It’s Not You, It’s Us: Training Strategies for Engaging a Post-Millennial Workforce

by | July 15, 2019

For some instructors, one of the scariest prospects is entering a classroom full of young adult learners. Stereotypes of the millennial and post-millennial generations strike fear among educators concerned with finding ways to engage the largest group entering the workforce. Fears include perceptions about student desires for constant validation, disinterest in professionalism, addiction to mobile devices, and the dreaded question, “Why?”

For the millennials and post-millennials reading this, I can assure you: It’s not you, it’s us.

As a retired police sergeant, the former supervisor of our training program for new officers, and an instructor at the Napa, Calif., police academy, I’ve worked with hundreds of millennial generation learners. I found the stereotypes regarding the millennial and post-millennial generations are exaggerated and often flatly wrong. More important, I’ve discovered the millennial generations are adult learners, and the issues of educating them were addressed decades ago by Malcolm Knowles.

Working from a set of assumptions about adult learners, Knowles identified the ways in which adults learn best, and how they prefer to learn. These concepts easily translate to millennial learners.

The Need for Self-Direction

First, adult learners want to be self-directed about their learning. As educators, we often fail to believe the millennial generation has this capacity. Again, this is on us, not the learners. While instructors decide what must be taught, why do we feel we also must decide how? When we allow the millennial generation to develop strategies for their own learning, we genuinely involve them while giving them responsibility for the learning and its process.

As with any adult learner, there are times when individuals may be temporarily dependent in particular learning situations. Also, the level of self-direction may be different for different people, which underscores the importance of allowing millennial learners to interact socially, to work in groups and to help one another learn. This interdependence, combined with effective facilitation, also engages millennial learners.

Experience as a Resource

A second assumption Knowles developed involves experience. He recognized adults accumulate experience through their lifetimes, and he pointed out they bring this experience with them to the classroom as a resource. Often, instructors dismiss millennials as not having “life experience.” Arguably, this is insulting to any adult, but when examined closely, what it means is Generation X and baby boomer educators simply had a different life experience than millennials. The insult arises when instructors don’t respect or value the life experience of the millennial generation.

It’s not enough to address the cognitive aspect of why something must be learned; effective facilitators touch hearts as well as minds.

It is impossible to reach adulthood without acquiring “life experience.” So again, millennials, it’s not you, it’s us. Effective facilitators can find and draw out the experience of any group of learners and surface the experience in the classroom as a resource—which in turn validates and values the student, something every adult learner appreciates.

Consider an example in which the only life experience a millennial learner brings to the topic of study at hand is conducting effective internet searches. An experienced facilitator can successfully use that! And based on my experience, millennials typically bring a lot of applicable experience to the classroom. It just might be different experience than you brought when you were their age.

Experiential Learning

Third, Knowles built on the concept of experience and directly related it to learning. He pointed out that adults attach meaning to the learning they gain through experience. As a result, experiential learning—including lab experiments, simulations, problem-solving and field practice—is far more effective than lecture-driven PowerPoint presentations. As well as being a preferred learning method for many millennials, experiential learning is most effective for developing deeper comprehension and learner engagement.

The Importance of Why

Knowles’ fourth assumption states adults are motivated to learn when they need the knowledge to cope with a task or problem. This means when we want to engage any adult learners—including millennials—we must make the topic relevant to them. As has been commonly noticed about the millennial generation, the question “Why?” is important to them. This is where instructors can be proactive in the classroom and easily engage students.

It’s not enough to address the cognitive aspect of why something must be learned; effective facilitators touch hearts as well as minds. For example, some people find domestic abuse law uninteresting. To make this topic relevant, an instructor might create a real-life problem a student will likely face. The facilitator might engage learners in problem-solving, draw out long- and short-term impacts of family violence, and surface experience found within the classroom. The result will be learners who are more engaged and more likely to retain the information.

Immediate Application

And finally, Knowles asserts adults are motivated to learn when they perceive they can apply the learning immediately. Children are willing to accept a teacher’s promise that they will need to know math and history in the future; adult learners are less gracious. Again, this is not the challenge for the students, it is the instructor’s task to demonstrate how learners might readily apply lessons.

Technology as Facilitator

As we wrap up, I’ll add another assumption, this one Knowles couldn’t have anticipated: We must allow millennial learners to use their mobile devices (cell phones, tablets, laptops) as part of the learning process.

Millennials are digital natives, but we, as Gen X and baby boomers, are digital immigrants. We often resist hints, requests and demands by the students to use technology. But why should we? Our learners have more information at their fingertips—literally—than has ever been possible before. They are very good at searching for and finding it, so why would we want to inhibit their use of tools when we can use it to draw them in? Educators must effectively integrate technology, stowing PowerPoint (or using it for other than lecture) and encouraging the use of personal devices whenever it is reasonable to do so.

We must treat millennials as adult learners, applying Knowles’ principles of adult learning to help us engage and connect with them. We must recognize that when we struggle to connect, the problem is not them: it’s us.


Knowles MS. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: from pedagogy to andragogy. Chicago, IL: Association Press.

ROGER BUHLIS is a Law Enforcement Training Content Developer for Lexipol. He worked as an officer and sergeant for 26 years before retiring in 2012. Roger continues to teach policing professionals and has 30 years of experience training and teaching. In retirement, Roger earned a master’s degree in Adult Education in 2015.

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