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As a college professor, I'm seeing more Gen X and Baby Boomer students than ever before. They're changing the way I teach.

Lisa Chilcote Bacco   

As a college professor, I'm seeing more Gen X and Baby Boomer students than ever before. They're changing the way I teach.
  • I've been a college professor for 20 years, and I'm seeing more Gen X and Baby Boomer students.
  • The older students have a ton of life experience that they bring to the classroom.

I've been a college professor for over 20 years in the field of medical sociology, and lately, I've noticed something different about the students in my classroom. An increasing number of college students aren't kids anymore; they're older — many of whom are my generational peers.

In recent years, there's been an increase in older adults, including Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, heading back to classrooms. This means many people in their 50s, 60s, and even 70s who, for various reasons, feel like the time is right to head back to school.

So, how does this impact my college classroom? It's changed the way students learn and the way I teach.

Older people are in the classroom for different reasons

Today's learners represent greater diversity than ever before, and they all come to class for different resons. The older students I've chatted with in my classes cited demographic and economic factors, such as increased longevity, delayed retirement, career reboots, and a genuine interest in the pursuit of knowledge. Some simply want to keep up with the times, which helps them create a generational bridge between themselves and their grandchildren.

Older students also say they share the same learning objectives as their younger counterparts — like career enhancement or a desire to increase their creativity at work.

Many are rethinking the social trajectory of aging altogether, promising to remain active contributors to the economy and society for as long as possible.

I quickly realized they learn differently

I've noticed that older learners engage in ways that are different from traditional college students. For starters, most of them have completed an entire life cycle in the workforce, raised kids, and balanced a household's financial budget. All of this arms them with practical skills yet to be cultivated among their younger cohorts.

All of this life experience has allowed them to develop what's called crystallized knowledge, or a form of intelligence that draws from deep pools of facts, much like a database. Information rooted in crystallized learning can be transferred to new experiences, situations, and ideas. Essentially, this vast mental library is a "superpower" acquired in our advanced years that these students use in the classroom.

Older cohorts, unlike their younger classmates who have an intuitive relationship with tech, are also more inclined to want to know why and how technology benefits them. Beyond this, they want to understand their education's inherent, lasting meaning. Acknowledging the way academic ideas and theories fit into a worldview paradigm is an essential and critical part of the learning process for them, I found.

It has changed the way I lead my classes

Having older students with a wealth of knowledge and experience in their back pockets has allowed me to move from a traditional "sage on the stage" model of teaching to a more modern role as a "guide on the side." So instead of lecturing at my students, I now act as a facilitator while my students gear the conversation.

Working in a more collaborative environment presents opportunities for older students to sometimes take the lead in discussions, positively influencing younger learners. In this way, my older students have become great contributors as I tap them for insights by engaging in the mutual sharing of knowledge, co-teaching, or harnessing the power of personal storytelling.

In turn, my 20-something students are eager to reciprocate by taking the lead as designated tech mentors.

I'm still learning to bridge the generation gap in the classroom

As the college student body diversifies, I am looking for new ways to break free from traditional college teaching because I need to reach a broader group of people now.

Education can be a lifelong pursuit that challenges each of us to move outside of our respective comfort zones. Unexpected and even unlikely relationships are often forged, encouraging us to find meaning in new endeavors. These transformative experiences make learning worthwhile for all of us — at every stage of life.

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