4 Tips for Motivating Gen Z Students

Posted November 30, 2017

By Daniel A. Guberman


“Students today…”

If you can imagine an end to this sentence, a professor has said it. Furthermore, a room full of colleagues probably agreed, whether positive or negative. There seems to be a constant divide between the experiences and expectations of professors and those of their students. For this reason, faculty members have searched, for decades if not centuries, for silver bullets that contain the secret to understanding, teaching, and motivating younger generations. Naturally, such easy solutions never appear, nor do they seem likely to appear soon. In fact, if we found the perfect way to teach the “average” student of any generation we might not reach anyone, because no student is completely average. In this post, I seek to find a balance, looking at a combination of what initial studies tell us about so-called Generation Z students, and connecting this with an understanding of motivation based on Self-Determination Theory.

A group of Generation Z students pose for a group selfie.
[Image: verkeorg, https://goo.gl/xbJ1pn, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://goo.gl/eEDNLy]

A Warning: I Don’t Really Believe in Generations

I do not really accept that there are generations with clear dividing lines. I don’t consider the experiences and attitudes of millennials, born between 1980 and 1995, as particularly similar to each other, while also particularly distinct from those of generation X (1965-1980) or Generation Z (1995-2010?). I have a few reasons for feeling this way:

● Nobody agrees on the boundaries: Definitions of generation Z might be 15-year periods (1995-2010, 2000-2015, or 2005-2020). Others use the term to describe those born after the September 11 attacks in 2001. If nobody can actually agree on who is part of a generation, how can we derive something meaningful from a study of that generation, which distinguishes members of that generation from others? 

● Many studies of generations describe the experiences of middle/upper class, able-bodied, white, cisgender, straight Americans. Many of our students have very different experiences. Frequent references to generation Z as the i-gen, assumes access to expensive consumer products.

I am not suggesting that we dismiss studies of these groups, but that we recognize that they tell us about a specific demographic group, based on the sample surveyed, and that those results may not be the same for later groups, even if they fall under the same “Generation Z” label.

What Do the Studies Tell Us?

Since Generation Z students have just begun entering college, we don’t have many studies about their experiences yet. Some of the most reliable datasets come from a survey conducted by Northeastern University, which asked a nationally representative sample about their expectations and desires, and from the ongoing CIRP (Cooperative Institutional Research Program) Freshman surveys conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute (the 2015 findings can be accessed here). In these surveys, the element that consistently sticks out is an emphasis on entrepreneurial skills and opportunities for choice in their education. This result resonates particularly strongly with me, as I have recently worked with many faculty members and departments struggling to meet increasingly detailed and specific accreditation structures, which results in removing electives and opportunities for choice.

Students are demanding more freedom and autonomy precisely when administrative and governmental structures are limiting student autonomy. With this in mind, we can turn to self-determination theory, a theory of motivation, which has been widely studied and applied over the past three decades.

A Brief Overview of Self-Determination Theory (SDT)

SDT is a theory of motivation based on three basic psychological needs (i.e., what people need for mental health after accounting for basic physical needs - food, water, shelter, etc.). These needs are competence, autonomy, and relatedness. According to a large body of research, addressing these  needs fosters greater student motivation leading to enhanced performance. My purpose here is not to explain these in exceeding detail, but rather to consider them in the context of both current students’ desires and the classroom/college structures that are already in place.

With this goal in mind, I find that two of the three needs are generally well accounted for and/or easy to grasp. Competency lies at the core of what educators have always been doing and are generally good at. We share knowledge and/or resources to gain knowledge. Many teachers even help students develop strategies for measuring one’s own knowledge and provide pathways to reach competency goals. Relatedness can vary from course to course, but it is generally easy to conceptualize how to develop stronger relationships with students (I know professors who go to lunch with them in the dining hall), or between students in the same class (e.g., group discussions or activities). There are also significant efforts in many departments to focus on relatedness of material to future jobs and professions.

Creating an autonomy-supportive classroom environment may appear to be a more elusive goal than promoting competency and relatedness. Many teachers feel pressured to pack increasingly more content into the same semesters, leading to greater exertion of control over activities and class time to maximize efficiency. They must also overcome societal views of teachers as masters dispersing information (Paulo Freire calls this the banking model). In addition to these external pressures, the idea of relinquishing control can be scary. Can there be standards or grades if students have complete autonomy? Once they start talking or using their phones will they ever stop? While challenging, creating an autonomy-supportive environment aligns most closely with the emphasis on entrepreneurship and freedom reported by Northeastern’s survey regarding what incoming students would like to see in their education.

