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A Myth & A Reality About Generational Differences in Learning Preferences & What It Means for Training Professionals

Leslie Ciborowski
President Of TrainSmart, Inc.
a-myth-reality-about-generational-learning-differences and what it means for training professionals

Ever since the Millennials started making their mark in the workplace in the early 2000’s, older generations have taken notice; what they’ve noticed is that Millennials seem different. They seem more tech savvy. They don’t appear to like to use the phone. Or email.  They always seem to be texting.

Those on-the-surface, obvious differences have spurred a cottage industry of generational experts who advise industries–including those of us in learning and development- on how they have to change to motivate and engage a generation that as of 2015 was the largest generation in the workforce.

Of course, when you start looking at the research you uncover contradictory information.

IBM Survey Busts Millennial Workplace Myths– This research disputes common beliefs regarding Millennials career goals, need for constant praise and addiction to social media.

The Millennial Generation Research Review– This report offers a summary of research conducted since 2009 about Millennials covering topics from entrepreneurship to work-life balance to relationships and membership in professional associations.

Millennials at work Reshaping the Workplace PwC – This is a follow-up report to a similar study conducted in 2008. This report was completed in 2011 and one of the more interesting aspects of the report is that it highlights areas where the findings have changed.

Many Millennials entering the workplace did not make a good first impression. While research is now poking holes at the current Millennial stereotype, many of those previous perceptions are “sticking” which means instructional designers and trainers could be basing learning activities on false assumptions.

A Myth: Your Generation Cohort Drives How You Prefer to Learn

When Jessica Kriegel began her research for her dissertation on differences in Learning Preferences by Generational Cohorts, she, like many in the learning and development field, anticipated that the research would demonstrate that there are very real differences.

Imagine her surprise, when her research contradicted popular thinking. What she learned is that when it comes to generations, they share more in common than previously believed: particularly in the area of web-based learning preferences.

For her research, participants were asked to rank 22 web-based learning activities.  They were asked to rank their top five and their least favorite. Her research shows that “viewing information in graphic format” ranked as the number one choice for Millennials and GenXers and number two for Baby Boomers.  All three generations were unanimous regarding their least favorite: “sharing snippets of information online in Twitter-like communities.”

These findings contradict popular belief that the best way to design learning for Millennials is to create learning in social media type platforms.  Kriegel projects that one explanation for Millennials dislike of learning in social media platforms is that the corporate version of these tools is not as sophisticated as the ones used in real life. It’s like using a dial-up connection for the internet after you’ve used a high-speed option.

Kriegel’s recommendation: don’t assume that a generation has a particular learning platform preference. Do your research on the audience before you start designing on a platform you think Millennials will like.

“With regard to learning style preferences, the three generations, Millennials, Generation X and Baby Boomers were largely homogeneous.”

Reality: Millennials Score Low on “Readiness to Learn.”

In 2009, researchers wanted to learn whether the motivation to learn differed from generation to generation.  What they found is that the group that is most motivated is GenX – those born approximately from 1964-1980. To maintain that motivation, the research found that GenXers are happiest when the learning experience is collaborative.

Like Gen Xers, Baby Boomers have a high readiness level– with some caveats. Their high readiness level to learning is directly proportional to whether the material being presented pertains to their personal growth. Just as important, Baby Boomers like learning experiences where they can demonstrate their competence and provide examples based on their own experiences.

Millennials, however, have a low readiness to learn. The researchers cite distractions (those pesky smartphones) and a general lack of curiosity. The research showed that Millennials quickly lost interest in a topic if they could not immediately relate to it. Even of greater concern for those in the learning and development field, Millennials expect their instructor to create the motivation for them. The combination of lack of curiosity and an expectation that motivation should be externally produced signals serious implications for those tasked with creating and implementing training.

Do these results surprise you or do these findings match with your own experience?