation is familiarised with media-based languages and feels comfortable performing several tasks at once” (2011, p.543). They add that Generation Y learners feel “more comfortable with a customised collaborative and interactive learning environment” (2011, p. 545).
Customisation is important for this generation as Tapscott found in his research of what he calls “the Net Generation” (2009). He states that Generation Y “collaborate naturally, they enjoy conversations over reading, they want to have fun at work and at school; they insist on integrity… and for them speed and innovation are a part of life” (2009).
The characteristics of Generation Y have led to a change in reading behaviour. Digital readers are “likely to gradually develop the screen-based reading behaviour” and will develop strategies like browsing and keyword spotting “to cope with the information-abundant environment” (Liu, 2005, p. 705). This does present challenges for learners who are spending less time reading in-depth and giving their sustained attention to one subject for a long period (Liu, 2005). The reading trends suggest that Generation Y has a habit of “browsing and scanning, keyword spotting, one-time reading, non-linear reading and reading more selectively” (Liu, 2005, p. 705). The reading traits of Generation Y have caused concern but studies are yet to find any detrimental aspect of this pattern.
Generation Z Learners
Generation Z’s characteristics show that they are similar to Generation Y but with an added element of immediacy and sensitivity. They have both spent their school years surrounded by technology and naturally use it in all aspects of their everyday life.
Scientific study into this generation is limited as there is a trend to bundle this new group into that of Generation Y, as per the 30 year generational rule. However there are some standout characteristics to note about this pseudo-generation. This generation spent its infancy surrounded by smartphones and new technology, unlike Generation Y, where the Internet evolved during their childhood.
Generation Z has been brought up with the ability to find any answer at their fingertips, literally. This means, “the so-called Google culture of learning continues to change the way Generation Z youth concentrate, write, and reflect” (Turner, p. 110). The Google culture has contributed to the demand for instant answers and communications. Interestingly this behaviour “no longer allows for downtime [and] daydreams” (Turner, 2015) leaving the generation switched on and constantly learning. This continuous partial attention to many interests could lead to “full engagement in nothing while trying to follow everything” (Turner, 201, p.111). These traits are interesting as it suggests that the generation is not finding resources that will sustain their interest.
In conclusion Turner states,
“an unwillingness to take a different generation’s frame of reference into account can contribute to misunderstanding, miscommunication and discouragement” (2015, p. 113).
This warning holds great importance, as it is easy for the educators of today, who do not fall into the generational categories of Y or Z, to think these behaviours are flawed and try to force students into different or traditional ways of learning.
Understanding the behaviours of Generations Y and Z and the issues teachers face, combined with the elements of digital education that are currently working well, allows us to create resources that match their preferred learning styles.