Autonomy-supportive teaching does not mean that we actually give students total control over their degree requirements and classroom. Here are some large and small ways to create a more autonomy-supportive learning environment, and by extension align better with current students’ desires for entrepreneurial experience.

Autonomy Supportive Teaching Strategies

1 Language

When giving feedback, many frame student work in relation to what the instructor wanted, rather than as exemplary of excellent work more broadly. We often hear students describe trying to tailor work for a particular instructor, when in fact, most of us have similar ideas about excellence. The goal in using autonomy-supportive language is to change the position of the instructor from arbiter to interested and engaged reader. For example, instead of telling a student they did something correctly or how you wanted them to do it, tell them why you find their ideas interesting and point out errors in ways that encourage them to find a correct answer. This approach to language also aligns with supporting a growth-mindset.

2 Time Management

As we introduce more activities into class time, we tend to exert greater control over students’ use of time, often breaking down a 50-minute class section into 10 or more distinct sections. Sometimes this may be necessary, but other times we can give students multiple tasks to complete within a broader time limit, allowing them to choose how to organize their time. This can also emulate the time-management skills students need to develop for tests and beyond. Being explicit as to why you are providing students with greater control over time management will also help them relate to you and the project because they will understand the reasoning behind your pedagogical choices.

A group of students arranged around a table are working together to solve a problem.
Students collaborating in Purdue's new Wilmeth Active Learning Center [Image: Dan Guberman]

3 Group Structure and Organization

A lot of professors are incorporating group work into their classes, and many design creative ways to formulate groups working from a variety of assumptions about what would make the best working environments. Examples range from fantasy football-style drafts, to interest and/or experience surveys, to completely random groups. Many fear that opening the process to student decision-making can result in uncomfortable situations, micro-aggressions, and potentially bullying. There is a middle ground, in which students can exert some, but not total control. For example, this can be done by writing descriptions of skills, experiences, and/or interests to then be sorted, either by a teacher or by each other (names can be removed from the writing). While doing this, it is helpful to explain why you feel compelled to make some decisions (this helps build relatedness as well). 

4 Mid-semester Feedback

Students have a lot of experience as learners, but too often we wait until the end of the semester to ask them for feedback on how their learning is progressing. There are many ways to get feedback, from short muddiest-point index cards at the end of every class to regular surveys, and bringing in outside consultants to conduct focus groups (e.g., SGIDs). In all of these formats, it is useful to ask students about what helps their learning and what suggestions they have to improve their learning. The most important part in any of these processes is acknowledging the feedback that you receive and discussing it (briefly). You don’t need to accept every piece of advice that they offer. Merely taking it seriously, and discussing why you have chosen your particular path gives students a sense of autonomy and investment in their own learning.

Concluding Thoughts

One of the key themes in supporting student autonomy is that students do not need to be given full control over the course or their learning. They often do not want full control. Even graduate students hunger for feedback and direction when working on their dissertations. All of the ideas above provide students with a combination of direction and freedom with increased transparency. Adopting these practices empowers students to take more responsibility for their own learning, while also providing us opportunities to better understand our students and their learning.

(Thank you to Erica Layow for collaborating on an earlier version of this project.)


Daniel Guberman is an instructional developer, educator, and musicologist with the Center for Instructional Excellence at Purdue University. At Purdue and beyond he works with faculty and graduate students to promote inclusive evidence-based teaching through presentations, workshops, learning communities, and consultations.

Resources and further reading

Self-DeterminationTheory.org – An overview of the theory with a detailed bibliography and resources for creating surveys if you are ambitious.

Johnmarshall Reeve’s “Why Teachers Adopt a Controlling Motivating Style Toward Students and How They Can Become More Autonomy Supportive” – This article explains many reasons that teachers adopt a controlling teaching style and how we can overcome these demands. Reeve has written extensively on the topic of autonomy-supportive teaching.

UDLOnCampus and CAST – While I have not delved deeply into universal design here, the principles behind universal design align well with autonomy-supportive teaching.

Todd Rose’s The End of Average – A well-written book that argues against trying to design teaching to suit average students because no student is uniformly average.

bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgressand Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed– These seminal works in the field of critical and democratic pedagogy promote autonomy-supportive teaching, while approaching the concept from a different angle.

Carol S. Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success – Promotes the use of growth-oriented mindsets when approaching our students. Autonomy-supportive feedback and course structures should effectively promote this mindset through emphasizing the development of tools students need for success.

Purdue University’s IMPACT Program – learn more about the course redesign program that Dan works with, which is based on self-determination theory.