Modern learning: Gen Z, it’s time to learn how to learn
Author bio: Anna is a Senior Learning Scientist and Data Scientist at Quizlet. Before joining Quizlet, she received her PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience from Stanford, researching how memories are formed in the brain. Anna grew up in Los Angeles and currently lives in the Bay Area.
True or false: Information you want to remember is more likely to end up in your long-term memory.
According to an expert board of 18 learning scientists and educators, the answer is false.
If you answered “true,” you’re hardly alone. In a 2020 report, only 18 percent of future teachers answered this question correctly. Although it may seem like students will remember what they want to remember, there is no evidence that the desire to know something has a direct impact on memory. However, when you combine that desire with the right learning strategies, then remembering becomes a choice.
While that’s clear to me now (after studying cognitive science for a decade), I actually knew very little about learning strategies as a student. For instance, when I wasn’t yet confident with the material, I thought rereading the textbook was better than quizzing myself. Why test myself, since I couldn’t be sure of the right answers? I swore by taking detailed notes in lectures, rather than pausing to ask questions. Now I know better! And, as a learning scientist at Quizlet, I get to bring robust research findings into our product, while learning more from the billions of study interactions that are happening with Quizlet’s tools weekly.
As a graduate student, I fell in love with teaching and became fascinated by the ways today’s students differ from my generation. I was also keenly aware of the unnecessary stress college students can face without a strong set of learning strategies. When learners try to retain information for a test without effective techniques, their success can feel outside of their control — even if they devote hours to studying.
To put it another way, success in college isn’t just about passion and hard work. It also depends on how well students learn how to learn. This falls under the concept of metacognition – thinking about one’s thinking. In my experience, when students have learned how to learn, that is, when they’re equipped with metacognitive skills, they don’t just learn better — they’re happier. They are more empowered and demonstrate greater confidence in their future.
I joined Quizlet as a data scientist because I saw potential in the platform. The study tools are a more effective and enjoyable way to learn than, say, reading and rereading a textbook, as I did in college. I wanted to bring in academic research on learning to help today’s students with their modern learning needs.
3 characteristics of Gen Z learners
Many of the learners on Quizlet are members of Gen Z, which refers roughly to today’s high school and college-age students. Researchers recognize several traits that set this age group apart from previous generations. Understanding what makes this generation distinct is critical if we want to help them find learning strategies that work.
Members of Gen Z are:
- True digital natives — they have never known a time without widespread internet access, so they’re comfortable absorbing information online. In fact, 96% of those over age 18 own smartphones, which they use for study and entertainment, according to Pew Center Research.
- Devoted to individuality — they place a high value on independence, adaptability and self-expression. They’re well-positioned to own their educational experience as self-learners.
- Realistic —they make pragmatic, analytic life choices, continually evolving their personal definition of success.
A spectrum of learning
Aside from these common values, our observations of patterns within Quizlet’s data reveal marked learning differences among our Gen Z students. Some of these patterns indicate strikingly driven habits that suggest a strong sense of ownership toward learning. Other patterns indicate what we call last-minute learning. Students may use the platform to cram for tests, or pull together materials for an all-night session. Quizlet supports every kind of learning that occurs on the platform. Wherever possible, we want to provide tools that give Gen Z students more choices about how they learn.
When driven learning behaviors appear, it’s likely that a student has learned how to learn. Such practices empower strategic study habits like goal-setting and self-motivation. They offer more choice about how and when learning happens. Quizlet’s customizable tools can further these learning practices in a variety of ways. Personalizing study tools for individual learning needs, for instance, can increase learning effectiveness and deepen a sense of ownership.
Last-minute learning patterns are at the opposite end of the spectrum. These study patterns suggest an ad hoc approach to goals with intermittent cram sessions. Last-minute learning is not necessarily ineffective or accidental. These patterns can show up for many reasons. Perhaps the student is putting more time into courses that matter most to them. Or, maybe they are prioritizing important non-academic pursuits. That’s why Quizlet supports every type of study pattern, with excellent options for learning across the study spectrum.
However, for some, last-minute learning patterns can indicate less ownership. If a student hasn’t been exposed to strategies that help them learn effectively, they might be working hard but learning less. Last-minute learning can create a number of stressors. Students may depend heavily on external sources for motivation. They may feel overwhelmed and need structure that helps them set realistic goals. For this reason, we strive to help students discover strategies that increase their choices about how they learn.
At Quizlet, we want to help learners succeed in any situation. To do this, we have to meet students where they are. For driven learning, we offer increasingly customizable tools that support students’ independence and ambition. We also provide guidance that helps learners make the most of their time and discover new learning strategies. The many means of studying on Quizlet provide ample opportunity to explore new ways of learning and break out of existing habits. The next posts in this series will cover learning strategies I’ve added to my toolkit (and am still working to refine!). My hope is that modern learners can start taking advantage of these strategies a little earlier on in their educational journeys.