Developing Professional Dispositions Among Generation Z’s in the Online Environment: Student Wants vs. Professional Needs

Concurrent Session 2

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

The expectations of Gen Z students in online courses do not always align with the dispositions instructors in professional preparation programs know they need. Explore practical ways of supporting today’s online learners as they grow in their understanding of what it means to be a professional in their discipline. 


Amy Paciej-Woodruff is a new faculty member starting with the 2017-18 year. Research interests include male college student engagement as it relates to masculinity identity development; leadership identity development; and, equity, diversity and inclusion training. Her most recent presentation was 6 Easy-to-Use Tools for Creating Teacher and Social Presence in Online Courses at the 2018 Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education Annual Conference, in Washington, D.C. With over 20 years of student affairs experience at six institutions in various functional areas, one of her strengths as a faculty member is to help students make the connection between theory and practice. Her most recent practitioner experience was serving for three years when appointed to the role of senior student affairs officer at Marywood University as the Assistant Vice President for Student Life. There she provided leadership for the student life departments including housing and residence life, activities, orientation, leadership development, conduct, athletics, counseling, and student health; chaired the Behavioral Intervention Team; and, served as a Title IX Deputy Coordinator. Amy's past community involvement includes serving as president of the Junior League of Scranton and a Province President for Zeta Tau Alpha sorority. Amy earned a Ph.D. in Human Development in Higher Education Administration from Marywood University, M.S. in Higher Education Administration from the University of Rochester, and B.A. from Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania.

Extended Abstract

     What matters to today’s students in the online environment? Flexibility and less stress! Students want their professors to understand that they have lives outside of school. They expect understanding when they need extra time to complete an assignment. If an assignment doesn’t meet their needs, they appreciate having the opportunity to make changes to how they complete the work. In response, on one side of the continuum is the professor who says, “No way! In the real world, you will need to learn to meet deadlines and do what you have to do.” On the other side of the continuum, is the professor who says, “Sure! No problem.”

     We would argue that neither response helps the Gen Z student develop much-needed professional dispositions. And therein lies the key—Gen Z needs the opportunity to develop professional dispositions. So how do we support such development? Specifically, how do we support the development of dispositions in the online environment?

     Unlike times past, when many assumed that coursework was the main priority for students, current university students tend to juggle an array of family and work responsibilities as they pursue higher education. In addition, they do not always have the soft skills that promote success in the classroom--or in their profession.

     One place to begin is in reflecting on our own expectations as professors of Gen Z students. How well do we know them? How well do we understand why they approach their coursework in ways that may be so different from the way we approached our own professional preparation? Additionally, we can strengthen the way we link targeted professional dispositions to learning outcomes. Rather than assume and expect, how can we improve strategies to support and guide?

Session outline
1. Students’ wants of online instructors (from author’s research): flexibility; connections and engagement; sense of belonging; and faculty who genuinely understand that the student have a life outside of school which brings lowered stress and fewer negative feelings.

2. Faculty wants: academic rigor; established learning outcomes; and typically  unwritten expectations of development of professionalism such as managing projects, short timelines, competing priorities, and collaboration with peers.       

3. Brief reference to Sanford’s theory of support and challenge.       

4. Examine participants’ intended learning outcomes: with a specific course in mind, review defined learning outcomes and if they address the sometimes-unwritten expectations that are aligned with dispositions. Provide an example to facilitate the activity.

5. Conversation starters: presenters will share the four categories below, organized according to students’ wants in online courses, and strategies designed to balance student wants and redefined learning outcomes/dispositions. The session participants will pick which category to discuss first.

a. Choice and flexibility: due dates, format, number of assignments

b. Connections: type of group work compared to specific learning outcomes, connections to networks

c. Belonging: individual strengths, instructor facilitate connections to student interests, student announcements in the course

d. Course design: more assignments with lower points, grading time turnaround, due dates scheduled within macrosystem; due dates prior to drop add deadline

Level of Participation:

In this small group discussion session, attendees will first be introduced to the topic and identify some of the tensions experienced between student expectations and the professional dispositions (1-3 in the above outline). Presenters will then facilitate a short reflection activity asking the participants to utilize one of their own courses as a reference. Finally, the presenters will start and facilitate a discussion on one of the four categories (#5 a-d in the outline above) according to participants’ preference. Other categories can be discussed according to the participants’ level of interest. Via a link, participants will take away a tip sheet that includes a short reflection guide to strengthen intended learning outcomes (#4 in the outline) and an expanded list of specific strategies (#5 in the outline above) designed to assist faculty in meeting student needs while strengthening their expectations and course learning outcomes.

Session Goals:

Individuals attending this session will gain a better understanding of the disconnect that often occurs between Gen Z student expectations and expectations within professional preparation programs. Additionally, attendees will gain practical strategies for supporting the development of professional dispositions in the online learning environment.