It starts with humility: bridging the generational gap within pharmacy education 

By: Virginia San Juan, PharmD Candidate 2022 and Mary E. Fredrickson, PharmD, BCPS

As an educator, what comes to mind when you hear the term “Gen Z student”? Does this evoke a technologically savvy student perpetually glued to their iPhone? A student who prefers to work alone or lacks creativity? Consulting many of the numerous health professions education (HPE) articles pertaining to Generation Z (“Gen Z”) students will confirm these conjectures, with an accompanying list of ways in which to modify teaching and assessment methods to accommodate them. The idea of characterizing HPE students in this way is nothing new–there is a plethora of literature on millennials. However, while this may feel like a useful strategy, it can have unintended consequences for our learners.1 In an era of pharmacy education focused more intentionally on cultural humility, now may be the time to begin fostering a culture of generational humility as well.

Generation theory and its limitations within pharmacy education

Generation theory is based on the idea that individuals within a particular age group tend to share similar values, motivations, and behaviors.1 Within higher education, it is seen as a useful framework to understand differences that may exist between learners and instructors, guided by the assumption that characterizing a generation’s values, views, and learning styles may help determine instructional strategies.1,2 

Despite its prevalence within HPE, generation theory is limited by its reductive nature which downplays the importance of personal views and behaviors among students.1,3 It is likely some students within a generation will share the same identities and beliefs, but researchers emphasize the importance of validating individual differences and not viewing an entire class as a homogenous group.4,5 

While understanding differences among generations of students may help advise educational practices, this is only one piece of a much larger, complex puzzle. Unchecked, application of generation theory can lead to implicit biases and assumptions that negatively impact student learning.5 For example, instructors may assume Gen Z or Millennial students are experts in multitasking, though evidence suggests multitasking is a fallacy which can adversely affect skill accuracy and knowledge retention. In some cases, recommended teaching strategies are based on a generation’s perceived learning style or preferences.2 To illustrate, because members of Gen Z are considered “digital natives,” it has been recommended that educators implement new methods of content delivery (i.e. podcasts) within their classrooms. However, use of these mediums alone cannot improve learning if pedological quality is lacking or students are deficient in important metacognitive skills.5 

Finally, generation theory has the potential to bias our day-to-day interactions with students. It feels commonplace for older generations to view younger ones with a wary eye, and these students are often described by their less-than-appealing qualities–for example, the “entitled” Millennials.1 These generational stereotypes may lead educators to feel disinclined to consider or accommodate valid student needs on an individual basis.1 

A new perspective 

Jauregui and colleagues suggest HPE educators seek to implement generational humility, an approach that pairs critical consciousness and humility to better understand the values and motivations of learners.1 Through this approach, educators engage in a continuous process to evaluate generational assumptions and stereotypes held about learners and adjust their response to them.1 In the way cultural humility asks us to address power imbalances and appreciate individuality, generational humility asks us to abolish generationally influenced power differentials that may result in stereotyping and minimizing of individual student needs.1 This applies not only to our teaching environments but also our individual interactions with students. 

Consider these questions: 

  • Do I make assumptions about my students’ abilities or skill sets based on their age/assigned generation? 
  • Am I restructuring my course based on sound pedagogy or assumptions about the generation of learners I am instructing?
  • Am I accounting for the technological skills and literacy of all my students? 
  • Am I prioritizing instructional delivery (e.g.: new/fad technology) over pedagogical quality?
  • Do I view student requests or opinions through a generational lens that may bias my response?

Employing generational humility within pharmacy education offers a chance to evaluate our assumptions and positively change our attitudes toward our learners.1 

What steps will you take to embed generational humility in your courses?

Acknowledgements: Dr. Rachel Conrad-Bracken, Dr. Austin Fredrickson, and Michael Appleman, MA, Ed. 


  1. Jauregui J, Watsjold B, Welsh L, Ilgen JS, Robins L. Generational ‘othering’: The myth of the Millennial learner. Med Educ. 2020;54(1):60-65. doi:10.1111/medu.13795
  2. Shorey S, Chan V, Rajendran P, Ang E. Learning styles, preferences and needs of generation Z healthcare students: Scoping review. Nurse Educ Pract. 2021;57:103247. doi:10.1016/j.nepr.2021.10324
  3. Hoover E. The millennial muddle. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 2009. Accessed November 2021.
  4. Williams CA. Nurse Educators Meet Your New Students: Generation Z. Nurse Educ. 2019;44(2):59-60. doi:10.1097/NNE.0000000000000637
  5. Behar-Horenstein L. Generational learning differences in today’s dental students: a popular myth. Jour Dental Educ. 2016. doi: 10.1002/j.0022-0337.2016.80.5.tb06119.

Author Bio(s)

Virginia San Juan is a fourth-year student pharmacist at Northeast Ohio Medical University College of Pharmacy. Virginia’s educational scholarship interests include professional organization involvement, personal and professional development, and mentorship. In her free time, Virginia enjoys spending time with her loved ones, singing, and experiencing new foods and places.

Liz Fredrickson is an Assistant Professor of Pharmacy Practice at the Northeast Ohio Medical University College of Pharmacy. Her educational scholarship interests include the scholarship of teaching and learning, and research related to compounding education. In her free time, she enjoys going on adventures with her husband and four children.

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning

1 Comment

  1. Interesting thoughts! Thanks for this piece. Can this humility (and respect) be bidirectional? After all, instructors probably don’t appreciate the “Okay, Boomers” or “Okay X’ers” wisecracks either.

    Liked by 1 person

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