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Generational age differences impact the college classroom.


A generational age transformation is occurring across the country in higher education classrooms. Generation Y is coming to higher education in record numbers and merging with significant numbers of Generation X. Boomers remain a significant force as faculty and the combination of the generations in the classroom is yielding interesting results. Educators need to prepare for the different values and expectations of students from Generation X and the newly emerging Generation Y in the educational environment. This quantitative, descriptive research begins to examine these differences and the potential impact for the college classroom of the future.


College classrooms across the United States are changing rapidly as increasing numbers of students from Generation Y merge with Generation X. This great generational transition has significant implications for higher education as Baby Boomer faculties teach record numbers of Generation X and the newly emerging Generation Y.

Current trends in education indicate that Generation X (Xers), born between 1965 and 1976, and the Millennial Generation (Generation Y) born since 1982 are being taught by Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964. There are approximately 2.8 million faculty employed by colleges and universities in the U.S. Sixty-two percent are over the age of 45 with the average age of faculty nationwide 55 years of age (Profile of American Faculty, 2004)

Generation X has been a dominant force in college classrooms for the last 20 years and remains a significant force as second degree seeking individuals. They have been studied extensively in terms of learning styles, values, and marketing potential for the past two decades. Generation X is often described as highly independent due to the nature of the family structure changes that took place during their formative years. Many people of this generation were latchkey children, with either both parents working or, as a product of divorce, the single parent worked. Collectively, they have little regard for corporate life and frequently challenge authority and the status quo. Xers are described as independent problem solvers with a parallel thinking process. This parallel thinking process has allowed Generation X to perfect multitasking. They are technologically literate, concrete thinkers who seek a balanced lifestyle with work supporting leisure time (Sacks, 1996; Lankard-Brown, 1997; Fines, 2003).

Collins and Tilson (2000b) identified essential teaching methods for the Xer student. These methods include experiential teaching with students performing tasks and then allowing them to perform independently. The authors encouraged using a variety of teaching methods, such as computer courses, self-directed modules, video, and audiotapes complete with charts, graphics, photos, and cartoons. The authors indicated that Generation X prefers these methodologies.

This generation is known for being pragmatic and down to earth and often seeks the bottom-line. As a result, the authors supported faculty focus on outcomes of learning and not necessarily on the process. These Xer students want assignments and faculty expectations to be clearly outlined and reflect the real-world skills they will need to succeed (Collins & Tilson, 2000b; Clausing, Kurtz, Prendeville, & Walt, 2003).

Generation Y began entering college in 2000, and as the largest generation, will be expected to pack the college classrooms of the future. This changes the classroom perspective dramatically as it is predicted by 2010, the United States will graduate the largest class of high school seniors in our nation's history. This generation represents about 81 million people and they will be coming to higher education in record numbers. (Collins & Tilson, 2000a; Clausing, Kurtz, Prendeville, & Walt, 2003).

Research into the values, learning styles, and marketing potential is currently unfolding for this generation. Generation Y has been described as the most culturally diverse generation of all times with 36% being nonwhite or Hispanic (Hill, 2004). This generation is becoming known for being self-reliant, questioning, and technologically advanced beyond any other age group. They are compliant and respectful of authority yet they do not hesitate to challenge authority. Generation Y believes that respect is earned and not granted just because of title or rank. This generation has a linear thinking analytical ability and is addicted to visual-media. They are exceptionally altruistic and collectively, are a hopeful, future oriented generation (Clausing et al., 2003).

Generation Y is expected to be a very mobile group who will willingly uproot to seek opportunity and to find challenge and excitement in life. This generation is anticipated to come forth with the combined best of the previous generations to make a historical mark on this country. It is anticipated that Generation Y will have the work ethic of the Boomers, the high drive and expectations of the Xers, and their own technological advanced world that is tolerant and culturally diverse (Arhin & Johnson-Mallard, 2003; Collins & Tilson, 2000a & b; Fines, 2003; Kurtz, Prendeville, & Walt, 2003).

In order to prepare for the changing face of higher education with enormous numbers of Generation Y and significant Xers entering college programs, it is important to examine teaching methods and students' learning values and needs in relation to the multigenerational classroom. Significant research exists regarding student and faculty learning styles and preferences for teaching methodologies (Cowman, 1995; Thompson & Sheckley, 1997; Linares, 1999; Ansari, 2002). While the majority of studies have focused on learner characteristics and preferences for teaching methodologies, generational age differences in learning styles and preference for teaching methodologies has not significantly been studied. The current study seeks to evaluate the differences in generational (age) and preferences for teaching methodologies in the college classroom.


