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Gen Z in the Classroom: A Guide to Applying Experiential Learning to Design and UX

Business educator Stacy Neier Beran shares the unique attitudes of Gen Z, and how to apply design and research through the power of experiential learning.

Words by Stacy Neier Beran, Visuals by Thumy Phan

As nostalgia in the marketplace reaches fever pitch, here’s a question that may take you back:

What do you want to do when you grow up?

Maybe answering this question was an easy slam dunk for you. Maybe it filled you with pressure-cooker voltage. Or maybe this question is not such a throwback after all, but one that you asked yourself last week. Or the last hour.

For many of us in the mid-career lane, we enter design through an unexpected or unplanned backdoor. We might credit serendipity or kismet that we were in the right place at the right time. As Tanner Woodward, the founder of the Design Museum of Chicago, reminds us on the People Nerds Podcast, “I think people are becoming designers without even realizing it.” (Tanner, I am right there with you!)

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Preparing Gen Z for research and design careers

As a business educator, my primary job is to prepare students for their first jobs and for their earliest career interactions. I want to excite students about what excites me. I want to steer their energy to the most extraordinary nuances and inspirations our fields offer.

So I design courses, including Marketing Research and Design Thinking, to adapt our nostalgic question to today’s workplace motivations. Instead of asking, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”, my courses help students design their paths through this adaptation:

Who do you want to be when you grow up?

Organizations seeking to excite and energize future employees will benefit from learning about Gen Z’s interactions with that question. What do hiring managers need to know about Gen Z’s workplace debut in design? When we empathize with their educational experiences, what does Gen Z tell us about their workplace needs?

To explore these uncertainties, let’s look for untapped points of view at the intersection of design and marketing education. Both fields are frequently tasked to lock in a place at the proverbial table, because design and marketing are often misunderstood.

Marketers may be perceived as manipulating consumers’ needs for products that may damage our planet. Designers may be generalized as making those marketers’ products look pretty and that’s it. These myths shrink marketing and design into flimsy, shallow versions of their legitimate purposes.

Yet these myths also surface stories through which Gen Z can learn about who to be, not solely what to do. From my front-row seat observing Gen Zers learn and think, they are poised to help our fields adapt to our own uncertainties about workplace dynamics.

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Gen Z attitudes towards roles of uncertainty

Novelty and tension

Gen Z approaches educational experiences and career opportunities like their personal consumption activities: they always need something new. Something new to stream, shuffle, or refresh. Novelty motivates Gen Z.

For example, we see this in surprising brand adaptations aimed to feed originality to Gen Z’s literal and figurative appetites. Velveeta’s cheese-scented nail polish. Pepsi-infused pepperoni. General Mills’ cereal-scented candles. Simply naming these actual product extensions generates tension, yet there’s more to learn from these tensions than meets the eye (or nose).

Likewise, categories ranging from footwear to cookies have standardized product drops, a timed release of an exclusive product. The intentional build-up of tension for the promise of a game-changing product puts Gen Z on the inside track of yet-to-be-known, future novelties.

Beyond consumer culture, Gen Z experienced a novel coming of age. They adapted to new adulting tensions during catastrophic—if not apocalyptic—conditions that reshaped their physical environments. Record-high office vacancies dashed hopes for face-to-face collaborations (and generous amenities). Once-desirable business districts look like ghost towns, littered with single-use plastics and disposable masks drifting on sidewalks like urban tumbleweed.

With physical spaces in flux, Gen Z devotes time to virtual environments. Here, they shape their many identities in online communities. Through unnerving events played out online, they became content creators and metaverse explorers. They are willing to spend time online alongside non-stop news alerts that show experts’ excessive doubts about today’s biggest problems.

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Blending novelty and tension reveals Gen Z’s relationship to uncertainty. Gen Z is comfortable in contexts that require adapting to uncertainty. Let’s define uncertainty as the hesitant sensation of temporarily not knowing. Uncertainty accompanies novelty and tension: we may not know how to use a novel product, yet we desire to use it anyway.

