As educators, we need to recognize the difference between the Gen Z students of today and the millennial students of a few years ago. The Pew Research Center designated the last birth year for millennials as 1996. The oldest members of Gen Z, born in 1997, are our university graduates. To identify this, the Pew Research Center used several historical markers to make this cutoff, including historical events such as 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the election of President Obama.
The role technology played in their lives as they grew up is another major historical marker dividing millennials and Gen Z. Both millennials and Gen Z students would likely identify as digital natives. They both grew up familiar with computers in the home and classroom. But Gen Z was born into a world where unlimited internet was the norm, whereas most millennials got to experience the internet boom firsthand. It was in December 1996 that America Online shifted to an unlimited access platform. While AOL was hardly the only internet service to shift to unlimited, it was at the time the leading provider of internet in America.
Another aspect you might not consider is the way each generation plays video games. Millennials, limited by the capabilities of the systems they used, played simple, single-player games. These games were built around structured narratives with clearly defined goals. (“Thank you, Mario! But our princess is in another castle!”) Gaming for Gen Z is more complicated. They could virtually collaborate (a la Minecraft) or compete against other players virtually (Fortnite, anyone?). The internet also showed Gen Z that anyone can create content, from user-created levels (e.g., Doom wads) to online FAQ guides. Finally, as games got more complex, so did the opportunities for customization. Instead of choosing from a roster of predesigned characters, players could design their own avatars, tailoring their character to their unique gameplay style. Is it any surprise that Gen Z students are interested in exploring and utilizing every online resource, tool, and content library available to them today?
So, how do you create assignments that meet the needs of Gen Z students? We’ve identified four key attributes of Gen Z learners, based on our own research and experience as educators and instructional designers in higher education, that will help you design assignments; fulfilling the needs of Gen Z students, while allowing you to assess their knowledge.
Gone are the days of offering students option A or option B. Gen Z seeks solutions that target their specific needs and fit their style and focus. You may not have considered certain options, but that doesn’t mean students want these options off the table.
Think about the open-ended nature of games like Minecraft: if there is no right way to win, then it is up to the individual to define victory. The key difference to understand here is that personalization is teacher-led: The teacher creates a learning experience for the student based on data, anecdotal notes, and other information. Individualization is student-led: the student creates their own learning experience, allowing them to initialize and customize their educational journey within a reasonable scope.
What does this mean for assignments? Consider a Wikipedia assignment that allows students to select a topic important to them and their community and then develop a Wikipedia entry that explains that topic to others. Wikipedia articles are evaluated by editors to ensure quality, and students learn writing skills, encyclopedic language, and peer-review etiquette in composing them. By the end of the assignment, students have created a piece of knowledge and shared it with the world.
Millennials thrived on group work where each person had a role, went off and did their work, then came back together to combine each person’s part, thus creating one final product that each student had only a small portion of accountability in. This is an example of millennials as the “trophy generation.” This won’t work for Gen Z, as these students place a high value on individual success and recognition. They prefer collaborative learning experiences in which they are responsible for their own individual work.
Imagine an assignment in which students are to create an elevator pitch for a startup company. They develop their pitches individually, but then workshop them with a team of peers to improve the work. Students benefit from participation in improved outcomes without being penalized because the nonparticipation of one or more students diminished a group outcome. As a result, participation increases, and aversion to collaborative activities decreases. This type of collaborative learning promotes positive interdependence and individual accountability while developing Gen Z’s social-emotional skills, which can be lacking at times due to their digitally driven lifestyles.
As the “maker generation,” Gen Z thrives on opportunities to create new work using combined information they already know. The question then is, How can you assess their knowledge? We can probably agree that traditional assessments are not an entirely accurate depiction of combined knowledge. These types of assessments promote rote memorization, an obsolete skill that is no longer necessary due to the ease of access to a wealth of knowledge online.
Gen Z is most effectively assessed when we allow them to use knowledge they’ve gained while completing various assignments to then create something new to demonstrate their synthesized knowledge rather than attempting to show it on a test. In Bloom’s taxonomy, synthesis is the second highest-order thinking skill, meaning it is quite cognitively complex. By contrast, traditional assessments often fall in the least cognitively complex levels.
All the former aspects connect to a big question: What’s in it for me? Gen Z is often criticized for asking this question, but why shouldn’t students pose it? They want to know that their education is serving a foundation of conceptual understanding to prepare them for the unknown future. They want the skills that will prepare them to continue learning and development beyond the classroom. As a result, students will try to curate tasks according to what they perceive as a potential future need. Educators need to make sure they stress the long-term value of assignments.
For example, think of a cumulative assignment that puts all the prior assignments into one super project. Students choose any topic, idea, movement, object, or business to create a digital campaign, including the creation of a website, social media accounts, and even Wikipedia contributions about the topic. Students collaborate with their peers and the professor to create a rubric evaluating the efficacy of their proposed digital campaign design; they also meet with their peers and professor to discuss website design and social media strategies and to catalog their Wikipedia experiences throughout the term.
Creating assignments that account for these four attributes will provide Gen Z students with artifacts demonstrating their ability to produce meaningful and substantive products. For educators, these artifacts will serve as effective assessments of their students’ synthesized knowledge. Gen Z students will leave the classroom with digital portfolios containing impressive evidence that relates to their community and career interests, speaks to who they are as a person, and represents the development of long-term skills such as writing, web development, and digital literacy. These shifts in teaching and learning are vital to meet the unique needs of this distinctive generation. This is Gen Z’s classroom now.
Jorge Montes and Melissa Vasallo are instructional designers and Maikel Alendy is the learning design innovation manager with Florida International University Online.