Connecting Across Generations

Resources to inform and assist instructors who teach across generations

Definition and Context

According to Seemiller and Grace, "depending on the issue, scholars debate whether there is an increased risk of personally experiencing dangerous situations today versus in the past. Regardless, the perception of danger has increased over the past twenty years, leaving Generation Z growing up in what seems to be a dangerous world. It is no surprise that Generation Z students are not risk takers […] and are pragmatic, since these characteristics may help these students navigate that dangerous world" (2016). The Oxford English Dictionary defines risk as "the possibility of loss, injury, or other adverse or unwelcome circumstance; a chance or situation involving such a possibility," and today's students may avoid it to a greater degree. Seemiller and Grace also note the number of tragedies and disasters this generation has seen, including the global financial crisis, natural disasters such as hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes, epidemics such as swine flu and SARS, and US involvement in ongoing overseas wars and conflicts. They are also a generation which has seen school shootings at the elementary, middle and high school levels, as well as mass shootings in public places such as concerts and movie theaters (2016).

Faculty may see risk aversion appear in various areas.  Students may choose to stay with their original major and only take classes required by that major, or they may avoid challenging classes.  Students may opt to only take classes in subjects in which they are familiar. They may avoid experiences (new clubs, travel) where they do not know others or where they don't know what to expect.  Students may feel uncomfortable debating an issue with others who have a different opinion and so choose to not participate in a discussion of the issue.  Avoiding risk is not always the best choice for personal and professional growth.

The rising cost of higher education, including room, board, books, computers, phones, and fees, in addition to tuition, can be a financial hardship for many students.  More and larger student loans than in past generations are emerging, and young college graduates with student loans are more likely to struggle financially, according to Pew research.  This significant financial outlay can add to a student's fear of failure.  Failure of a class or classes could mean more time in school and possible loss of scholarships, increasing costs.  The cost of college also adds to the fear of risk – the risk of trying classes or experiences that may not work out or majoring in a field with fewer positions or with lower expected salary.  To minimize financial outlays today and in the future, students may opt for the safe path taking exactly the classes needed for their major.  Students may choose a major based on expected future salaries rather than on interest.  Students may choose a major they perceive to be "easy" to minimize the risk of not graduating in 4 or 5 years and the risk of a lower GPA.


Low stakes risks, e.g. short quizzes
Offer low stake assessments rather than basing a grade on only one or two tests/assignments.  If appropriate, allow students to submit a draft or to re-submit a graded assignment.

Set expectations about risk-taking in the classroom
State what you do expect in the classroom assessments.  State classroom rules of conduct, such as everyone is invited/encouraged/required to participate in discussions.  Consider dividing the class into smaller groups and then have discussions within the smaller groups.  Each group can report back to the class as a whole. 

Share stories of risk and failure (both professor and TA/TL), the learning that occurred, and how it was applied to the future. 

Encourage risk-taking

Encourage student to choose a topic for an assignment about which they are unfamiliar.

Encourage students to choose the harder problems for a graded submission.  Reward students for choosing a more challenging problem.

Encourage students to contribute to class discussions or present solutions/their work on the board or in the front of the class.   Consider dividing the class into smaller groups and have discussions within the smaller groups.  Each group can then report back to the class as a whole.

Encourage presenting ideas to the class for feedback.  

Consider peer review of work before the ideas are presented to the class.

Require students to select their own topics for assignments.


The New York Times Oct 14, 2017 – Clay Routledge Why are Millennials Wary of Freedom?

Holmes, Naomi. "Student Perceptions of Their Learning and Engagement in Response to the Use of a Continuous E-Assessment in an Undergraduate Module." Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, vol. 40, no. 1, 01 Jan. 2015, pp. 1-14.