Through the tension of hype for new use and hope for new impact, Gen Z asserts its willingness to be uncertain. Hype and hope are each plausible, independent outcomes. Gen Z stays engaged—not in spite of, but because they do not yet know.

How might employers motivate Gen Z in workplace scenarios, given their relationship with uncertainty? A brief look at Gen Z’s interactions with advanced education gives employers a few clues. When it comes to traditional paths in advanced education, Gen Z is uncertain.

They wonder if traditional higher education can support how they experience hyper-relevant and novel training that can instantly apply outside academics in the real world. They desire an “individualized and nontraditional approach to learning”, all while headlines about inflated tuition costs torch their newsfeeds.

Alternative educators like General Assembly and Coursera give Gen Z access to stream novel experiences that target career upskilling. Think of upskilling as a drip-wise approach to practice techniques and topics, often omitted in conventional education.

Instead of costly diplomas, upskilling offers LinkedIn-friendly microcredentials. Salesforce, IBM, SAP, Trendwatching, and IDEO have developed learning platforms and mobile apps to enable upskilling on the go. As higher education struggles to viably innovate and scale in-demand skills, we see Gen Z’s future employers shift into on-demand teaching mode.

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Designers and marketers share a core purpose: to problem solve on behalf of people’s unmet needs. Designers and marketers are two sides of the same coin.

Stacy Neier Beran
Senior Ignatian Lecturer, Quinlan School of Business, Loyola University Chicago

Experiential learning and design thinking

Through experiential learning, higher education attempts to counter the commercialization of upskilling. However, although experiential learning continues to grow in popularity, it remains a novelty for many students. Often called community-based learning or work-based learning, you know experiential learning when you see it.

Experiential learning is learning by doing. It is not lecture-based, and there is no answer key at the back of a textbook. Instead, the impact from experiential learning happens when students take action—especially before they think they are ready, when they are at their most uncertain. Their actions eliminate their temporary tension. As Top Gun’s Maverick says to Rooster, “Don’t think, just do.”

Experiential learning accelerates students’ transitions into workplaces at mach 10: students regularly engage with unstoppable problems in an uncomfortably excited way. Experiential learning typically embeds client sponsors as co-designers who directly interact with students by contextualizing current or future strategic obstacles.

Framed as problem-solving challenges, students experience their first brush with complex, wicked problems. Consultative relationships begin to form between students and clients through ecosystem mapping, social contracts, and memoranda of understanding. A path for working with —not against—tension, and uncertainty takes flight.

Thanks to experiential learning, hiring organizations should expect early-stage job seekers to share their authentic stories about the uncertainty involved in co-designing with clients. Look for resumes and career portfolios to spotlight deliverables and use cases.

Ask potential employees to describe their solutions and the client-led critiques that inspired them. More specifically, how did students respond to the uncertainty involved in building relationships with co-designers? What opportunities might they continue to build upon in future challenges?

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How design thinking broadly helps you with your classes

Experiential learning provides a novel frame to introduce Gen Z to design thinking. Combining design thinking in experiential learning business courses—particularly marketing—seeks to directly impact misconceptions and uncertainties about design and marketing. “Design thinker” may not be students’ first response to who they want to be when they grow up, yet.

Nevertheless, broadly integrating design thinking through experiential learning addresses three particular uncertainties and their underlying tensions and novelties. Let’s loosely look at each of these as a “how might we” (HMW): the tension points us to a student-centered need, and the novelty represents an insight for hiring managers’ actions.

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Uncertainty #1: How might business strategy co-exist with creativity? How might we debunk myths about marketing through design thinking?

Student-centered tension/need

I want to understand business strategy, but I don’t believe I’m good with numbers. That’s why I picked marketing as my major.


Design thinking inspires students to challenge and expand their assumptions about creativity. Collaborations that result in empathy maps, consumer personas, and low-fidelity prototypes prove to the students themselves that they possess authentic creativity. They no longer think “creative” means “artistic”, as they now view creativity as the discovery and arrangement of novel combinations.

