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Learning Preferences and Engagement Level of Generation Z Nursing Students

Hampton, Debra PhD, RN, CENP, NEA-BC, FACHE; Welsh, Darlene PhD, RN; Wiggins, Amanda T. PhD

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doi: 10.1097/NNE.0000000000000710
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Generation Z (also referred to as the iGen, digital natives, or Pluralist Generation), a new generation of nursing students, currently makes up the majority of traditional students in prelicensure nursing programs. Students born in 1995 or after are part of this new generation.1-3 Generation Z has matured in a hyperconnected world characterized by continual connection through their smartphones or electronic devices to the internet and the world around them.4 They experience instant gratification by finding the answer to almost any question by a simple Google search, from texting a friend, or through various social media applications. Having access to streaming services allows them to access videos and information that the Millennial generation had to wait to access as they were growing up. Generation Z has been impacted by continual exposure to economic issues, catastrophic world events, and uncertainty about the future.5 Members of Generation Z tend to embrace diversity, are typically tolerant and respectful of differences, and are community minded, cautious, collaborative, confident, respectful of authority,6 and financially conservative.7

Generation Z students have shorter attention spans than previous generations of students,8 in that the average Generation Z student attention span is 8 seconds.9,10 Seemiller and Grace3 noted that always having access to answers through the electronic media has prevented members of this generation from having to figure things out on their own. Consequences of this capability include a weakness in critical thinking and a lack of understanding of the differences between true, objective facts versus opinions. Chicca and Shellenbarger1 noted that the frequent reliance on technology and reduced personal connection have impacted the social and relationship skills of this generation, which may lead to an increased risk of mental health concerns, isolation, and social insecurity issues.

Generation Z students expect value from their education and an education that will help them find employment after college.3 They prefer intrapersonal learning, meaning they like learning independently and at their preferred pace, but they also enjoy the social connection of working in groups with peers.3,11 They do not like to be “lectured at” and want to be involved in learning.3 Providing practical information or illustrating how content is applicable to the real world is important for this group of students.8,11

Student Engagement

Engagement involves student commitment to the learning process, including spending adequate time and putting forth energy, effort, and thought to learn material and skills.12,13 Student engagement is demonstrated by the thought and work done to facilitate learning.13 Students are the primary agents in the learning process, and their personal commitment to learning is what fosters engagement.14 Bowen14 and Mandernach15 believe that student engagement can be defined in 4 related ways: (1) engagement with the learning process through participation activities (active learning), (2) experience-based or object-focused learning (experiential learning), (3) focus on the real-world context of study (multidisciplinary learning), and (4) engagement with the human condition or basics of human existence (service learning). Components of engagement as described in the National Survey of Student Engagement include academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, enriching educational experiences, and a supportive campus environment.16

According to the literature, engagement has 3 aspects; behavioral, cognitive, and emotional or affective.15,17,18 Behavioral aspects include course involvement, attendance, and other active learning responses. Cognitive aspects are represented by the mental effort students put into learning, including the amount of work they do in the course and how they deal with course challenges. Emotional or affective aspects of engagement relate to the emotional connection to the course experience, amount of investment made in learning, and the student's sense of interest and enjoyment in the experience. Students are the most deeply engaged in courses when educators individualize and personalize materials as much as possible and make connections to student life.19,20

Student engagement is one of the best predictors of learning and personal development.21 Engagement in learning has been linked to increased levels of student academic success and retention.22 Svanum and Bigatti23 found that course engagement was significantly related to degree attainment and grade point average. Students with higher engagement scores earned their degree earlier. The researchers also noted that high engagement could endure over the duration of the college experience. Handelsman et al17 found that performance engagement was reflected through extrinsic outcomes of achievement such as grades, whereas emotional engagement was associated with intrinsic factors. While research links student engagement with academic success, there is limited literature that explores these associations for nursing students and especially for Generation Z nursing students.

Teaching Preferences of Generation Z Students

Each generation has characteristics that influence how individuals within that generation learn.19 Studies reveal that students from generations prior to Generation Z have an affinity for lecture24,25; however, because of the reliance on technology for acquiring information, auditory/verbal teaching methods may not be the most effective for Generation Z students. Ayaz and Sekerci26 found, through a meta-analysis of 53 studies, that the constructivist learning approach, which involves use of active learning approaches, made the most significant contribution to academic achievement for the varied generations of participants in those studies. Based on what we have learned about Generation Z to date, it seems that a constructivist versus traditional teaching/learning approach also may be helpful for this generation of learners. A constructivist learning environment facilitates both learning and academic achievement.26 However, more information needs to be learned about what Generation Z students identify as their learning preferences.

The primary purpose of this study was to identify the teaching methods that Generation Z nursing students preferred, what teaching methodologies they identified as the most engaging and effective for learning, and their engagement level in the classroom setting. A second purpose of the study was to understand student opinions about use of a flipped classroom model.


