Selected Resources: Understanding Millennial Learning

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

You may not be aware of this, but every year the ACRL Instruction Section Teaching Methods Committee puts out two lists of Selected Resources, one focused on teaching methods and instructional design and the other focused on assessment. These lists feature articles and other materials that have been published the previous year that are worthy of note. It’s a resource that doesn’t get as much use or attention as it should, so I’ve decided to assign myself the homework of making my way through each item on the most recent lists and write about them here.

First up: “Understanding Millennial Learning in Academic Libraries” by Stan Trembach and Liya Deng (

(Disclosure: I am currently a member of the ACRL Instruction Section Teaching Methods Committee, which selects and evaluates materials for the Selected Resources lists. I played a role in the selection process and reviewed several of the items that ended up on the final list as part of that process.)


What’s it about?

In “Understanding Millennial Learning in Academic Libraries,” Trembach and Deng synthesize a great deal of literature on the learning styles of millennials and explore the implications for these learning styles with regard to information literacy instruction. This is important work in no small part because, as the authors point out, millennials are such a huge part of the constituency that academic libraries serve right now. Given how quickly things change, we always have to be thinking of ways to engage the learners we work with and Trembach and Deng include a number of recommendations about incorporating technology into instruction that are really important.

Even more valuable, though, in my opinion is the way Trembach and Deng synthesize what’s become a huge body of literature using the lens of information literacy and academic libraries. Millennials have been around long enough now that a lot has been written about them and I think Trembach and Deng have done important work bringing it all into focus in a thoughtful and interesting way that’s relevant to librarians.


Millennials in the media

A few years ago, I designed and taught a freshman seminar called Millennials in the Media.(1) I wanted to teach students to think critically about how their generation is portrayed in scholarly research, news media, pop culture, and elsewhere. I wanted to teach the class because, in part, I am a member of the millennial generation who is sometimes frustrated with the way millennials are portrayed in the media. Especially since, as an older member of the generation, I often can’t relate to descriptions of millennials as social media savvy digital natives who were practically born with smart phones in their hands. My family got our first computer with internet when I was in high school and Facebook wasn’t even invented until I was almost out of college. I got my first iPhone last year and half the time I can’t remember where I put it (or the glasses I need to be able to read the screen, natch).

So I tend to be cautious when I run into articles like Trembach and Deng’s but I think this is where the true value of the depth of their research lays because here they’re citing literature that covers the span of research on the millennial generation, which seems to have started in the late 1990s or early 2000s. This means that a lot of what they’re taking into account does to some extent apply to people my age and not just millennials who are currently college-age.


Walk a mile in my shoes

As you probably know if you are reading this, the Framework features a number of threshold concepts related to information literacy. These threshold concepts represent expert ways of thinking. We introduce these threshold concepts to students (whether directly or indirectly) and ask them to put themselves in the shoes of experts in order to cross the threshold into information literacy.

I think part of the value of research like Trembach and Deng’s is that it reminds us that sometimes we information literacy experts also have to put ourselves in the shoes of our students in order to teach them effectively. That’s because, as the authors point out, we tend to teach the way we were taught and we tend to teach the way we like to learn and these methods don’t always match with what might be most efficacious for the students we work with. That doesn’t mean that students can’t learn the way we do or even that how they learn is so very different from the way we did. In fact, part of our job is to help students expand their ways of learning so that they don’t become boxed in by a single identity as a particular type of learner. But stretching beyond our own points of view can only help us in the quest to help our students become more information literate.


What about millennials as teachers?

As I mentioned before, I’m one of those pesky older millennials whose existence throws off a lot of blanket statements about who millennials are and what they are like, which usually only apply to millennials who are current students or recent graduates. I am a millennial in the classroom, but I’m not the learner, I’m the teacher. Some of the students I teach are also millennials, probably on the tail end of that particular generation while others are likely among the oldest of whatever generation comes next.

I’m guessing as that new generation emerges that there will be a replay of a lot of the research that’s been done on millennials about how that generation likes to learn and work and interact with the world. It’s going to take some time for that understanding to come into focus, but you know it’s coming and I’m sure work like Trembach and Deng’s and the many sources they cited will be used as a road map for developing that understanding.

But now that we know so much about what millennials are like as students, I kind of want to know more about what we’re like as teachers. Research like this has shown that millennials had a much different experience as students than previous generations. We also have different learning preferences. No doubt those experiences and preferences inform not only how we learn, but also how we teach. Because the truth is, Trembach and Deng are right: millennials are our largest constituency. But they’re not just students anymore. They’re also professors and other members of our campus communities. Wouldn’t it be interesting to also understand millennials from that perspective?


(1) The class bombed. Like, really bombed. It was one of the most excruciating teaching experiences of my life. Another story for another time.



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