What this means for hiring

Highlight strategic projects, client relationships, and company values that show your organization’s attempts to close-in on white spaces. What examples of your organization’s culture might potential employees be surprised to discover? Tell those stories!

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Uncertainty #2: How might we solve problems if the processes outlined in the textbook don’t match clients’ needs?

Student-centered tension/need

I want to accurately use business acumen, but I see another idea to re-frame and skip to another part of the process.


Design thinking gives students permission to deviate from traditional, linear paths. Such permission is arrestingly novel for students who have been conditioned to be right right away. The iterative, dynamic phases in design thinking make way for detours within constraints.

In a marketing research course, for example, students immediately talk about considerations for sample sizes. They value people, but the textbook values process and defers sample plans to final chapters. Students quickly realize the tension in their uncertainty: what they read does not match their actions.

The flexibility of design thinking allows students to adapt to a sequence they believe is more compatible with their client’s problem. Additionally, the novelty of a non-linear process helps students avoid overthinking, a trait they must practice for sprints and rapid prototyping.

What this means for hiring

Provide context about how your organization helps clients, stakeholders, and other co-designers to customize with constraints. What occurs when a client request is misaligned with the organization’s process? What usually happens when a status quo needs to adapt? Discredit the illusion that only one right path persists.

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Uncertainty #3: How might our impact help someone? Whose problems will we solve when everyone’s needs constantly evolve? How might we really see people’s needs in data sets?

Student-centered tension/need

So many of my business classes focus on KPIs, metrics, dashboards, and data analytics. I do not hear consumer voices in row after row of data.


Through design thinking, business and marketing students immerse in a people-centered and purpose-driven strategy. Designers and marketers share a core purpose: to problem solve on behalf of people’s unmet needs. Designers and marketers are two sides of the same coin.

Design thinking nudges students to question if strategies solely depend on viable resources or feasible models. When desirability is overlooked, real impact is less likely. Unsatisfied needs endure. Frequently, business strategies grounded in only feasibility and viability rely solely on quantitative data.

Design thinking adapts to offer students practice with qualitative research methods. Similar to shifted perspectives about “creative” versus “artistic” ability, students reframe what “counts” as data. Data that looks like words, images, and collages surprises them. The range of qualitative data is novel. With today’s overreliance on quantitative data, companies noticing consumers’ desires remains a more nascent novelty than we sometimes care to admit.

What this means for hiring

Promote your organization’s research methodologies as people-centered. Qualitative techniques more readily allow for this, but even so, prepare to share the ways in which people’s voices—not simply participants’ data—motivate decisions.

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Preview how you'll adapt to the uncertainty of this group

Three practices encourage Gen Z students to adapt as design thinkers in experiential learning: problem-seeking, un-sprints, and reflection. These practices are far from exhaustive, yet lead to a throughline for students and team leaders.

Neither students nor hiring managers may have adapted to how to communicate about experiential learning through design thinking: this is novel to all of us. Our shared throughline, then, is divergence before convergence.

Students need practice to genuinely combine their uncertainties with client-based contexts. As they champion sincere, people-centered actions, they adapt to uncertainty – not as counterfeit confusion, but as reluctant confidence. An abundance of opportunities for divergence act like sliding door moments, fortifying their confidence through incremental practices. They soon acknowledge that not knowing yet is useful.

Hiring managers should be on the lookout for reluctant confidence because the act of acknowledging its presence can evolve hiring processes. Knowing up front that students will hesitate to talk about their efforts helps hiring managers to design empathetic interview experiences.

As a more equitable alternative to internships, experiential learning introduces a differentiated curb appeal to resumes, one that should not be overshadowed by copy/paste template suggestions. Even when students promote other relevant or more certain experiences, hiring managers should ask about experiential learning.

Hiring managers who take time to unpack novel experiential learning projects will discover original stories from interviewees. And they may also discover the willingness of Gen Z to confidently express who they want to be.

