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Office of Assessment of Teaching and Learning Teaching Millennial Students

About Millennials

Referring to people born between 1982-2001, social historians Strauss & Howe (1991) first coined the moniker “millennials” in their book Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584-2069. Literature on millennials has since accumulated and the range of birth years has become “fuzzy”; depending on the source, the cited birth range for millennials now varies from (1977-1984) to (1990-2001).

“Digital Natives”, another name for millennials, acknowledges that these individuals have lived their entire lives immersed in the internet and assorted digital technologies (cell phones, social media, video games, etc.). In contrast to most “digital immigrants” who preceded them, digital natives are accustomed to life in the digital world and are fluent in the language and culture of social networking.

“Echo-boomers” refers to the demographics showing millennials as the largest U.S. generation since the baby boomers.

“Generation M” characterizes this group as media multitaskers (Roberts et al. 2005) due to the preponderance of media in the lives of  8- to 18-year-olds.

“Generation Y” is also used for millennials, as they chronologically follow “Generation X”.

Facts and Figures About Millennials

  • At approximately 80 million strong, millennials comprise a major segment of the U.S. population.
  • 83% of 12- to 17-year-olds have at least one social networking site, and 84% own one or more personal media devices (data from 2005; Considine et al. 2009).
  • 89% of college students born after 1993 use search engines to begin an information search (Joint Information Systems Committee – JISC 2008).
  • The typical 8- to 18-year-old in the U.S. spends 45% of all leisure time with screen media (TV, videos, DVDs, movies) (Roberts et al. 2005).
  • In the U.S., 8- to 18-year-olds report spending 6.5 hours a day using media. These youths also report multitasking on average 26% of the time, i.e. they use two or more media simultaneously. Youths categorized as “heavy media users” (more than 13 hours of media exposure per day) are more likely to use several media simultaneously than those categorized as “low” or “moderate” media users (Roberts et al. 2005).

Purported Traits of Millennials

Millennials are often typified as:

  • diverse
  • multitaskers
  • group-oriented and collaborative
  • valuing peer opinion
  • confident
  • valuing lifestyle above work
  • impatient for job advancement

But are these traits about millennials broadly applicable? Millennials comprise an extremely diverse group culturally, ethnically, socioeconomically and by other meaningful measures and tend to exhibit greater tolerance than previous generations. Given their extraordinary diversity, any generalizations about them should be viewed cautiously. Empirical data indicate that millennials engage in media multitasking, a reflection of their unprecedented exposure to technology, digital connectedness, and ubiquitous use of social media. They allegedly value peer opinion and “participatory culture” (e.g., blogging, podcasts, Wikipedia, and reality gaming in addition to social media like Facebook).

Their perceived proclivity toward confidence has been attributed to overindulgent parents, who rewarded them for trifling accomplishments. Millennials are said to value both lifestyle above work and time spent with friends, which translates into a desire for flexible work schedules. In the view of some employers, millennials expect to leap to top positions in the institution within a few years and think little of job hopping unlike stereotypical baby boomers, who more willingly accept the reality of inconvenient work hours and expect to have to work their way up the job ladder.

Generalizations About Millennials Questioned

Millennial students reside in a very different world from that of previous generations and their access to technology is revolutionary. Nevertheless, broad generalizations surrounding millennials have been questioned, mainly for two reasons: the data derive from studies at a limited number of institutions with similar student bodies and rely on “indirect measures” (e.g., perceptions, student personal satisfaction) rather than evidence-based research methodologies (“direct measures”).

For example, Howe & Strauss (2000 p. 43-44) ascribed to millennials seven “core traits”: special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, conventional, pressured, and achieving. They drew these conclusions largely from indirect measures involving high school seniors in Fairfax County, VA, whose median household income is more than double that of the U.S. national average. Critics argue that these and similarly-based findings may not be broadly applicable. Additional research suggests that millennials may not differ from other generations in fundamentally important ways, e.g. cognition, learning style, psychology, etc. (DiLullo et al. 2011).

Translation of Tech-savvy Skills

Does a high comfort level with digital technology translate into better digital learning for millennials? Educators point out that skills in technology, social media, and digital gaming may not necessarily equate to greater facility with digital learning. One report asserts, “digital literacies and information literacies do not go hand in hand (JISC 2008 p. 20).” It goes on to state, “No evidence [exists] in the serious literature that young people are expert searchers, nor that the search skills of young people has improved with time” (JISC 2008 p. 22).

Another researcher group argues that students’ ability to navigate complex digital environments can produce a “false sense of competency” and a “misperception among many adults that contemporary youth are ‘media savvy’.” This group succinctly states, “Hands on is not the same as heads on” (Considine et al. 2009 p. 472).

A recent study showed that multitasking may extract a price: When put to the test of performing two tasks simultaneously (simulated driving of a vehicle coupled with word or math challenges), a whopping 97% of multitaskers exhibited a loss in efficiency (Watson & Strayer 2010). On the bright side, researchers say that millennial students’ deep engagement with technology does not necessarily translate into disengagement with traditional forms of pedagogy–thus, teachers may not need to perform drastic overhauls of their approaches to effect improvement in student learning.


Washington State University