Teaching medicine to millennial learners: what works?


The pace of development is astounding. In our lifetime, the creation of the Internet has revolutionized the way we work and communicate with each other. It is only natural to suspect that contemporary influences fundamentally shape the way we grow up and understand the world, and that students from a particular era may share recognizable characteristics. In particular, the medical education literature provides interesting suggestions for how to approach teaching the current generation of medical students and residents.

Who are the millennials?

Table 1: Generations

Generation Birth Year Current age
World War II Before 1946 >= 67
Baby Boomers 1946 - 1964 49 - 67
Generation X 1965 - 1981 32 - 48*
Millennial 1982 - 2000 13 - 31*

In one of the largest studies of millennials, Strauss and Howe (2009) noted seven overarching traits: special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, achieving, pressured and conventional (see Table 2).

Table 2: Traits of the Millennial Generation

Trait Description and Influences
Special Embraced by parents and family, indulged, entitled
Sheltered Grew up with youth safety rules, parents involved in education, may expect extra help
Confident Self-assured and optimistic
Team-oriented Group learning, teams, peer bonds
Achieving Motivated by achievement, "trophy kids"
Pressured Feel pressured to perform, may avoid risks
Conventional Family affiliation, expect or desire social rules and structure

Millennials tend to be confident and optimistic, a likely strength, but also may be over-confident or inaccurately assess their knowledge or skills. Because they have been valued or seen as special, millennials may be viewed by other generations as overly self-centered or narcissistic. Millennials tend to value peers and work well together - either in person or via technology. Growing up with a wide array of digital technology has influenced how they obtain and use information, and they may not hold traditional ideas of academic literacy. In addition, school may be viewed as "boring" or irrelevant to life outside of school.

Of course, there are some important limitations to note when thinking about any generalization or "label." General characteristics may not apply to every individual in the group, and trying to describe a group inherently risks stereotyping. Also, trends may not be generalizable to other settings or the future.

How do we engage this group of learners?

While there are many potential intersections between millennial traits and learning, here are a few expert suggestions:

Explore new methods: This generation has grown up with the world-wide web, smart phones, and high-resolution, high-definition everything. The traditional "you sit and listen while I talk" mode of teaching may be less effective. Provide opportunities to engage (with you and each other) and support and coach learners as they tackle new problems. Utilize the power of media and technology to explore, explain, and provide feedback. Provide "anytime, anywhere" modes for learning. Millennials want variety.

Provide guidance: Millennials have often had a lot of involvement from parents and family as well as structured environments. Help them learn the "why, how, and in what context" something occurs. As the children of 'helicopter parents,' they may be more anxious in new situations, or less patient with challenges or delays. They will likely need practice applying their knowledge to new problems in order to test and grow their critical thinking skills. In addition, as kids who grew up with trophies (sometimes just for participating, not for winning), they may also respond positively to frequent and enthusiastic feedback. Help them know they can succeed.

Make it relevant: Explain why content is important. Whenever possible, relate the content to a real-life problem or situation. Use current examples. Also don't forget to illustrate how they will be evaluated.

Challenge multitasking: While millennials may view themselves as great multi-taskers, research shows that deep learning is not possible while juggling multiple activities at the same time. Encourage mastery and understanding the "why."

Communicate clearly: Because of their experiences with structured environments, Millennials may expect clear rules, explanations or consequences. They may not understand what is flexible and what is not, and setting clear expectations and objectives may help. Likewise, providing transparency in scoring and grading (making it "objective" and "fair") is often highly desired. Communication may need to be concise (think: text message!) and in multiple modes (i.e. face-to-face and e-mail).

Some of these tips certainly echo tried-and-true principles of good teaching, and sometimes are easier to state than they are to implement! By learning about our learners, and helping understand which strategies they might benefit from the most, we have an opportunity to adapt our teaching to better connect and help them succeed.

References & further reading

  1. Considine D, Horton J, Moorman G. Teaching and Reading the Millennial Generation Through Media Literacy. Journal of Adolescent Medicine & Adult Literacy 52(6) March 2009.
  2. Howe N, Strauss W. Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. Vintage, 2009.
  3. Roberts DH, Newman LR, Schwartztein RM. Twelve tips for facilitating Millennials' learning. Medical Teacher 2012; 34: 274-278.
  4. Twenge JM. Generational changes and their impact in the classroom: Teaching generation me. Med Educ. 2009 May;43(5):398-405.

Reviewed in May 2013 by
Stephen Scott, MD, MPH
Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar
Assistant Dean for Clinical Curriculum and Medical Education