We all remember sitting in class, reading textbooks, and answering a ton of questions. This was no fun for any of us, but it was our assignment, so we did it.
A few years ago, I began to notice a shift. I heard many teachers discussing the same observation over jammed copiers and tepid coffee. It was no small shift and the implications for our classrooms were enormous….
Students were no longer doing assignments just because we assigned them.
We were all having variations of the same conversation:
“You need to get to work, Janice. This is due tomorrow.”
“I know. I’m going to do it tonight.”
And then we found ourselves having conversations like this the next day:
“Where’s your assignment, Janice?”
“I had a lot of work last night. Can I turn it in tomorrow?”
This is a recurring theme in our classrooms and somewhat baffling to us Gen Xers and Millennials. Janice had class time to complete her assignment. If she didn’t have time to finish it that evening, that’s on her–she chose to put it off. She’ll have to take a zero and learn her lesson.
The trouble is, Janice doesn’t see it that way, and the very same thing happens again. And again. And again. No lesson learned.
So what’s going on?
Janice is a member of an all new generation with completely different norms and expectations. Janice is a member of Gen Z.
My count-down to summer series this year is all about teaching those unfamiliar beings in our classrooms popularly referred to as Generation Z. Two weeks ago, I discussed how I make lecture work for them. Last week was all about research. This week, I’m going to attempt to address a much more complex issue. It’s more complex because it is entirely about mindset.
In the introduction to this series, I identified five traits Gen Z collectively shares (give or take):
1. They have smaller attention spans than previous generations.
2. There’s a lot of “noise” in their lives. They don’t always listen unless we are addressing them directly (one-on-one).
3. They are more interested in what “real people” are doing (on social media platforms like YouTube) than in popular television shows or movies.
4. They never, ever have to be bored and don’t expect to be.
5. They already are, or anticipate being, entrepreneurs.
I’m going to take these sweeping traits and attempt to explain how I frame assignments to get Gen Z to, well, do them.
The majority of these students won’t do an assignment just because we assign it. They’re not playing
the same game we did in school, so when we throw the old rules at them, they simply do not care.
We can shake our fists at the heavens. We can exhort that they need to learn. We can dole out zeros. They still don’t care. You see, these are the old rules.
To understand their mindsets better, we need to take a look at some of the role models of success they’ve grown up with: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Kim Kardashian, and Larry Page, to name a very few.
All of these people are highly successful entrepreneurs, which many of our students aspire to be. None of these people have a traditional college degree. They all played by their own rules…and won.
I don’t believe our students are apathetic. There’s evidence that Gen Z is a highly caring, socially conscious generation. It’s that many of them do not buy the narrative of education as the main path to success like we did.
They have access to far more information than we ever did at their age. By necessity, they have become adept at filtering. They find themselves targeted as consumers at every turn, and they are naturally skeptical of what we as teachers are “selling.”
So how do we reach them? How do we cut through the constant noise and create a sense of urgency about their work? I believe that small tweaks in the way we present assignments to our students make all the difference. So, here are some crazy simple ones that have worked in my classroom.
Three Tricks to Create a Sense of Urgency about Schoolwork
1. This Is Your Only Chance!
Marketers do this because it works–“buy now at a one-time low price,” “last chance sale,” “free for today only,” “only 12 left in stock….” You get the idea.
We don’t like to think of education this way, but it’s how most of our students live. I have a much
higher engagement rate in class when I break lengthy assignments into bits. Let’s say I want my students to read a chapter and answer questions. Instead of giving it to them all at once, I do this:
-Break the assignment into parts. If it’s a 10 page reading with 14 questions, I would break it into two five page readings with two sets of seven questions.
-Assign students the first part and say that they must be finished in 15 minutes.
-Set a timer.
-As they finish, have them raise their hands. Walk around with a self-inking stamp and stamp their paper. My students are generally writing in their ISNs, so this serves a two-fold purpose. First, when I take up their notebooks, I’ll know they completed the assignment on time. Second, students love to get “stamped.” It gives them a sense of accomplishment.
-Discuss the reading section and questions.
-Then repeat with the second section.
