GUEST POST: The Murky Waters of Generational Learning Preferences

GUEST POST: The Murky Waters of Generational Learning Preferences

By Clemente Diaz


Clemente I. Diaz is Associate Director of College Now, a dual enrollment and pre-college program at Baruch College in New York City. Additionally, he is an adjunct faculty member at the CUNY School of Professional Studies where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses related to Industrial/Organizational Psychology. He is also a member of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Clemente tweets at @Clem_Diaz.

Thanks for joining me on my latest myth busting expedition! My first two expeditions led me to debunking learning style theories and psychological types, specifically the MBTI. This expedition will take us into the murky waters of generational learning preferences. You know...all that Baby Boomers, Generation X (Gen X), Millennials, and Generation Z (Gen Z) hype.

What are generations?

Image from geralt/Pixabay

Image from geralt/Pixabay

The concept of generations posits that we can group people, into cohorts, who are roughly the same age and who were influenced by the same history-graded factors (i.e. the Great Depression, the advent of the internet, etc.) (1), (7). Supposedly, these factors create a universally shared set of experiences and characteristics that influence people’s attitudes and behaviors.

The current generational groups in the workplace and educational settings include:

●      Baby Boomers (birth years 1946 - 1964): This generation is often considered the most influential generation due to their pivotal roles in the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War (8). Baby Boomers value relationships and solidifying their interpersonal skills, primarily because they didn’t grow up with the current technological advances (internet, smartphones, etc.).

●      Gen X (birth years 1965 - 1980): Unlike Baby Boomers, Gen X is focused on work-life balance rather than being organizational lifers (staying with the same organization for life). This generation delayed marriage and childbearing to focus on developing themselves first, most likely as a response their parents being workaholics (8).

●      Millennials (birth years 1981 - 1996): Millennials were the first generation to enter college with a laptop in hand, as such they were the first to be called digital natives due to their high technological fluency. This generation is categorized as optimistic, team-oriented, entitled, and high-achieving rule-followers (2).

●      Gen Z (birth years 1997 - 2010): Gen Z is the youngest of the four main generations and represents the most technologically advanced generation. This generation came out of the womb with the iPhone (or Android phone) in hand. Due to their integration of technology into everyday life, “the constant stimulation and access to all the world’s information at their fingertips has given them an eight-second attention span and has trained their brains to expect instant gratification” (3).

Generational “learning preferences”

Image by qimono/Pixabay

Image by qimono/Pixabay

While, there are plenty of generational differences highlighted in the literature, below are a few distinctions in how generations supposedly prefer to learn (5):

●      Baby Boomers expect a more intimate learning environment. They prefer lectures that incorporate participation, reflection, and feedback. Additionally, Baby Boomers enjoy reading books cover to cover.

●      Gen Xers are considered the most independent generation. They prefer a structured environment that includes some lecture and small group activities. Additionally, they gravitate towards self-directed educational opportunities that allow them to learn on their own time.

●      Millennials prefer a more constructivist learning environment. They more inclined to “Google” information than look it up in a book.

●      Gen Zers equate listening to lectures to torture (3). They want to be actively engaged in their learning, not passive bystanders. This generation prefers digital textbooks because they can easily access them on the same devices they embrace daily (3).

Millennials and Gen Z are considered the most technologically savvy generations. As such, both generations are often referred to as digital natives. Accordingly, both generations should be adept to new learning formats. Based on this assumption, some of my colleagues have adamantly pushed for asynchronous dual enrollment courses (fully online college level courses available to high school students). As a result, my department offered such courses for two semesters with dismal student success (the vast majority of students withdrew from the course). Students mentioned that they weren’t comfortable being responsible for their learning and/or had difficulty navigating the College’s online learning platform. But I thought these students were the most technologically advanced (insert sarcasm here)! 

Although the vast majority of articles on generational differences are descriptive in nature, it’s easy to make generalizations and adjust our teaching and educational formats to cater to our students’ supposed preferences. While this isn’t necessarily wrong, if I’ve learned anything from my experience as well as my previous myth busting expeditions it’s that focusing on learning preferences can be a very slippery slope. 

What does the evidence say about generations and generational differences?