This study employed a descriptive, cross-sectional survey design. Students who were enrolled in a traditional baccalaureate nursing program at a university in the south-central part of the United States were invited to participate in the study. Participants were provided with an email introduction about the study and were asked to complete an anonymous survey on Research Electronic Data Capture (Vanderbilt, Nashville, Tennessee). The study was approved by the institutional review board as an expedited study. Students born in 1995 or after were considered Generation Z students during participant enrollment.


A teaching preferences instrument previously created and used by the researchers to describe preference for teaching methods and to determine the most engaging and effective methodologies for learning27 was adapted for this study. Statements used in the original instrument were based on a pilot survey developed with the input of faculty with several years of teaching experience. Thirteen teaching methods were represented on the survey for this study, because they were identified by faculty as teaching methods used most frequently in the setting where this study was conducted. Students were instructed to think about the teaching methods they liked best and found most engaging. The scale categories included 5 (least liked and least engaging) to 1 (favorite or most engaging). Participants also could indicate if they had not experienced the teaching method.

This section of the survey was followed by a list of the same items, requesting that students indicate the teaching methods that were most effective in helping them learn. Additionally, the survey included a question about the student's preference for a traditional classroom model that involves lecture, videos, and various classroom exercises as compared with a flipped model in which students watch short videos or recorded lectures before class and class consists of various exercises, discussion, review of case studies, and other group activities.

Student engagement in the learning environment was measured by the Handelsman and colleagues'17 Student Course Engagement Questionnaire (SCEQ). Permission to use this instrument was granted by Handelsman. The 23-item scale measures 4 types of engagement: skills, emotional, participation, and performance. Activities and behaviors associated with each component of engagement included (a) skills: practicing tasks, learning strategies, and study behaviors that promote academic success; (b) emotional: internalization of information by emotional connection to course material; (c) participation: a student's willingness and desire to interact with the instructor and peers about course content; and (d) performance: self-efficacy and achievement of outcomes in relation to mastering course content.15,28 Response options to each item followed a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (not at all characteristic of me) to 5 (very characteristic of me). Examples of items from the scale include the following: making sure to study on a regular basis and finding ways to make the course material relevant to my life. Subscale scores are calculated using a mean, and the total engagement is summative for all items (potential range, 23-115). The Cronbach's α for the total engagement score for this study was .83, and all subscale α's were greater than .70.

Descriptive statistics were used to analyze the data including means and SDs. Frequency distributions were used to summarize study variables to rank order teaching method preferences from least to most important. Spearman's ρ correlations were used to examine the relationships among student characteristics (year born and semester enrolled). Data analysis was conducted using SAS version 9.4 (SAS Institute Inc, Cary, North Carolina), with an α level of .05.



Approximately 20% of Generation Z students who were invited to participate in this study completed the survey (born in 1995, n = 23; 1996, n = 36; 1997, n = 22; 1998, n = 22). Of the 103 participants, 99% were female and 92% white. Participants included students in the first semester (22%) to the sixth (15%) and final semester in the program.

Teaching Preferences

To determine the teaching method preference, the responses for favorite and most engaging and somewhat liked and engaging were combined. The Table includes participant preferences for the 13 methodologies. Generation Z students ranked lecture with audience response clickers as the most preferred/most engaging teaching methodology (n = 102 [92%]) and most effective for learning (n = 102 [94%]), followed by traditional lecture as the second most preferred/most engaging (n = 101 [62%]) and the most effective for learning (n = 101 [85%]). Videos or audio-enhanced PowerPoint presentations, simulation, and case studies were among the top 6 methods rated as the most preferred/most engaging and most effective for learning among these students. Students ranked blogs, assigned readings from journals or other sources, assigned readings from the textbook, internet searches, and group problem-solving exercises as the least preferred teaching method and least effective method for learning. Quizzes/tests were ranked as the fifth least preferred and least engaging methodology, but were rated the third most effective methodology for promoting learning. Blogs (43%, no experience) and games (21%, no experience) were 2 methods that students had the least experience with during their curricular paths. Teaching methodology preferences were also compared for each student age, and there were no significant differences for preferences among students who were born in 1995 compared with those born in 1996, 1997, or 1998.

Opinions Related to Preferences for Teaching Methods and Those Felt to Be Effective for Learning

In relation to preferences for a traditional versus a flipped classroom model, students preferred the traditional model. The traditional classroom model was the favorite or most preferred for 56% of students and was somewhat preferred for 25% of students, with a combined total of 81% of students indicating this was their preference.


The overall engagement score for Generation Z students (n = 96) was 88, with a range of scores from 64 to 107. For the various dimensions of engagement, skills represented the highest mean score (mean, 4.2 [SD, 0.5]), followed by performance (mean, 4.0 [SD, 0.7]), emotional/affective (mean, 3.7 [SD, 0.6]), and participation (mean, 3.3 [SD, 0.6]). There were no associations between engagement, age, and numbers of semesters completed in the traditional BSN program.

