What Motivates Millennials?

It is not unusual for older faculty to get a little cynical.  I have heard many faculty grumble about how hard it is to motivate today’s students.  While I agree with them that it is hard, and have grumbled about this my self a time or two, I have learned that it is quite possible to motivate millennials.

I tried a little experiment a couple of years ago with my grading that has had remarkable results and has helped me better understand what drives this generation.

Students in my senior level Entrepreneurship class work on a business model for most of the semester and at the end they translate what they have developed in the model into a business plan.

In the past I did what all professors do with assignments — I gave each submission along the way a grade.  They turned in an opportunity assessment for their business idea — I gave them a grade.  They turned in their business model — they got a grade.  They turned in their business plan — they received yet another grade.

I began to sense project fatigue by the end of the semester.  And on top of that, they lost sight of the fact that each submission was the foundation for the next.  When they got a grade, that was that.  On to the next assignment.  Check off that box on their list of things to get done before they graduate.  Now I am overstating it a bit, but there was more of that than I like to see.

So a few years ago I made a change.

They still turn in project updates along the way.  I continue to tweak them a bit, but they are always about the same basic steps — concept, model, plan.

But I no longer grade them along the way.  I give them LOTS of feedback (reminding them that RED is the color of love).  But no grades until the end of the semester on the final outcome of their semester of work on the project.  I was a bit nervous that they would push back.

At first they were uncertain what it means to work all semester without getting grades.  However, soon they got it.  They came to realize that my job was to be their adviser, mentor and critic.  My feedback was not given out as “judgement,” as had been the case when I assigned grades to each submission throughout the semester.

Rather, my  feedback was meant to help them get their projects as far along as they possibly could with the best finished product they could produce.  This is important because 30-50% of our students actually launch their ventures before they graduate.  For most, it is their only job.  These projects are in fact developing in effect their own job description for their post graduation careers.

And what are the outcomes of my little experiment?

  • The projects are much better.  They put more into what they do at each step and they take the feedback I offer — and the feedback they get from their classmates –to heart.
  • They take their work more seriously.  They want their models, their pitches and their plans to be top quality all the way along.  Not because they want the best grade from me.  But, because they are taking personal pride in their work.  They really care about what they are developing.
  • More students are starting their businesses.  Due to the two outcomes above, we are seeing a steady increase of the number of Entrepreneurship majors who actually become entrepreneurs upon graduation.

It may be something about today’s college students, but they are much more intrinsically motivated than they are motivated by carrots, sticks, and grades.

What joy it gives me to see real learning happening.  Not memorizing facts.  Not getting a paper done and then forgetting what they wrote about.  Instead, most of them are learning for the shear joy of learning.

And that will soften the heart of any old, crusty professor!