This quantitative study employed a descriptive survey design to compare generational (age) differences among college students, to their perceived preferences in teaching methods. The sample included 134 junior and senior nursing students enrolled in a 4-year undergraduate baccalaureate-nursing program. Twenty-five subjects represented Generation X and 105 subjects represented Generation Y. Eighty-eight percent of the sample was female with 12% male. The sample was 72% Caucasian, with 24% African-American, and 4% other. The setting for the study was a large metropolitan academic health science university in a southern state in the United States.

Once permission to conduct the study was obtained from the Institutional Review Board of the institution the procedure for data collection was implemented. The survey was distributed to all generic undergraduate baccalaureate students during a class session. A cover letter and verbal description detailing the purpose and importance of the study and instructions for anonymous return of the survey was distributed. The cover letter and verbal instructions included that the return of the survey constituted implied consent to participate in the study.

The 30-item likert scale survey was administered to 88 junior nursing students and to 83 senior nursing students at the end of a 15-week semester in a Baccalaureate nursing program. One hundred and thirty-four surveys were returned.

The survey identified (a) preference for lecture in relation to skills and difficult to comprehend information, (b) preference for group work, within the confines of class time or outside of class time, (c) ability to read complex material, comprehend the material, and self-direct learning, (d) preference for case study, (e) preference for web-based learning in totality or enhanced only, (f) classroom structure preference with faculty knowing names of students, trusting faculty, handouts, overheads and audio-visuals (g) motivation for learning in terms of knowing the outcome of learning, or for the importance of the grade.

The survey was piloted among 15 nurse educators for expert content review and to develop and refine the survey. Members of the pilot group provided feedback concerning clarity and readability of the survey. The reliability coefficient for the survey, Cronbach's alpha, was determined to be .82.

The demographic data of age was cross-referenced with the items on the survey. Descriptive summary measures, as well as specific statistical tests, were used for this purpose. Statistical tests to compare age group of 18-24 years old (Generation Y) and over 25 years old (Generation X) include the Whitney Mann U, Chi-Square, the Pearson Product Correlation and the ANOVA.


There was no statistical significance found between the Generation Y (18-24 years old) and Generation X (25 years and older) nursing students in regards to preferences for teaching methodologies. However, there were significant implications for application in higher education.

The majority of both generations (82.9%) indicated a preference for lecture over any other teaching method. The majority of both age groups indicated they did not prefer group work to lecture and strongly indicated preference for lecture over group work (p =.804). The majority of subjects also indicated they did not prefer outside group work either (p = .144). Group work either inside or outside of the classroom was not considered a preferred teaching methodology.

Subjects in both generational age groups indicated that they believe they are able to read material and gain knowledge. Subjects indicated that they want to read material and then prefer to have the reading followed by an expert lecture on the subject (p =.989). Interestingly, the majority of Generation Y (18-24 year olds) indicated greater ease in reading comprehension with only occasional struggles (p =.364) as compared to Generation X who indicated frequent struggles with reading comprehension.

Eighty-five percent (85%) of each age group indicated preferences for practicing clinical skills without having lecture on those skills. This suggests student preference for skill demonstration and return demonstration rather than lecture before skill performance.

Both Generations X and Y subjects indicated only occasional preference for case study. Over half of all subjects of both age groups (59%) indicated they frequently do not learn from case studies. However, the majority of both age groups indicate a stronger preference for case study or group work when they encounter difficult to understand material. The majority of both age groups (60%) also indicated only occasional preference for a grade to be assigned to outside work, papers, and case studies.

Ninety percent (90%) of both age groups, overwhelmingly do not prefer a totally web-based method of study without class meetings. The majority (90%) of both age groups did not indicate support for a combined web-based study with classroom study either. Therefore, reiterating their desire for face-to-face lecture methods.

Seventy-two percent (72%) of both age groups indicate learning from hearing stories from faculty of actual clinical events. The majority of subjects of both age groups (96%) indicated strong preference for handouts that follow along with the lecture material presented and that the handouts coincide with the visual screen or overhead.

Interestingly, the age groups were divided equally in their response to faculty learning them by name. Ninety percent of both age groups indicated only occasional preference for faculty to learn them by name.

Over half (56%) of the subjects in each age group indicated a strong preference for classroom structure and faculty guidance. The age groups were equally divided in their response from frequently to not at all, indicating they did not have a strong preference for knowing the bottom-line or the end result of the material they learn. However, all subjects (100%) of both age groups indicated they always want to know "why" they are learning the material. This suggests the pragmatic nature of the generational learner in telling them the "why" of learning certain material but not necessarily how they will use it in the long term.

Eighty-seven percent (87%) of both age groups indicate they frequently or always trust faculty to tell them what they need to know. The majority (80%) of both age groups indicate only moderate interest, from frequently to not at all, in learning just for learning sake. The overwhelming majority (71.9%) of both age groups indicated, frequently to always, that the grade they receive is all that really matters. This suggests that the achieved grade is perhaps the goal or end-result that they seek.


