Tips on teaching the new generation of students
Generation Z Students


I was going to call this article ‘How to Teach Generation Z’, but I generally don’t like putting a label on a whole generation, it feels like a convenient way of pinning the blaming on other people. “The Boomers have fcked up this planet” or “Those lazy Millennials don’t want to work”. However, “OMFG” I have noticed a big change in the way students act in the classes I teach. I was born in 1980 so that puts me in an in-between generation, not quite a Gen Xer and not quite a Millennial, depending on which click bate blog you read. When I was at university the Dot Com bubble was bursting and I had just got my first mobile that I only looked at 3 times a day in comparison to my iPhone that I only escape from 3 times a day, 2 of those are when I’m occupied on the toilet. Yeah, I don’t take my phone into the toilet, I’m a total freak, right?

Over the past few years I’ve been teaching UX and branding at one of Europe’s most prestigious design schools. It’s a both an honour and massive challenge to teach today’s students, when was it not? I think I was probably a right arrogant twat when I was studying. I’ve learnt some valuable skills in teaching in the past few years and I’ve also seen some teachers quit at the sheer frustration of not being able to connect with their students. I’ve even had students tell me about how they petitioned to get rid of a tutor because they hated him so much. So here are some survival tips for teaching students in today’s world of nano second attentions. Still reading? Well done.

1. Encourage them to listen and not to be defensive

A sign of a lack of confidence that I try to counter is when a student tries to defend their work and not listen to the feedback of the tutor. This leaves me thinking; “Hey, I have 17 years of experience and I want to help you but you’re talking over the top of me and you think you know better, perhaps I shouldn’t bother as you’re obviously a 19 year old genius who doesn’t really need to be here and is just here to take the piss…” I ask the students to be quiet when feedback is given and not to be too defensive. If they are talking they aren’t listening. Once they have listened to the advice they can then chose whether to take action on it or not. 

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2. Be strict but empathetic 

Rather than yelling at my students for constantly looking at their smart phones I tell them that I too am totally addicted to looking at my screen every 5 minutes. I tell them about the challenge I have to concentrate then give them tips on how to deal with it. I also show them that my phone is switched to flight mode and ask them to do the same if they want to progress in the class. Digital addiction it totally a ‘thing’ now and I see it as my responsibility to help them.

3. Talk with them, not at them 

I try to make my classes engaging as possible. I never talk for too long without asking the class their opinion. I try to engage them and make them think for themselves. After introducing a topic I create a discussion around the topic where the students have to apply what they have just learnt and put their own spin on it. If it’s a small class I sit with them on their desks, removing the physical barrier of tutor and student. This helps to create more of a conversational class. I try to make the class as practical as possible by supplying them the theory beforehand then we can hit the ground running in class. 

4. Bring your personality to class

When I was at university I always connected with tutors that made the class feel personal. I do this in a few ways. Whatever I’m teaching I link ideas back to my own experiences in design. I can give them a mini case study of how I’ve personally made mistakes in the past and how I overcame them. I feel this first hand experience is of great value to a student that is apprehensive about how things work in the real world.

Another way I like to make my classes more personal is to bring my sometimes strange humour in. Some students get it, some just look confused. I’ve always been a bit of a rebel and never liked corporate hierarchy and this is my way of saying f-you to the old system. If I can make student think, ‘that was a bit weird and different’, they have a better change of remembering what I had just taught them. A lot of my pretensions contain bizarre gifs and jokes.

5. It’s ok to make mistakes

One thing I’ve noticed is that students are scared of making a mistake and being shown up in-front of their piers. Perhaps this is a by product of the hyper curated social media we are all exposed to. I give them permission to float out half baked ideas to test and to make numerous rough sketches rather than spend hours on one idea. I let them know it’s good to have ideas shot down as this is a way to make them better. It’s better to produce 10 ideas and 1 that works than to present one idea that isn’t quite there.

6. Make it valuable 

Ok this sounds obvious but I try to put myself in their shoes and think whether this is something they can use in the real world and actually apply. I learnt more in my first 6 months in my first job than I did in the last 2 years of university. I try to make my classes as similar as possible to what it’s like working in a real design agency. I remember some of the harsh but true comments I got from my first boss that got my work from being ‘studenty’ to being professional. I try to spend as much time talking one to one as possible, sharing my own personal knowledge and showing them a few tricks on how to deal with clients or even just a few short-cut keys in Photoshop. I treat them as junior designers who are on my team. I feel this personal touch gains their respect and attention. 

7. Motivate them to speak up and have an opinion 

Another trend I’ve seen is that students don’t want to critique each others work. When asked to give feedback they seem content to say every project they see is ‘very nice’. Perhaps this is an effect of the “positive vibes only” trend or perhaps they haven’t gained the confidence to disagree with someone yet. When critiquing another students work rather than ask them to say what’s wrong with the project, I ask them to tell them how they could improve it. This moves the conversation on to how they can help each other rather than shitting on each others work.

I try to encourage every student to have an opinion and speak up. In the real world the quiet one who sits in the corner and doesn’t speak up when needed to could possible get left out of promotions. I feel this is a deeper topic about introverts and extroverts that could have a whole other article dedicated to it.

It probably takes me twice as much time to prepare for a class than it does to teach it. I aim to make my classes as valuable as possible if not teach my students a bit of bizarre English humour. There does seem to be a shift in the way student behave and their level of motivation but this is a challenge for the teachers to overcome.