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Practice #1: Divergent problem-seeking before convergent problem solving

When it comes to problem solving, we’ve seen that designers and marketers are two sides of the same coin. Students, like designers and marketers, are also eager problem solvers. Yet in Gen Z classrooms, problem-solving solicits its own uncertainty: what types of problems should we solve?

Students typically work with simple, well-defined problems. Design thinking in experiential learning, however, requires ill-structured, wicked problems. As many students encounter their first-ever client relationship through experiential learning, their propensity for novelty kicks in.

The project's novelty instigates counterfeit confusion: they initially do not trust the uneasy tension of learning by doing. So, they mechanically sidestep the problem in favor of the problem's symptoms. They solve before they seek. They converge before they diverge.

Counterfeit confusion that leads to early convergence usually sounds like students asking the client sponsors, “Have you tried [insert trending social media feature]?” or “What about giving away [insert gear, swag, or merch]?” They propose simple solutions before they seek wicked problems. While their diagnoses are well-intended—students want to help!—premature convergence instead broadcasts their earliest assumptions.

Assumption mapping helps students preempt convergence. By practicing assumption mapping, we reframe problem solving as problem seeking. Assumption mapping, a technique to de-risk decisions prior to experimentation, does more than help students prioritize the scope of their projects. Through assumption mapping, we adapt their assumptions to a broader consumer context. This opens their thinking and learning to diverse, inclusive perspectives.

When we are uncertain about problems outside our personal contexts, we can more easily diverge. Confused why Gen X doesn’t binge watch like Gen Z? Let’s seek out Gen X’s needs. We must seek many inputs not yet backed by evidence that are still plausible for experiments. Visualizing an array of untested assumptions short-circuits instincts for hurried problem-solving.

Spending intentional time to name assumptions means we get to challenge the tension between what we think we know and what lacks certainty. Which bias might impact what we design? How might we suspend our assumptions to seek the actual wicked problem? Asking these questions may reveal more about who the student wants to be than the problem at hand.

From classroom to whiteboard: Actively listen and observe how easily assumptions creep into collaborations. Be ready to encourage contributors to identify their blind spots. When conversations prioritize personal context over consumers’ needs, ask, “What if that [idea, concept, observation] isn’t true?”

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Practice #2: Un-sprint to design for divergence

Learning and thinking with uncertainty takes up time. Uncertainty surrounds students, but they do not naturally perceive uncertainty as a resource. They do, however, recognize time as a resource.

Student time increasingly operates with irregular rhythm: time devoted to part- or full-time jobs, caretaker responsibilities, and commutes, on top of all academic responsibilities, merits respect. How might we take up time amidst competing responsibilities?

Again, cue the tension where convergence meets divergence. Students’ resistance to a novel slow down explicitly shows their counterfeit confusion. Rushed responses to ideation often include: “I don’t get this” or “I’m lost”. (My favorite is when someone says, “Quick question”, and it is anything but quick. An unplanned slowdown ensues.)

To moderate disoriented reactions and expose confusion as desirable uncertainty in disguise, we un-sprint. If we define sprint as a short race at top speed, an un-sprint punctures that need for speed. An un-sprint, however, is not a slow-down. It is a timely divergence from course syllabus constraints: inserting additional time for divergence at the expense of content.

All content will not be covered, and that is okay. Eliminating content could be seen as a setback. An un-sprint may seem counter to simulating how organizations embed sprints into their design practices, but students need the time divergence affords them to build their relationships with uncertainty.

Un-sprint activities vary, yet share a common objective: each attempts to design for flow. In flow state, students are fully immersed by thinking and learning. Un-sprints face off with maintaining flow within what otherwise could feel like a famine of time, crammed with content instead of cognition.

As time fades away, divergence takes up the space. As students un-sprint to seek problems, divergent thinking enables them to adapt: they expand, stretch, and reach for ideas and concepts they might otherwise feign confusion about. With design thinking, they instead take up space in the pursuit to get it right, building more confidence as they diverge.

Ted Lasso said it best: “Don’t bring an umbrella to a brainstorm.” Swap brainstorm for un-sprint, and let divergence pour with possibilities.

