Stacey Patton

Assistant Professor of Multimedia Journalism at Morgan State University

Teaching Nontraditional Students Calls for a Nontraditional Lesson Plan

Full conferencegoer

Here at Vitae, we go to a lot of academic conferences—and attend a lot of lectures, workshops, and ­other sessions—so you don’t have to. The Conferencegoer takes a periodic look at some of the helpful, unexpected, or otherwise interesting talks we sit in on.

The conference: The National Association of African American Studies & Affiliates Joint National Conference

The location: Baton Rouge, La.

The scene: The five-day conference brought together over 1,000 scholars from across the United States and abroad to share research related to African, African-American, West Indian, Latino, Chicano, Native-American, Asian, and Asian-American issues and experiences. In a number of sessions, scholars discussed teaching challenges—with insights on how to teach as a person of color and on how to adjust their teaching styles and curricula to rapidly diversifying college classrooms.

The session: “A New Type of HBCU Student: Examining Teaching and Learning Among Non-Traditional African American Students”

The speakers: Deidre L. Wheaton, an assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Jackson State University, and Jie Ke, an assistant professor of education and human development at Jackson State.

The takeaway: It’s no secret that the number of nontraditional students has been trending upwards on many college campuses in recent years. The economic downturn has brought older adults back to school, and many institutions are widening their nets to attract older students for continuing-education programs.

But that demographic change comes with a challenge: When college students bring more life experience to the classroom, professors have some catching up to do.

Talk to many junior professors, and they’ll tell you that when they were in graduate school, they didn’t really learn how to teach—much less how to teach students who might be at least as old as they are. This is a problem, said Deidre L. Wheaton and Jie Ke, because new Ph.D.’s often enter the teaching profession with certain assumptions about who will be sitting in their classrooms.

“When I arrived at Jackson State, I planned to teach students the way I had been taught in college,” Wheaton said. “But I was surprised when I stepped into my classroom and saw this new brand of student.”

So just who are these new students? It’s easier to define them by who they aren’t. The traditional student—the full-time 18-to-22-year-old undergraduate who lives in a dorm, parties, and pulls all-nighters—is no longer in the majority at most institutions. In fact, the proportion of traditional students on campus is projected to keep declining, according to data from The National Center for Education Statistics. The center expects the share of students who are over age 25 to increase from 39 percent, where it now stands, to 63 percent by 2019.

Yet there’s no precise definition, Wheaton and Ke said, of what a nontraditional student is. (One historical definition—which considers student of color to be nontraditional—was not what they had in mind, despite the title of the presentation.)

To get a sense of the diversity on their own campus, Wheaton and Ke conducted a pilot study of students at Jackson State. They found that about 70 percent of students there are more than 31 years old. Most are women; many are single mothers who hold jobs while enrolled in college full-time. But some are students in their late fifties and early sixties who’ve returned to college to improve their job credentials or fulfill a lifelong dream of earning a degree.

Because of their range of backgrounds, Wheaton and Ke said, we can’t generalize about the reasons why they’re attending college—or about their behavior as students. There’s no shortage of assumptions about older adults, Ke said: that they tend to learn on their own, that they bring more motivation to the classroom, that they are better at managing their time and completing assignments than their younger classmates, and that they are eager to apply what they learn in the classroom to their real-world challenges.

One professor in the audience added his own contribution. He said that he prefers teaching older students because he doesn’t have to deal with the “foolishness” he gets from traditional students—disrespect, late assignments, laziness, and entitlement.

But these broad perceptions about older learners, Ke warned, can sometimes produce bad outcomes.

“Older students are not always self-directed,” she said. “They’re not always motivated. Sometimes they initially lack confidence when they’re sitting in class with younger students. They also doubt if they can learn new technology stuff.”

In fact, those are just some of several characteristics that can make nontraditional students an attrition risk. Others: They sometimes drop in and out of school because of money issues; they usually receive no financial support from their parents; and they have children, jobs, and lots of other obligations. Too often colleges offer classes at times that are inconvenient for them. Some students find themselves not able to easily navigate their campuses. And sometimes professors just don’t create learning environments that allows these students to be successful.

What to do about that last point? Wheaton and Ke offered a list of basic recommendations for new professors:

Know your audience. Figure out how the older adults in your classroom learn, try to get a sense of the reasons why they’re in college, and be clear about how the content of your course can be immediately useful to them.

Create a welcoming environment. Adult learners need to feel confident and safe to participate alongside their younger classmates. Be clear about the learning goals and objectives of your course.

Respect that they have different learning styles. Older adults tend to learn at their own pace, not at the pace of their instructors. Be sure that your teaching practices are in alignment with your students’ learning, and provide curriculum tailored to the cultural backgrounds of your students.

Recognize that they will likely want to share their own experiences in discussions. Encourage older students to speak up and participate in class activities so they don’t feel like the “old man” or “old woman” pariah sitting in the corner of the classroom.

Be flexible and provide support for life-changing events. There’s no getting around the fact that, from time to time, these may occur in your students’ lives. Remember, they must balance work, family, and school.

As Wheaton and Ke admitted, there are still plenty of unanswered questions about nontraditional students. Their own pilot study, they said, raised more questions than answers about who nontraditional students are and how they learn best.

But the scholars are already planning another study, which will turn its attention to professors, to get a sense of the attitudes and teaching strategies they bring to the classroom.

“It’s not just about the students," Wheaton said, "but also about what instructors are doing in the classroom.”

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