There were no statistically significant differences between Generation X and Generation Y regarding preferences for teaching methodologies. The majority of students of both Generation X and Y indicate they prefer lecture, particularly to group work or web-based learning. They also prefer demonstration of skills to lecture material. Both age groups prefer to read material and then have an expert lecture on the content. They also believe they are able to comprehend written material easily. If the material is particularly difficult, the student prefers to have a case study or group work to supplement the learning.

Subjects of both generation X and Y do not prefer group work, unless it follows difficult to understand material. They do not prefer group work inside or outside of the classroom. They also do not have a strong need for any group work to be graded.

In the classroom, students want handouts that correspond with the lecture and with what is presented on the overhead or audio-visual display. It is not important to students for the faculty to call them by name.

Interestingly, the subjects indicated very low levels of preference for either totally web-based or web-enhanced course work. Since the majority of the subjects come from generations known for technological savvy, it is interesting to note their preference for the face-to-face educational experience.

Also, both age groups indicated strong preference for faculty to structure the classroom and provide guidance, while indicating significant levels of trust in faculty to tell them what to do. This finding does not support the literature that indicates Generation X and Y as self-reliant and independent in learning (Clausing et al., 2003).

Both age groups do not indicate a need to know the projected outcomes of the reason for learning material only that they know the immediate need of why they should learn it. The majority indicated they only occasionally like to learn for learning sake, the overwhelming majority indicated that the grade is what is important to them. These findings are supported in the literature with the end-result (grade)and pragmatic nature (why) of these generations noted (Arhin & Johnson-Mallard, 2003; Collins & Tilson, 2000a & b; Clausing, Kurtz, Prendeville, & Walt, 2003).

The current study was conducted in only one college setting. There is limited generalizability due to the number of the subjects and the lack of exposure to different curricula. The students' perception may be subject to change over time or be different with exposure to other curriculum patterns. There may also be extenuating variables regarding the curriculum of the current study, such as course rotation, testing methods, or exposure to teaching methods. Repeating the descriptive survey in a variety of educational settings, nursing schools and programs across the country warrants further study.


This study was one of the first to explore the differences in generational age (Y and X) in regard to students' preference for teaching methodologies. There were no statistically significant findings. However, the implications for higher education are significant. In order to prepare future generations, educators must look for ways to enhance the learning environment and develop teaching methodology that fit with the values, expectation and needs of students.


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Arhin, A. O. & Johnson-Mallard, V. (2003). Encouraging alternative forms of self expression in the generation Y student: A strategy for effective learning in the classroom. The ABNF Journal, November/December, 121-122.

Clausing, S., Kurtz, D.L., Prendeville, J., & Walt, J.L. (2003). Generational diversity--the nexters. American Operating Room Nurse Journal, 78, 3, 373-379.

Collins, D. E. & Tilson, E. R. (2000a). A new generation on the horizon. Radiologic Technology, 73,2, 172-176.

Collins, D. E. & Tilson, E. R. (2000b). Profiling the generation x learner. Radiologic Technology, 70, 6, 581-584.

Cowman, S. (1995). The teaching/learning preferences of student nurses in the Republic of Ireland; background issues and a study. International Journal Nursing Studies, 32, 126-136.

Fines B.G. (2003). The Impact of Expectations on Teaching and Learning. University of Missouri, Kansas City School of Law. Retrieved August 12, 2004, from

Hill, K. S. (2004). Defy the decades with multigenerational teams. Nursing Management, 35, 33-35.

Lankard-Brown B. (1997). New Learning Straggles for Generation X. ERIC

Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education Digest. Available on:

Linares, A. Z. (1999). Learning styles of students and faculty in selected health care professions. Journal of Nursing Education, 38, 407-414.

Profile of American Faculty (2004). Survey shows race, gender & institution gaps. Retrieved May 3, 2006 from in adulteducation.

Sacks, P. (1996). Generation X goes to college: An Eye-opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America. Philadelphia: Open Court Publishing Co.

Thompson, C. & Sheckley, B. G. (1997). Differences in classroom teaching preferences between traditional and adult BSN students. Journal of Nursing Education, 36, 163-170.

Jean T. Walker RN, Ph.D., Tina Martin RN, Ph.D., Jill White, MSN, RN; Anne Norwood RN, Ph.D., and Lisa Haynie RN, Ph.D.

University of Mississippi Medical Center

School of Nursing

2500 North State Street, Jackson, MS 39216

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Author:Haynie, Lisa
Publication:Journal of the Mississippi Academy of Sciences
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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