Friday, January 13, 2023

A reflection on learning and engagement, Gen Z, and mental health

 One of the most popular EdSurge stories of 2022 was published on December 13: "Student Disengagement Has Soared Since the Pandemic. Here's What Lectures Look Like Now." I'll set aside for now my frustration regarding the dissertation-like title, although it is missing a colon to be truly dissertation-like. I will, however, reinforce the attention you are already likely paying to the word "lectures." Hold that thought.

We all experienced the pandemic. That is a fact. How we did that, especially as adults, informs our thinking about the pandemic and its impact.

I was visiting a high school before the holiday break and had a flicker of revelation. Habits. How long does it take to break a habit? If it's a bad habit we really want to break, it can take weeks, even months. Maybe never.

I just recently had a conversation with a colleague and we were talking about our college students. His perspective is athletics and mine is academics. In full disclosure, he is a former student. 

After that conversation, I wandered into a faculty meeting in which someone was presenting about how to teach Gen Z students. I listened for a few minutes but because I wasn't required to stay I didn't. And I didn't completely agree with what I heard her say in those few minutes.

The very first thing I wondered is how we define "learning"? That was actually part of the conversation I was having with my former student who is an entreprenuer and coach. We discussed how to encourage post-pandemic students who are in college mostly to play sports to want to learn rather than just get a grade.

In "How Instructors Are Adapting to a Rise in Student Disengagement," author Young relates some of his conversations with students who point out they were forced to figure out how to learn on their own during the pandemic, they've discovered that being in class or learning from home (LFH) might not mean a difference in their grade, they got used to be away from people and sometimes being with strangers is hard, and, for many, the notes and slides are online, so why come to class?

Young quotes one of the professors he interviewed who says, "But I do feel like there are so many people, they don't come for an education. They come for a degree. And that makes me sad because getting a degree is supposed to be all about becoming educated."

In their defense, students have learned throughout their school careers to learn to value the result, not the process. The process of learning is an irritating and necessary evil to getting a grade.

What is also interesting is that he learned that most college students are pro-lecture provided the instructor does more than simply read the slides. Nobody likes that. Nobody. When I'm at a conference and the presenter starts to read the slides, especially those that are posted somewhere on the conference platform, I leave. I can read the slides for myself. What I'm in the room for is that person's expertise, experience, and insight.

I'm mindful of that when I teach. In fact I've been thinking about this as I've prepped for a series of lectures I need to give next week. It's foundational information. Setting the stage. Building the framework. Whatever metaphor you want. I've got slides to amplify the notes document I've created for them because they will have the stuff I want them to be thinking about, a la Cornell notes, in front of them. I've got some videos, some songs, and some other stuff as part of the lecture that are part of the lecture because they are great examples of what I want them to think about. And I will say it's taken me hours to craft these two hours worth of lectures to try to make sure students are engaged.

Will that prove to be time well spent? We shall see.

So thinking about Gen Z students, are they inundated with information? Yes. Do they know how to discern good information from less good and even bad information? No. That's why I'll be inviting students to explore the media bias chart and we'll play the believing and doubting games a few times.

Have they become skilled in skimming for relevant information? (And why were "skimming" and "relevant" in quotes?) No. No, they have not. To skim effectively, students have to know how to use text features--titles and subtitles, things that are underlined or bolded or italicized, they have to know how to process the first and last sentences of a paragraph, etc. But they also have to understand the assignment and too often students don't pay attention to instructions, whether those are written or spoken or both. Not only can they not skim effectively, they too often have no idea how to determine which information is relevant for the task they've been asked to complete.

One of the things the speaker said is that the teachers have to make adjustments to ensure that content is chunked differently. Yes and no. I think good teachers have always chunked information simply because students need time to process what they hear and see. None of us like the "wall of text."

On the other hand, as we think about what it means to learn, students need to learn to make adjustments as well. We know students have to make adjustments between professors and between courses. That is part of learning how to manage their cognitive loads.

I think we might start with smaller chunks and gradually increase the size or duration of those chunks, if you will, to develop their stamina. I'm not saying the so-called chunk should be the full length of the course, but just as athletes learn to build physical endurance, we should help our students build academic and intellectual endurance. That's true for college students and I believe it's true for high school students; I think it could be true for middle school students as well.

One of the points the speaker made is that students don't need adults to get information. That's true. They can find information online. Is getting information the same as learning? No, no it is not.

Will students learn more from a portable device than from a classroom? Maybe. That depends on what they are learning. There is a cognitive bias known as the Google effect. You've probably experienced it. You look something up, get the information you need for the moment, and promptly forget the specifics. Why? Because you can look it up again. As far as you know, Google isn't going anywhere. So they can find information online, but it doesn't mean they've actually learned anything.

Some years ago my friend Keith, an artist, educator, and musician, told me how he had looked forward to teaching his son how to play the guitar. And then one day that son came to him and said, "Watch me!" and proceeded to play a song for him. One was excited, the other was internally devastated. Why? Because Keith hadn't been able to fulfill a dream to share a passion. When he asked his son why he used, yes, YouTube, the son said, in effect, "Because I could watch it as many times as I wanted and it wouldn't yell at me."

The upside? They could share their passion for music from then on and the dad could coach him and show him other techniques. AND they could watch YouTube videos together to discuss styles and techniques. In the end, it worked out for both.

Now, can my college students really learn how to write from a portable device? Can they really learn how to make sense of economic theories? Can they really learn to understand some nuances of historical events? Maybe. But the value of being in a classroom or learning with a group of people is that you aren't confined to the echo chamber of your own mind. You get to hear other peoples' ideas and perspectives. You get to reflect on those and, perhaps, change or add to what you think. You get to make sense of what you've heard, what you've read, and what you thought you knew. That is the stuff of learning: comparative analysis, synthesis, discernment. Which is also the stuff of critical thinking.