In examining the association between engagement and preferred teaching methods, the only significant relationship was related to group collaborative projects. Participants (n = 95) who had higher engagement scores rated group collaborative projects as the most preferred and effective method for learning (Spearman's ρ = 0.25; P = .014), indicating that more engaged students had a higher preference for working in groups.


This study provided information about the teaching methods this group of Generation Z students preferred, found engaging, and believed facilitated their learning. Lecture with audience response clickers for in-class polling was the teaching method preferred by students and the method students rated as most effective for learning. The preferences of Generation Z students in relation to lecture appear to mirror those of other generations, in that lecture was identified as a preferred teaching method for other generations of students.24,25 Although some educators think of lecture as a less effective way of teaching for today's generation of students, students viewed lecture from a different perspective. The students' positive opinions about lecture may be impacted by the way lecture was delivered, with the incorporation of varied presentation products and audiovisual aids, interactive activities, and case discussion application activities interspersed with lecture content.

Generation Z students want practical, useful, and helpful information that brings value,5,8,11 which is supportive of the structure that lecture provides in helping guide students about what they need to learn. Generation Z students also prefer individualized, immediate, engaging, and visual learning,5 which may be why their top teaching method preferences included lecture, especially with audience response involvement, simulation, audio/video presentations, and case studies. Because technology has allowed Generation Z students to get instant results and immediate feedback, it is understandable why they preferred lecture with audience involvement and simulation. Students overall preferred a traditional classroom model instead of a flipped classroom. Further study needs to be done about the outcomes of using traditional versus flipped classroom models, since a systematic review done by Evans et al29 did not demonstrate compelling evidence of the effectiveness of a flipped classroom model over traditional classroom models.

Visual methods8 followed by active learning have been identified as the preferred learning method of students.30 Although traditional lecture has been viewed as an auditory method of learning, with the incorporation of pictures, videos, and other visual aids, lecture now incorporates both auditory and visual components and thus may be visually appealing.

Students did not like assigned reading, which supports Chicca and Shellenbarger's1 statement that Generation Z students learn through visual images and not by reading text. Chicca and Shellenbarger pointed out that Generation Z students have prior K-12 educational experiences with varied teaching products and visual materials and thus may not have experience using textbooks as a primary learning resource.

Students in this study had an overall high engagement level (88 of possible 115), with skills (practicing tasks, learning strategies, and study behaviors that promote academic success) and performance (self-efficacy and achievement of outcomes in relation to mastering course content) representing the highest component scores. In comparing engagement scores of these Generation Z nursing students to the scores of students in other generations, undergraduate students in another study reported an overall engagement level score of 78 (total engagement mean, 3.39) on the SCEQ, with performance and skills representing the highest component score areas.13 Based on what we have learned about Generation Z's view of academic achievement and future success, it is not surprising that skills and performance were the most important components of engagement for this group.

An interesting finding of this study was that students with a higher preference for working in groups also had higher engagement scores. Bowen14 noted that engaged learners interpret what they learn from others within the context of their own experience; thus, students who are more engaged may more readily appreciate the value of group learning.


This study was a single-site study, and faculty within the setting may have developed similar methods of teaching within their courses. Alternately, how one faculty member teaches during a lecture may be very different than what others do during lecture. There also are different ways of implementing specific teaching methods. For example, simulation can be executed by using manikins in a simulation laboratory or through a discussion of a fictional scenario (eg, table-top simulation). Having more information about how teaching methods were implemented would have added value to the study. The effectiveness of teaching methods for student learning was based on student opinion versus grades, so the findings do not reflect academic success.

Approximately 20% of the students who were invited to participate in the study did so. Based on discussion with faculty after the completion of the study, the researchers learned that students may not read email, especially when an email is sent to a group of students; to communicate with them, one needs to use varied social media methods of communication. Thus, some students may not have seen the invitation to participate in the study.

The reasons for the opinions offered by students on learning preferences were not explored. Is time management or the need to set other priorities influencing factors? Many students are employed, have social and family obligations, or are taking heavy course loads. A flipped classroom, not preferred by this group of students, often includes preclass work. Additionally, reading assignments are time consuming, and this may be a factor for their low preference rating. Is it easier for students to manage instruction when commitments prior to class are kept to a minimum? If so, how does limiting out-of-class work impact academic success? Future research is warranted for these questions. Finally, the opinion about the year that Generation Z begins differs among published articles. The question could be asked, “Was this group of participants truly representative of Generation Z?”


Lecture in today's world of education is not what lecture used to be. Teaching and how it is accomplished are important, keeping in mind that the student is the primary agent of learning. A focus on students and their preferences for instruction is essential to learning. Educators aspire to use teaching methods that engage students because engagement promotes learning; however, the methods faculty believe are best may not be valued the same by students. Educators need to use methods that engage students and foster learning. Students in this study preferred methodologies that guided their learning, facilitated involvement, and also were practically applicable.


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engagement in learning; Generation Z; nursing students; student engagement; teaching method

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