Is this the key to motivating under-thirty students?

Faculty members, have you ever returned a set of final exams or end-of-term projects only to have younger students complain that they deserved a “break” on the grade because they had “worked really, really hard” on the assignment? Well, if, like me, you have found it hard to convince these students that effort doesn’t always equal reward, you could benefit from reading Garrison Wynn’s “How to get older, younger people to work better together.”

Wynn, a business and industry consultant and speaker, is also an astute judge of the communication issues plaguing the multi-generational workplace, where Wynn says “the real issues exist between the over-40 and under-30 groups, with the people in the middle having combined issues, traits and opinions.” He proceeds to describe the over-forty worker as someone who equates hard work and long workdays as evidence of work ethic and commitment to the company. Conversely, Wynn says that the under-thirty set views its older counterparts as a bunch of workaholics who simply need to get a life. Wynn describes these younger workers as thriving in a fast-paced, technology-driven world.

However—and here’s the big point that is so, so relevant to those of us who teach— Wynn explains that under-thirty workers expect to receive more frequent formative feedback than older workers, who tend to patiently wait for the end of a project to receive summative feedback. Why is this? Well, Wynn chalks-up the difference to the way these younger workers were educated:

[When these workers were children], the elementary school system changed how teachers taught and rewarded for accomplishment. Teachers praised students along the way to the goal, not just when a task was completed. They stopped to celebrate along the way to success, creating motivation through little rewards rather than a big reward at the end. The teachers also promoted self-esteem by making sure every child knew he or she was cared for regardless of accomplishments. The recurring message delivered through this approach goes like this: ‘We love you; we know you can do it; and here is a little prize at the halfway mark to prove that to you.’

Ugh. Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? I mean, between teaching a full-load of classes and handling advisement, publication, grant writing, and college committee responsibilities, who has the time to coddle students, right? Well, maybe a compromise can be reached: Perhaps we can borrow from Wynn’s advice to the managers of these younger workers to set shorter deadlines and create more built-in rewards. For those of us in the classroom, this would mean using more unit-based assessments such as quizzes and fewer summative assessments such as final exams. 

Will this keep the complainers from lining-up when final exams are handed back? No. However, it could make the line shorter simply because students feel that their work was rewarded along the way. And, yes, I know there are those who would say that the student simply can’t have this much control over the curriculum. To that, I answer by quoting Wynn: It is true that we can all say “…’We were all young once’ – but the truth is we were not all young under the same circumstances.” Circumstances shape the students entering our classrooms. It is up to us to find ways to shape them from there.


Carnegie Mellon University. (2016). What is the difference between formative and summative assessment? Retrieved 20 March 2018 from

Wynn, G. (n.d.). How to get older, younger people to work better together. RELIABLEPLANT Newsletter. Retrieved 20 March 2016 from,-younger-people-to-work-better-toger .