Are Today’s Students Really That Different?

For those of us who have been teaching post-secondary students for more years than we care to mention, it is apparent that today’s student is very different from those we’ve taught before. Some say that they’re digital natives who learn differently from the digital immigrants who are teaching them. Some say that students have a sense of entitlement, an expectation that any effort on their part deserves reward. Still others claim that constant partial attention and the “need” to multitask make it almost impossible for students to really focus on the subject at hand. And then there’s the Google-effect. Why learn it when they can just look it up?

Yes, they are different than the students we taught 10 years ago, and even those we taught five years ago. And they are certainly different than we were as students … or are they?

I was not a good student; in fact I was just like the students that I lament about now. Bright, but just not applying themselves! If they would only put in more effort they’d have the world by the tail.  I excelled in high school with very little effort, but in hindsight I didn’t really learn very much at all. I most certainly did not learn how to learn. When I got to university, reality set in. I could no longer rely on my ability to memorize what I was supposed to have learned. I was however brought up in a time and place where students did what they were told. No questioning of the professor or his methods (I was in engineering so the majority of my profs were male), and I guess the mandated rigour was enough to successfully get me through the system and to my current place on the other side of the lectern.

For the most part, I don’t think today’s students are much different than this. I had my distractions; they have theirs. I had my priorities; they have theirs. I didn’t have the maturity to recognize the need for a good study ethic; neither do they.  I’m beginning to think that the difference between today’s student and the student of days gone by boils down to effort. Not the effort required to sit down and actually do the task, but in the perceived value of their effort.

The students we have in our classrooms today have had a very different schooling experience than most of their professors. Always encouraged to be creative and innovative, there is far more emphasis placed on self-esteem and self-expression. They are encouraged to question the world around them, and sometimes to our dismay, that world includes our classrooms. Is what we are asking them to do worthy of their effort?

Is memorizing a formula worthy of their effort when they can find it in an instant? They’d say no, but knowing how to find it and apply it in the correct situation is.

Is doing the drill and practice assignment from the end of the chapter worthy of their effort when they already know and can apply the principles in question? They’d say no, but would devote considerable time and effort to solving an authentic problem that requires the proper application of said principles.

Is doing a formal literary analysis worthy of their effort when the story itself bores them to tears? They’d say no, but would willingly read and analyze it in order to capture and represent the essence of that work in an alternate medium that has some personal significance.

So are today’s students different? Yes, but not because of their technology, their sense of entitlement, or their multi-tasking. They’re different because they place real value on their effort. No longer can we as teachers assume that our students will learn the way we did, scooping up all the ‘pearls’ that are thrown before them. Nor will they necessarily pick them up those pearls in the way that we expect. They’ll pick up the ones that seem interesting, examine them closely, and determine if they are really worthy of their effort. So as you plan your next class, ask yourself “Is this worthy of their effort?”

About N. Nelson

A college professor with more than 30 years of teaching experience, I am constantly exploring how the current educational paradigm can be adapted to better meet the needs of today’s learners, while still reaching the mandate placed on us by the community and employers to prepare these students for life and careers beyond the college. I enjoy sharing my teaching experiences and expertise through Professional Development Workshops on topics such as Project-Based Learning, Flipping your Classroom, Impacting Student Success, Engaging Large Classes, and Stretching your Teaching Comfort Zone. I am also willing to share my experiences and expertise on the processes required to meet the updated CEAB engineering accreditation requirements.
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2 Responses to Are Today’s Students Really That Different?

  1. Many excellent points. I believe one of the most troubling things for me today is their sense of entitlement and unwillingness to put forth and effort. It sounds like we went had a similar experience in school. If that brick wall is starting to make an impression on your head, consider coming to Peru and giving us a hand on your next break. You can TEACH and will be truly appreciated here. Education here in this developing country has never been a priority. We are seeing that s l o w l y change. We know we can’t save the world, but we can make a difference in many lives surely just as you have done with hundreds of your students. You see many of the obstacles clearly from your years of experience. I believe you and I see it continuing to worsen. Check us out at and here at and maybe consider giving us a hand. Didnt you always say you wanted to travel on your summer break??? Thanks for your blog. mac

    • nnelsn says:

      Thanks for your supportive comments. It’s nice to know that there are like minded individuals and organizations out there. It looks like you and your group are making a real difference in Peru, and who knows, maybe someday I will be able to get down and lend a hand!

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