A huge chunk of college enrollments today is made up of adult learners—sometimes referred to as non-traditional students. Just as it’s not appropriate to teach all P-12 students in exactly the same way we must be careful to consider and address the unique needs of adult learners in our colleges and universities. In her article entitled, “4 Ways Universities Can Better Engage with Nontraditional Students,” Meghan Bogardus Cortez shares some tips for higher education programs, each of which can impact student enrollment, retention, graduation, and satisfaction rates. I’d like to add my own tips here:
Make what they are learning meaningful and relevant. Help adult learners to see connections between theory and practice. Show them why it’s important to be able to solve algebraic equations, or why they should know what the War of 1812 was all about. Try to tie it in to how key concepts and skills can be applied their current and future career goals.
Be respectful of them as adults. Non-traditional learners have very different needs than those 18-22-year-olds; treat them accordingly. Listen to them. Take them seriously. And don’t talk down to them.
Acknowledge that they are juggling a lot to go to school. Most adult students work at least one full-time job. They have a spouse and are raising multiple children. Perhaps they’re taking care of aging or infirm parents. Acknowledging that you know “sometimes life gets in the way” is not offering an excuse for them to fail but it’s important they know that you understand that sometimes other priorities must take precedence over their academic studies, and that’s OK.
Help them to set their own reasonable goals and support their efforts in attaining them. It doesn’t do any good to create a schedule for an adult learner or tell them how much they should read or complete in a week’s time—those decisions should be made by them, with some guidance from you. Help them avoid frustration and disappointment by steering them away from committing to too much at once. For example, most learners who are working full-time and trying to raise three kids while going through a divorce should probably not try to complete 18 credits in a semester or think they can read seven chapters and write a 15-page paper over a weekend. In some instances that kind of workload can be maintained for a while but eventually the stress builds up. It’s much better to take it a little slower and succeed than to let a student try to get through a program in record time and then fail.
Help them to see light at the end of the tunnel. Adult learners need an end game—they need to be able to know that their efforts will pay off for them when they are finished—and they need to know that this day will come sooner rather than later.
A dose of compassion and empathy works wonders: Sometimes you are the only positive, affirming, supportive person they will talk to in a give day or even a given week. Be a sounding board when things go wrong, and a cheerleader when things go right. You’re not their therapist nor their friend, per se, and yet so much of effective mentoring requires a dose of both.
These are all things that faculty members can do to help adult learners stay enrolled, graduate, and achieve their goals. Some students, particularly those who struggle or may be identified as “at-risk” could benefit from additional support through a mentoring model, which can be tailored depending on the structure of each college and university.
Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in educator preparation, accreditation, online learning, and academic quality assurance. An accomplished presenter, writer, and educator, she currently supports higher education, P-12 schools, and non-profit agencies in areas such as competency-based education, new program design, gap analysis, quality assurance, leadership, outcomes-based assessment, and accreditation through her company, Global Educational Consulting, LLC. She also writes about academic excellence and can be contacted for consultations through her blog site (www.robertarossfisher.com).