Giving students small bits at a time with a clear-cut time limit truly creates a sense of urgency. They get to work right away and keep going until they get their stamp.
We all have students with 504s and IEPs who need extended time. This method would violate their accommodations. In collaborative classrooms, it’s often necessary for different students to be doing different things. That’s a reality–we’re not calling them out. We’re giving them what they need.
Here’s what I do for students who need extended time:
-If there are two teachers in the room, I send them with the collaborative teacher to complete the assignment in a separate room. This could involve reading it aloud and finishing questions for homework if necessary.
-If there is no collaborative teacher in the room, I would either send a small group to the media center to work together or speak to these students ahead of time and quietly let them know they will have additional time. If this is the case, I would discuss the reading at the end of the 15 minutes but hold off on going over the questions until the next day. Time is always an issue, but I look at it this way–if I can’t make the time to go over an assignment in class, is the assignment truly necessary? This is one of my busy work calibrators (Gen Zers can smell busy work a mile away).
2. First to finish!
Nothing motivates my students to get started like a competition. Even if it’s just a minor thing, like “be the first group to answer questions 15-20 on your study guide correctly and win (XP, extra credit, candy, a prize card…).”
Symbaloo is an excellent free program that enables you to turn a series of assignments into a game path. I’ve got a free cheat sheet for you to help with getting started.
|Each tile contains an assignment. Students cannot advance to the next until they’ve completed the previous.|
Each tile on the path contains a learning task. You can take tasks you already have and put them on the board. I link to websites, videos, Nearpods, etc. As students complete the task, their piece advances on the board. The first student or group to finish, wins. I do second and third place prizes for this, as well. My stragglers will generally continue working to the end–the trick is to get them motivated to start and to not waste their time. “And, yes Janice, it’s for a grade….”
|I like to put questions at the end of each assignment to review concepts learned before they can advance to the next tile.|
|Want to make one? Grab the Cheat Sheet HERE!|
3. Class Competition
We want to encourage our students to collaborate, but I’ve found that one way to build a positive classroom community is to build up a certain amount of competition among my classes.
If I have three world history classes, for example, when I’m assigning creative projects, I might say, “the class with the best overall projects wins.” Then I get outsiders to judge (media staff, technology specialists, office staff, my department). I don’t use the same judges over and over, though, because I don’t want to take up too much of anybody’s time.
The students will work hard and encourage their classmates to work hard to win. I give out extra XP to everyone in the class that wins. If you don’t gamify, extra credit is free and highly motivating. And donuts. They love donuts. But they’re not free.
Creating a sense of urgency about schoolwork in Gen Z is largely a matter of reframing what we already do. Until they develop intrinsic motivation (the ultimate goal, which they may never achieve for our particular subjects), these simple tricks can be highly effective motivators. Like it or not, these aren’t our mothers’ students and we have to find new ways to reach them where they are–idealism takes up a lot of space in the trenches, and if we let it take over, we lose the battle.
Here is how this spin on assignments speaks to Gen Z:
1. They have smaller attention spans than previous generations. Breaking assignments into smaller components with a clear end and goal helps them retain focus.
2. There’s a lot of “noise” in their lives. They don’t always listen unless we are addressing them directly (one-on-one). They are experts at tuning the noise out. They have to be for their own sanity. That stamp or prize is just for them–they see you look at their responses. They love it when you point to one and say, “that’s good insight.” Recognition and reward given for actual achievement gets their attention and makes them feel validated.
3. They are more interested in what “real people” are doing (on social media platforms like YouTube) than in popular television shows or movies. Active discussion, collaboration, and competition encourage the connection and community in real life that they crave when they visit social media platforms.
4. They never, ever have to be bored and don’t expect to be. There’s no time to be bored when you are engaged in your work because you are rushing to meet a deadline, trying to be the first to finish, or trying to create the highest quality project.
5. They already are, or anticipate being, entrepreneurs. This is one reason that grades often don’t motivate them. Many successful entrepreneurs have taken nontraditional paths to get where they are. For better or for worse, Gen Z needs validation outside of grades.
Be sure to check out all of the posts in this series on teaching Gen Z for helpful tips and tricks: