A Survey and Review of Attitudes and Beliefs of Generation X Pharmacy Students
Keywords: Generation X, Peter Sacks, learning aptitude, attitudes
Objectives. The purpose of this paper was to describe an anonymous survey that was administered to first- and third-year professional pharmacy students at the University of Kentucky.
Methods. This survey instrument was modeled after a survey administered and described by Peter Sacks in his text Generation X Goes to College. The survey instrument was meant to ascertain attitudes and beliefs of current Generation X students. Little information is available to determine how closely pharmacy students identify with Generation X characteristics. The aim of this research was to compare and contrast responses of pharmacy students to the responses of non-pharmacy students previously reported.
Results. We found that the majority of responses between pharmacy and non-pharmacy students were similar.
Conclusions. Generation X students, irrespective of discipline, manifest a collective group of characteristics and traits that may affect learning aptitude. Generation X faculty also may possess similar characteristics. Knowledge and awareness of these traits both by faculty and students may improve teaching and learning.
Keywords: Generation X; Peter Sacks; learning aptitude
In the 1996 book Generation X Goes to College, Peter Sacks chronicles his observations as a journalist turned college professor.1 Sacks describes his struggles in dealing with the current culture of college students and the bureaucracy of many institutions of higher learning, both of which would be of little surprise to today’s educators. Sacks also describes the endless antics of his students who seem to be motivated by, among other characteristics, a sense of entitlement.
Cultural climate affects students’ attitudes and beliefs. Many of today’s students are said to belong to “Generation X.” While definitions vary, Generation X individuals (Gen-Xers) are most often identified as being those individuals born between 1968 and 1979.1,2 As with any generation, beliefs and attitudes are shaped by experiences and environment. Some researchers have compared Generation X with the preceding generation known as the “baby boomers” (Table 1).2 Generation X is the collective group whose formative years were marked by the introduction of the remote control, Atari®, and early personal computers such as the Commodore 64®. This group was shaped by the materialistic influence of the 1980s. They were among the first generation to mature in families in which both parents worked and the child often spent several hours home alone after school; thus, the term “latch key children” was coined to describe them. Parental divorce is more prevalent within Generation X than any other generation. Gen X children in the 1980s faced twice the risk of parental divorce than did Baby Boomer children of the 1960s.3 As is true for most generations, life experiences have influenced the current crop of learners in classrooms today.
Most educators have felt the collective influence of Generation X. Also, many junior level faculty now entering academia are themselves Gen-Xers.4 Just as student Gen-Xers will exemplify a certain culture of behavior, so too will Gen X educators. Students and educators alike must be cognizant of the attitudes and beliefs that influence them, as this will affect teaching style and learning aptitude. It may be as important for faculty to understand the beliefs and attitudes of students as it is to understand the instructional content. Administrators, in managing junior level faculty, must also consider the collective traits of these individuals.
Chronologically, most pharmacy schools are currently educating and training Generation X students. Similar to our colleagues in other disciplines, pharmacy educators are struggling to understand this generation of learners while maximizing the students’ educational experience. However, no information is available to determine how closely the characteristics of pharmacy students resemble those of Gen X. In his text, Peter Sacks conducts a 6-question survey of students within a course at an undisclosed liberal arts college. Our aim was to administer this same survey to pharmacy students to compare and contrast results between our students and those that Sacks surveyed.
Following approval from the University of Kentucky’s Institutional Review Board, an anonymous survey was administered to first- and third- year professional pharmacy students at the institution. The survey was initially pre-tested by a randomly selected group of 3 pharmacy students. Peer review comments from these students were used to develop the final survey instrument. So that findings could be contrasted with those of Sacks, the survey was based on Sacks’ questionnaire with the exception of some wording modifications to make the instrument more specific to pharmacy students. This was done in response to suggestions from the peer review group (Table 2). After students completed the survey, the results were tabulated.
The response rates for the first- and third-year classes were 83% (n=83) and 89% (n=78), respectively. Specific results sorted by professional year and questions are listed in Table 3 and are compared to results from Sacks’ original 1996 survey. In the first year class, 66% of respondents were female and 34% were male. The third year class was 68% female and 32% male. In the first year class, 3 students were born prior to 1968 and 10 after 1979. The most common year of birth in the first year class was 1978. All responders from the third year class were born between 1968 and 1979, with 1977 being the most common year of birth. Specific breakdowns regarding the students’ years of birth are in Table 4.
Question 1 of the survey asked what the student believed was the most important quality of an instructor. The top responses for students in both study groups and Sack’s group were “friendly and warm” and “entertaining.” The slightly more “professionalized” pharmacy students more commonly selected “friendly and warm” than did the students in Sacks’ group, among whom “entertaining” was the most common response. “Demanding” was the least common response among pharmacy students, as it was among Sacks’ students, with none of the students from the first year pharmacy students or Sacks’ group selecting this trait. However, 4% of third year students selected this response, and this may be a reflection of a more scholastically experienced population. Additionally, few students chose “easy grader”; this may be an unexpected finding for many educators.
Responses to question 2 were also very consistent in both test groups and Sacks’ group. When subjects were asked on what criteria grades should be based, the most common response was “knowledge and performance in a subject.” Students in the third year class selected this response most often (73%) compared with those in the first year class (62%) and Sacks’ group of students (52%). The least commonly selected response among all 3 groups in this area was “attitude.” The remaining 2 choices, “improvement over time” and “how hard you try,” had a similar selection rate in both study groups and Sacks’ group of students.
All of the subjects believed that a reasonable average college grade should be a “B.” More of the students in Sacks’ group believed a “B” should be an average grade, with 86% of respondents selecting this response. An average grade of “A” or “D” were the least popular responses, with no more then 2% of students in any group selecting either of these responses.
When subjects were asked how much time they spent studying per day for classes, the most popular responses among all 3 groups ranged from 1-3 hours. Sacks’ group responses indicated they spent the least amount of time per day studying, while the third year class of pharmacy students spent the most time per day studying. No students from either Sacks’ group or the first year class spent more then 5 hours per day studying, while 4% of the third year class indicated that they spent more than 5 hours/day studying. The greatest percentage of students who said they expect to study “hardly at all” came from Sacks’ group (14%).
Subjects were asked to express their level of agreement or disagreement to 2 position statements. The first statement was “Because students have a basic right to succeed, achievement should not be made difficult in class.” All 3 subject groups disagreed with this statement, with Sacks’ group of students having the highest percentage of subjects disagreeing (59%). The third year class was somewhat divided regarding this statement, with 58% either disagreeing or strongly disagreeing, while 42% agreed or strongly agreed. Of the first year class 58% responded “disagree,” followed by an even breakdown of 19% for each response: “strongly disagree,” “agree,” and “strongly agree.”
The second position statement read “I am the consumer who pays the bills, and so my instructor should be mostly responsible for making sure that I learn and receive my money’s worth.” Interestingly, the responses of each group were closely divided regarding this statement. Within the first year class, 54% strongly disagreed or disagreed, while 46% agreed or strongly agreed. In the third year class, 37% strongly disagreed or disagreed, and 61% agreed or strongly agreed. Lastly, 47% of respondents in Sacks’ group had strongly disagreed or disagreed and 42% agreed or strongly agreed.
The vast majority of survey participants from the first and third year classes were born within the years defining Generation X (eg, 1969-1979). Within both pharmacy classes some outliers existed. In the first year class and third year class approximately 4% and 1.1% of respondents, respectively, were born prior to 1969 and would be more appropriately described as “baby boomers.” Also, in the first year class, 4.8% of respondents were born after 1979 and would be regarded as “Millenials.”5 There is no way to verify the sample size or years of birth of the participants in Sacks’ group.
In examining responses, many similarities to the characteristic and previously published Generation X traits can be identified.1-4 Notably, a majority of students in both study groups and in Sacks’ group did not value “demanding” as an important quality of an instructor, while friendliness and warmth scored high marks. This finding has numerous implications for educators. Primarily, if students value friendliness and warmth more than other characteristics, is this the parameter by which they are evaluating teachers and professors? Do the degrees of friendliness and warmth shown by educators promote learning? In addition, since females are traditionally perceived as being more friendly and warm, do female faculty have an advantage in terms of their scores on teaching evaluations by students? It should be comforting to educators that none of the students in the 3 groups valued an “easy grader
The 2 subject groups and Sacks’ group of students consistently selected responses that indicated that grades should primarily be based on knowledge and performance. Many critics of modern day education and curricula have scorned students and educators alike for basing grades on effort and improvement over time rather than on actual performance.6 The third year class seemed to value knowledge and performance to the greatest percentage compared with their counterparts in the first year class and students in Sacks’ group. This might have been a result of 3 years of formal pharmacy education. In Sacks’ group a majority of students favored knowledge and performance over other determining factors of grades, but to a narrower margin. Students within Sacks’ group differed from their counterparts in pharmacy in that they were in the earlier stages of formal college education and were enrolled in a liberal arts program versus the science-based curriculum of a graduate pharmacy program.
