Teaching the Millennials

Just appearing in the Fall 2013 edition of the Clinical Law Review is an astute and riveting article by Emily Benfer and Colleen Shanahan, “Educating the Invincibles:  Strategies for Teaching the Millennial Generation in Law School” that should give us all pause, especially those of us now teaching our second and third generation of law student.

After describing specific types of nurturing that this generation experienced during their formative years, the article provides detailed and specific strategies for teaching these students, who were born between 1981 and 1999. It is assumed that, because of the particular formative experiences these students experienced as children, they have distinct needs, as learners, than did those of other generations, and that, if we want to “reach” them most effectively, we need to understand first who they are, so that we will be able tailor our teaching to them, in both the traditional and clinical types of classrooms.

The authors see these students as “confident and optimistic,” “service and cause-oriented and want to contribute to the greater good.”  Yet they are also described as pressured, impatient, sheltered, and privileged. Because they have been told they are special, they can seem to have a sense of entitlement.  Their assumption that short-term achievement equals long-term success causes them to focus on grades and not on the processes by which their grades are achieved.  They do not expect failure, so are often surprised when their performance does not result in high praise.  Again, because they were taught that they are “winners” simply for participating, they are accustomed to receiving awards for just that. They can become uncomfortable with criticism and  “aggressive and even caustic when criticized.”

Further, according to Benfer and Shanahan, being inseparable from the internet, these students are able to take in massive amounts of information simultaneously and consider themselves to be efficient multi-taskers.  Yet, because they are accustomed to instantaneous answers that do not require deliberation or examination, they may not have developed the tools to extract the depth of information necessary to develop critical thinking.

The types of learning environments preferred by Millennialists are made-to-order for clinical professors.  According to the authors, these students thrive in learning environments that are self-directed, interactive, collaborative, team-based, and hands-on; and that employ frequent and multiple forms of feedback, multi-media, and stress simulations and real life opportunities for learning.

On the other hand, because of their common experiences with teamwork, the authors caution that these students may be uncomfortable working independently, perhaps due to the higher risk of personal failure.

Especially if you’re engaged in clinical teaching, do you recognize any of these traits in your recent students?  Have they chafed at independent work?  Been so over-confident that they have prepared insufficiently for court or other case responsibilities?  Pushed back at any meaningful critique?  Seem to feel they are entitled to that “A,” regardless of the difficulties they had with their class and/or case responsibilities?  Expected results to come not from hours of work but from an initial impression gained while reading a couple of pages?   If so, you will both enjoy and find helpful “Educating the Invincibles.”

3 Responses

  1. I have taught my Professional Responsibility class using Team-Based Learning (see http://www.teambasedlearning.org/) for over fifteen years now and have recently noticed that students are much more comfortable and effective working collaboratively. I would attribute it to their greater exposure to group learning methods in prior education than prior generations, except the end-of-semester comments have not changed significantly in that time. The most common comment over all the years has been, “I usually hate group work, but my group in this class was great!”

    Compared to earlier years, the one type of comment I rarely see any more is the request for more “teaching.” (My favorite version of this comment was many years ago when a student said “I hate learning in groups. How are we supposed to know what to think unless you tell us?”) Perhaps because I supplement the course with podcasts and handouts, but perhaps because the student’s view of authority has shifted from the front of the room to their peers, I rarely have students complaining that they are not being “taught” enough.

    On the observation that this generation is ill-equipped for critical thinking, our faculty has observed that the analytical skills of today’s students are no less or more developed than prior generations, but their critical reading skills seem dramatically poorer than in the past. Focus groups among attorneys in the community have reinforced that perception, with attorneys commenting that students seems to “mine” rather than “read” – looking for the phrase or paragraph that seems to provide the answer they want without any consideration of the context from which that writing comes.

  2. I think there are some characteristics that this group shares, and maybe this is indicative of this generation, but I see a VERY wide variety of learning styles, motivations, values, interests. It seems like a more diverse crowd than earlier generations. Thus, I think small classes and a variety of approaches will enhance the overall learning.

  3. I have had clinical students since 2002, and have seen a shift. An increasing number (though still thankfully small) have definitely had an unrealistic sense of entitlement, a belief that just showing up should earn them a good result, and a hard time with criticism. There always have been students, and people in general, with that problem, but my sense is that there are more now. There also have always been those who are so overconfident that they fail to prepare adequately, and that continues, in increasing numbers.

    I don’t see the students chafing at independent work (perhaps they are used to being in the private space of their computer or phone) so much as them having a really hard time co-counseling on a complex case where the work has to be divided, allocated, coordinated, and the various egos have to work together.

    What I see as distinctive of “these kids today” however, is their inability to think analytically, critically, or deeply. This is worsened by an inability to write well. Most of their writing is bad book report reporting: “I read this…”, “they said that…”, “we want…..”.

    I am quite challenged by the lack of critical thinking. Getting students to parse the arguments of all sides, weigh the strengths and weaknesses, adjust the words used to increase their client’s chance of success and weaken the opponent’s chance, develop useful and compelling evidence to force the court to rule in our favor, etc., is what I use the time we spend at clinic trying to accomplish. It requires extended periods of discussion, pushing, prodding, critiquing, and challenging. It can be tense, and at times unpleasant. Being a lawyer is difficult work,and teaching someone to be a good lawyer is also difficult work. Each semester there is at least one student who in the evaluation of me says that I never gave them the answer, or that I made them work too hard. Many more students say that they appreciated having to find their own way, and finally seeing how it fits together.

    I can be justifiably criticised for being an old guy (I am older than their parents), but I and many of the professors, teachers, lawyers (and doctors – same problems there) I talk to see the problem of the students’ a sense of entitlement and lack of critical thinking as significant. I look forward to suggestions of ways to help overcome this.

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