Image by Pexels/Pixabay

Image by Pexels/Pixabay

I’ve had the opportunity to teach high school students, traditional college students, and non-traditional college students. In my experience there are definitely differences among these groups in the classroom, but are they due to the supposed generations they belong to? I’m sure you know what I’m about to say. Regardless of how popular and widespread the concept of generations is, science does not support its use or existence (1, 2, 6, 7). But what about the various articles I’ve read about generations? And those amazing Ted talks? Remember, there is plenty of information supporting the MBTI. That doesn’t mean it’s a theoretically and psychometrically sound tool.

Unfortunately, for educators and other consumers of information, research on generations “has often seemed opportunistic, lacking rigor and depth” (4). According to Constanza (1), the vast majority of research on generations can be explained by other causes (age and period effects) or have scientific flaws, rather than actually highlighting generational differences (cohort effects).

●      Age effects: Age effects are categorized by the fact that people change (physically, sociologically, etc.) as they get older. One of the most commonly cited generational differences is that Millennials are the most narcissistic generation to date. Interestingly enough, on average Millennials are no more narcissistic than Gen Xers or Baby Boomers were when they were in their 20s (1). This is because young people naturally tend to be more narcissistic in general, regardless of when they were born.

●      Period effects: A period effect is a change which occurs at a particular time and affects all age groups and cohorts uniformly. For example, we usually attribute internet usage to younger generations (Millennials and Gen Z). However, researchers have concluded, that since the advent of the internet, young people are not the only dedicated users of technology. In fact, internet users in their 20s do not dominate every aspect of online life (2). The type of internet usage does vary, but that can be attributed to age effects (i.e. playing games vs. watching the news, etc.).

●      Scientific flaws & inconsistencies: As I already pointed out, one of the biggest problems with generational research is that the “findings” are misattributed to cohort effects (1, 6, 7). The most effective way to assess generational differences would be to utilize multiple longitudinal studies, observing the same group of people and repeatedly collecting data from them over a period of time over years or even decades, and then compare generations. Unfortunately, conducting such research is very difficult to do. Therefore, longitudinal research data on generations doesn’t really exist (1). As a result, researchers commonly collect data using cross-sectional studies and time-lag studies. According to Lyon, (2015), the relative ease of using existing cross-sectional data by age and calling it a generation study has resulted “in a large number of empirical studies with nearly identical literature reviews that over rely on popular press and opinion-based literature” (4). In addition to the issues with how data is collected, researchers don’t agree on what key events have impacted each generation as well as the range of dates for each respective generation. On average start and end dates for each generation vary between four and nine years, depending on the study (1).

Moving forward

In light of writing this article, I highly recommend students, educators, researchers, and other professionals to go beyond the literature in their specific fields of interest to see what the entire scientific community is saying about a particular topic. Although I did not do an extensive literature review on generations, I find it troubling that the fields of Industrial/Organizational Psychology (psychology of the workplace) and Learning and Development were some of the only fields I came across with research articles debunking and/or criticizing this concept. This makes it even more important to become a knowledgeable consumer of information.

Similar to the conclusions I drew in my previous myth busting articles, we should avoid using generational labels because they negatively impact our work as educators and ultimately our students. Below are some reasons why we should stop using these nonsensical labels (1):

  1. Ultimately, generational labels don’t actually mean anything.

  2. Relying on flawed generational data leads to poor decisions and bad advice (i.e.: my example on asynchronous dual enrollment courses)

  3. The use of generational labels perpetuate stereotyping (i.e.: Millennials are entitled and lazy, Baby Boomers are technologically inept, etc.).


(1) Costanza, D. (2018). Can we please stop talking about generations as if they are a thing? Slate.

(2) Jones, C. & Shao, B. (2011). The net generation and digital natives: Implications for Higher Education. Higher Education Academy.

(3) Kalkhurst, D. (2018). Engaging Gen Z students and learners. Pearson Education.

(4) Lyons, S., Urick, M., Kuron, L., & Schweitzer, L. (2015). Generational differences in the workplace: There is complexity beyond stereotyping. Industrial Organizational Psychology, 8(3), 346-356.

(5) Panopto (2017, May). Are you ready to support 4 generations of learners.

(6) Quinn, C. N. (2018). Millennials, goldfish & other training misconceptions: Debunking learning. ATD Press.

(7) Rudolph, C.W., & Zacher, H. (2017). Myths and misconceptions about leading generations: Setting the record straight. In E. Mourino & T. Scandura (Eds.), Leading Diversity in the 21st Century. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

(8) Ryback, R. (2016). From Baby Boomers to Generation Z. Psychology Today.