Grade inflation has recently become a popular topic of debate throughout the United States.7 Many consider a “C” to be an average grade and concerns have been raised that intentional or unintentional grade inflation has caused the perceptions of a mean grade among students to rise to a “B.” In our survey students in bothsubject groups and in Sacks’ group overwhelmingly believed that a “B” should be an average grade.
The pharmacy classes were specifically asked this question in terms of a mean pharmacy school grade. These responses may have been influenced by students’ existing grade point averages, as well as by the number of years of formal education. First year pharmacy students embarking on an intensive curriculum might also be self-persuaded to set lower standards until they grow more familiar with curricular expectations.
Students within all groups were very consistent in the amount of time they expected to spend studying per day (eg, 1-3 hours). Interestingly, the responses of students in Sacks’ group did not differ substantially from students in the pharmacy school classes, as might have been expected given the differences in the programs the students’ were pursuing. The first of 2 position statements that were posed in the survey was best designed to assess the consumerist attitudes of the subjects responding. Most subjects in all 3 groups expressed disagreement with the concept of a “basic right to succeed.” The narrowest margin of responses came from the third year class in which 40% of subjects did agree that because of students’ basic right to succeed, achievement should not be made difficult. A hypothesis for this finding in the third year class is that these students were closest to completion of the didactic portions of their education and felt as though they had already been “tested” and proven themselves worthy of entry into the profession with little added challenge provided. The second position statement was intended to identify the students’ concepts of responsibility for learning, as well as their senses of entitlement. Entitlement, as was previously discussed, is considered a common characteristic of Generation X.”2 Of the 6 questions on the survey instrument, this statement produced the most conflicting responses. Each subject group was very evenly divided in their responses to this statement. Slightly more pharmacy students within the third year class agreed with this statement, compared with those in the first year class. This may be indicative of an increased level of comfort with the College of Pharmacy and its policies and procedures. Perhaps a lack of confidence coupled with being in such an early phase of formalized pharmacy training made first year pharmacy students more likely to accept responsibility for failures or deficiencies.
Gen-Xers have many qualities with which educators should be familiar. They were reared during the rise of the information age and are quick to assimilate technological advances.1″4’8 Early and repeated exposure to video games and cable television makes this generation more receptive to information bytes than indepth, critical analyses. Gen-Xers are drawn to text and literature that is well organized and visually appealing.4 A novel example of this phenomenon is the widespread popularity of the newspaper, USA Today, which incorporates color and graphics into the traditional newspaper format.
Generation X seems to have an affinity for reality and real world applications.'”4 This is perhaps the etiology of the current popularity of reality television that originated with MTVs pilot of “The Real World.” Gen-Xers are drawn to real life experiences and best relate when the impact of choices, knowledge, spirituality, and other factors are encumbered with the consequences and applications of what they so often term “the real world.”
Spending their formative years in the materialistic period of the 1980s may have led many Gen-Xers to develop strong consumerist attitudes and senses of entitlement.'”4’9 These attributes are often frustrating for educators as they may undermine classroom civility and promote grade inflation. Gen-Xers place high value on entertainment.'”4 This trait may be a result of television’s influence combined with constant bombardment with video games having greater and greater graphic capabilities. The high precedence placed on entertainment also may cause this generation to have short attention spans. Gen-Xers are quick to lose interest in presentations lacking entertainment value.
