Engaging Millennials through digital learning

Social media, games, enhanced case studies, and reality TV help a teacher connect with her students.

July 14, 2015

As I’ve learned firsthand, generational differences can sometimes lead to a disconnect in the classroom. I once used paper-based cases and traditional homework problems but noticed that my Millennial students were rarely prepared for class discussions and that they were often disengaged. I wanted to find an approach that would resonate with them, so I studied the unique characteristics of their generation.

Millennials, studies show, have many traits that make them good workers: They tend to be excellent at integrating technology in the workplace, and are achievement- and goal-oriented. But they’re also easily bored and like getting a lot of feedback. In the classroom, they want materials that are pragmatic and inductive. Millennials are social learners and like learning materials that allow plenty of opportunity for interaction through chat, blogs, and messaging.

I decided that incorporating digital learning methods into my classes was the best way to reach my students. Since I couldn’t find digital media that was appropriate for both my managerial and forensic accounting classes, I developed a series of e-cases: video-enhanced cases that use a storytelling platform to combine accounting and business theory with real-world scenarios such as choosing whether or not to become a whistleblower, book questionable journal entries, or trade on inside information. As research suggests that the average attention span of a Millennial is eight minutes long, I organized the video component of the case into six-minute modules so students would find the content easily digestible and impactful.

At first, I was nervous about adopting a new approach, but the e-cases proved a success. My students, and, later, those who purchased them online from Helios Digital Learning, describe the e-cases as similar to interesting business documentaries. After doing some additional research on methods to make curriculum more engaging, I incorporated more digital resources into my classroom, such as Twitter and reality TV. I used the CNBC show The Profit, which showcases struggling small businesses, as a way to get students talking about business issues, then had them discuss the show on Twitter, a format that required them to express their thoughts in a succinct manner.

If you’re interested in using digital content in your classroom, here are some tips:  

  1. Incorporate concrete scenarios into your curriculum. Our brains are hard-wired for stories, which makes narratives great for introducing new concepts. Real-life stories of accountants using workarounds on the job that ultimately led to fraud, or CPAs who became corporate whistleblowers to save a client, are powerful teaching tools. Reality TV shows like The Profit and ABC’s Shark Tank are perfect for in-class examples of businesses that are impacted by accounting concepts.
  2. Include detailed and solid explanations of why and how what students are learning will matter. Millennials understand and appreciate learning about ethical dilemmas in class, because thinking through such issues makes the material more relevant to them.
  3. Give reserved students more ways to voice their opinions. Digital platforms such as Twitter and gamification models such as GradeCraft are excellent ways to discuss accounting issues because students who are reluctant to express their views face-to-face will often do so digitally.
  4. Be challenging and unpredictable. Millennials want and need learning opportunities to grow and develop organically, and they enjoy using varied modes of learning. I switch up my teaching methods, using TED talks such as “How to Spot a Liar,” “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” and “The Happy Secret to Better Work” and TED Ed lessons such as “How Good People Rationalize Fraud” to motivate my students and spark discussion. As I find that students often need a transition activity to “turn on” their reasoning and critical thinking skills before jumping into class work, I sometimes start classes with cognitive games like Jenga, Simon, and picture-find puzzles.
  5. Let them take control. Studies reveal that giving students freedom of control over course content increases motivation. One way to do so is to have them develop relevant digital content using their smartphones, which they then share with the class. In my graduate forensic accounting class, I require students to include digital media in their final project presentations. They’ve made videos ranging in complexity from one-on-one interviews with a peer using an iPhone to short films that they’ve edited using iMovie.
  6. Use tools that allow social learning. Millennials prefer collaborative experiences. Enhance your students’ learning with tools like Twitter and blogging that allow them to interact and share ideas about their training, experiences, and knowledge. Many of my students are on Twitter, and I have required its use for class participation credit in the past.
  7. Gamify the course with rewards. Use tactics such as earning badges, points, or levels throughout the course to quickly add challenge and motivation to students’ learning experience. Digital badges recognize students’ achievements on a smaller scale than typical academic credentials, giving Millennials the feedback and recognition they crave. Several of the e-cases I use in my class offer students the option to earn an ethics digital badge. After the completion of a three-part e-case series, students can earn a digital badge that can be displayed on a LinkedIn profile or on résumés.

Since adopting a digital approach to teaching, I’ve noticed increased classroom discussion, more critical analysis in research papers, and more out-of-class discussion about our in-class content. This digital approach is transforming my students into lovers of lifelong learning. I have always believed, “if you can’t beat them, join them,” which is why I’ve decided to join the digital movement in my efforts to build stronger future business leaders.

Kelly Richmond Pope, CPA, Ph.D., is an associate professor of accounting at DePaul University. 

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