What students will NOT learn from devices is how to develop and use their critical thinking skills. They will not learn how to express themselves in ways they can and will be heard.

This takes me back to the conversation I had with my colleague in athletics. As we think about what kids really want, they really want to be heard. They really want to know that they matter. They really want to know that what they are doing in the moment matters, and how.

Here is what else we know: while educators and education have to adapt to Gen Z learners, Gen Z learners need to learn how to adapt. Not everything will be done the way they like it and want it. 

Does Gen Z really have shorter attention spans? I'm not a psychologist or a neurologist, but I don't think that's it. I think that because they are part of the swipe generation, they can swipe if they are not immediately engaged. If whatever is happening doesn't interest them, they move on. And if we're honest, that's true for us as well.

In college and in life, they won't always be able to swipe. They have to learn how to tolerate a bit of discomfort and figure out how to fight through the boredom, apathy, or lack of interest to find the nugget. That's on them although, quite frankly, I don't want to be boring. I can't do as much if they just aren't interested in a particular required course. I can only do so much although being aware of their perception matters and can make a difference.

Are they tech-savvy? Let me say this again for those in the back too engrossed in your phones: No. They are not tech-savvy. Nope. They may be tech fearless in that they are comfortable with technology, but they do not know how to use it well.

Even worse, they tend not to be curious about how to solve a problem to get the information they want. That, my friends, is a lack of critical thinking skills.

Are they social learners? Oh yes they are. And again, I think we need to embrace that but we also need to teach them how to be individual learners because they have learning strengths and skills they don't even know about.

I didn't hear the entire presentation so the bit I heard was out of context of the whole, I realize. And I will say some of my thinking about Gen Z is informed by my own experiences and further enhanced by some recent articles I've read. The first was published in eSchoolNews, "Most high school grads feel their skills aren't up to par." Now the focus of that article is that high school graduates didn't feel prepared to make decisions about their career choices or even decide on a major. I'm not entirely surprised they feel that way, and it was good for me to know since I do work with high school teachers.

I think there is a lot going on in that concern, and I think one element is that students aren't given the tools to learn about themselves. There was a time when students took all kinds of test to find out about themselves, and I don't think that happens any more. So it's possible they are too influenced and affected by social media to take a breath and step away to begin to figure out who the heck they are.

But it was the articles about Gen Z and tech shame that really caught my attention. "Gen Z is overwhelmed by 'tech shame' at work" in Fortune and "'Tech shame' is hitting young colleagues the hardest as they try to fix older colleagues' technical issues and their own." These should not have surprised me, but they did.

People make assumptions about what Gen Z can do because people assume they are savvy. They are savvy with some things, but not some fundamental things that might be needed in the work place. I showed some of my freshman college students how to create a table and one student who wasn't paying attention opted to go his own way. When I stopped to check with students and saw he didn't have a table, he was very nonchalant. "Oh, I don't know how to create a table so I did this."

Well, I wanted him to create a table. Why? Because most of the students did not know how to create a table and sometimes a table is one of the best way to present information, whether in Google or in Word.

They didn't know how to change margins. Or adjust line or paragraphing spacing. In Google or in Word.

They didn't know how to set up page numbers. The list goes on and on. Maybe it's because we don't have technology classes any more. Maybe it's because no one demanded or even expected it of them in high school. There are lots of factors, but employers expect them to know how to use Microsoft tools at a fundamental level and that means knowing their way around the tool bar.

And rumbling underneath all of this, murmuring just below the surface is student mental health. Okolo and Merisotis reported in their Higher Ed Dive opinion piece that a "2022 Lumina/Gallup State of Higher Education poll found that 71% of associate and bachelor’s degree students considering leaving college indicated that stress was the reason. . . . Not Covid. Not costs. Stress."

So lectures. If anyone is still lecturing exclusively today, they missed a whole bunch of memos about "guide on the side" that started in the early 1990s. 1993 to be exact when Alison King published "From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side" in College Teaching.

Are lectures occasionally still necessary? Yes. As I noted earlier, I will be presenting a lecture in one of my literature classes during the 2nd and 3rd meetings. I've prepared Cornell-like notes for them and there are points I will invite them to share their thinking and questions. But I know that I have to build a foundation and I won't yet be able to trust them with the trowel and mortar. My hope is I'll be able to let them help towards the end of the 2nd class and throughout much of the 3rd, but I'm prepared to do most of the work even as I try to make sure they are reasonably engaged. These students are, after all, juniors and seniors who should have figured out some of the tricks of being a college student.

But after those classes I won't lecture again. Why? Because I already know what I think. I want to know what they think and why they think it. So I have to give them opportunity to do that in various ways because few will be willing to speak up in class. Not because they're Gen Z but because they're students. And this course is a required gen ed option that is outside of their majors and, therefore, outside of their comfort zones. And they have learned to try to figure out what the right answer might be so one of my tasks is to teach them that learning is not about the answer but about the process of learning.

And that is one of the reasons I'll be teaching my students in ENG102 how to formulate questions and how to challenge their own thinking.

My thinking is that if I can help them figure out how to be better learners, perhaps I can help reduce some of the stress they experience as college students as they balance all that is going on in their lives. Because that's the other thing we don't talk about: how many hours how many of our students work, the demands of athletics, the demands of their major, and the demands of family.

High school and college students alike are in a strange twilight space of childhood and adulthood, and far more parents have greater expectations of how their high and college students will contribute to the family. Is it "fair"? No, but it is a reality for our students.

In the end, for me, the more I know about my students, the more likely I'll be help them navigate the learning experience as a true learning experience. That's my hope anyway.

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