Many positive commonalities exist among members of Generation X. Their aptitude and experience with information technology allows them to ad just rapidly to the fast paced world of computers.4’8 They do not fear technology and technological advances and are able to quickly assimilate data. Recalling their own childhood experiences as “latch-key children,” many Gen-Xers spend more time with their families and place emphasis on their children’s development. They will often bring their children to class rather than leave them at home. Generation X is likely to be more outspoken and direct than prior generations.4 This high level of directness should not always be perceived as disrespectful or aggressive behavior. While Generation Xers will work feverishly when a task is at hand, they recognize the shortcomings of their parents rigid work schedules and therefore prioritize relaxation. Since many were raised in households with 2 working parents and being “latch key children,” Gen Xers tend to be independent and require little supervision. After being charged with assignments and responsibilities, this group is usually self-sufficient and accomplishes tasks with little guidance.
Recognizing that the diverse profile and traits of Generation X, some researchers and educators have proposed strategies and methods that might enhance learning and overcome educational gaps.2 Unlike the baby-boomer generation, Gen-Xers may not display an inherent respect for the educational institution or faculty. Because Gen-Xers seem aware of the perceived biases and criticisms of the baby boomer generation, instructors are encouraged to earn students’ respect as authorities in a particular subject area as opposed to imposing broad-based authority that is likely to be rejected. Gen-Xers respond to passion and to faculty who display enthusiasm and energy not only for their subject areas, but also for their role as teachers. Faculty should not preach of “declining standards or student performance,” but instead make expectations clear and concise. Gen-Xers will particularly respond to real world examples of people who have succeeded by adhering to high ethical and work standards. Through television and other forms of media, Generation X has become accustomed to receiving information in an entertaining format. Technological prowess and an attraction to multimedia make varied pedagogical approaches (eg, videos, animation, small groups, sounds) that stimulate multiple senses preferred in classrooms of Gen-X learners. Handouts, overheads, and other learning materials are more likely to be well received when they are colored, concise, and visually appealing. Employers and faculty alike should recognize that unlike the baby boomers, evaluation is valued by GenXers. The opinions of employers and faculty with regard to performance are relished and serve as prerequisites for continued effort on their part.
Lastly, it is imperative to again highlight the importance of real world linkages and correlations for Gen-X learners. Gen-Xers will ask “why do I have to learn this?” before they will commit the time to learning it. Pharmacy educators particularly must strive to incorporate real-life clinical experiences and patient care scenarios within their teachings. This is often a difficult task for non-science based faculty as they find formulating practical and generationally relevant lecture material challenging. Faculty must also work to demonstrate how didactic and other material taught in the classroom become essential for success in the clinical realm. When Gen-Xers are able to visualize these relationships concretely, they are more likely to actively incorporate information and respond enthusiastically to instruction.
Our study is limited in its purely descriptive nature (eg, specific aggregate comparisons were not performed). Gender may particularly have influenced survey responses, as a large portion of our samples (66 and 68%) were female. Future studies should pay particular attention to this finding as the profession continues to become less and less male dominated. We have no access to specific data (ie, dates of birth) garnered by Sacks in his study. Our results also may have been influenced by the times of year and years within which the survey was administered and also by the selection of students within a specific educational institution (eg, the University of Kentucky). Every educational institution embodies a certain culture that may mold students’ perceptions of learning and this may have affected our results.
With the study limitations in mind, analysis of responses to each of the 6 survey questions revealed more similarities than differences among the 3 subject groups as a whole. Surprisingly, little differences existed in the responses of the subjects, regardless of their status as pharmacy students or non-pharmacy students. Nor was a substantial difference seen when first and third year pharmacy students were contrasted. These similarities in attitude and opinion may be a reflection of the collective experiences and influences that impacted Generation X. These experiences inevitably shape value systems and ways of thinking. Recognizing these influences and attitudes may impact upon the learning of Generation X students and the teaching of Generation X faculty.
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5. Howe N, Strauss W. Millenials Rising. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.
6. StoutM. The Feel-Good Curriculum: The Dumbing-Down of America ‘s Kids in the Name of Self-Esteem. Cambridge, Mass.:Perseus Publishing, 2000.
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Frank Romanelli, PharmD1, and Melody Ryan, PharmD1
1 College of Pharmacy, University of Kentucky
Corresponding Author: Frank Romanelli, PharmD. College of Pharmacy, University of Kentucky, 800 Rose Street, Lexington, KY 40536. Tel: 859-257-4778.
Fax: 859-257-2128. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy 2003
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