In un-sprints, fun follows flow, injecting a sense of play into our work. For example, Play Dates are specific sessions when students purposefully choose design practices unrelated to their clients. Sketching and creating playlists are Play Date go-tos. Play Date Podwalks are also a favorite: everyone picks a favorite podcast episode, exits the classroom, and walks the block. They listen and look, observe and notice. Upon return, perspectives are shared using unfamiliar Miro templates. Miro content then inspires Hunch Hours, when additive conversation allows us to transform fuzzy ideas at the fringe into edge cases and analogous inspiration.

Un-sprints might look and feel like a pause in project progress, but the pause is active. Students leave class feeling revived for the rest of their day, and more prepared to diverge during the next class session.

From classroom to whiteboard: When team leaders rush decisions, others may model their hustled actions. To insert time into deadlines, encourage playful clock-watching. Set Pomodoro timers: for every 25 minutes of focused work, a five minute break occurs. Rotate amongst team members to share five minute diversions and watch un-sprint flow follow.

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Practice #3: Retrospectives as divergent reflections

Reflection can be a buzzword, but it is far from a cliché for journaling. Reflections encourage evidence-based critiques about why students value client-facing experiences. Through reflections, students explore who they want to be. Reflection is increasingly tied to leadership and, in design thinking classrooms, operates as a design retrospective.

The tensions embedded into problem-seeking and un-sprinting necessitate opportunities for reflection. Tension for the sake of tension piles on counterfeit confusion, translating into what feels more like busy work. But when students reflect with divergence, they unclutter counterfeit confusion and unlock a less reluctant confidence. They sort through their perceived confusion and start to recognize the value of not yet knowing.

Adapting reflection to the spirit of retrospectives brings limitless ways for students to practice design thinking principles. Frameworks like what, now what, so what; I like, I wish, what if, and KWL (Know, Wonder, Learn) prompt students to look back at the impact of their decisions. Design Your Life recommends asking What did I learn? What did I initiate? Who did I help? The 5 Whys also reinforces a shift beyond the surface confusion and exposes deeper confidence in their original thinking.

For reflections to ultimately transform divergence into convergence, they must occur regularly, individually and collaboratively, privately and publicly. As teams stand shoulder-to-shoulder with individual uncertainties, how did they adapt as a team? Sharing these adaptations across the classroom community opens more divergence.

During a recent reflection, one team’s retrospective stretched confusion into confidence in the form of an exit strategy. Amongst all the uncertain ideas generated, this team grew confident that a market entry strategy should not be pursued.

This team reluctantly shared its thinking during a face-to-face client meeting, who ultimately was more energized by their cautious exit recommendation than other teams’ optimistic go-to-market approaches. Reflection softens the perception of an unsettling reality, perhaps delivering the novel punchline that adapting to uncertainty is desirable.

From classroom to whiteboard: We are all students within our workplace experiences. Make everyone’s retrospectives visual by creating a Miro board dedicated solely to learnings. Additionally, standardize a reflection slide after the next steps slide for internal presentations. This clarifies that enduring uncertainties belong beside breakthroughs.

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Similar to building consumer personas, it’s crucial to avoid overgeneralizing Gen Z. Not everyone in Gen Z identifies as a student, nor does every student identify as Gen Z. As designers and marketers, we know firsthand how it feels to be misfits, constantly misunderstood in our roles.

All of us, however, advocate for people's needs. With perspective-taking, we can also advocate for people’s wants. After all, we collectively experience a certain uncertainty: Who do you want to be when you grow up?

Stacy is a Senior Lecturer and Innovative & Experiential Learning Faculty Fellow at Loyola University Chicago. Her signature enthusiasm for co-designing projects with undergraduates and client sponsors is well known and loved. 

She deeply believes design thinking practices prepare students for today’s workplace needs. In collaboration with PinPoint Collective, Stacy is especially excited to bring design thinking experiences to youth apprentices in Chicago Fair Trade’s After School Matters course this Fall.

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