Non-traditional students, who The National Center for Education Statistics defines as “a large, heterogeneous population of adult students who often have family and work responsibilities as well as other life circumstances that can interfere with successful completion of educational objectives”, have a lot to offer the classroom environment. Their experience and expertise bring years of knowledge and life lessons that cannot be replicated in a classroom. Despite the wonderful characteristics they embody, non-traditional students typically do face unique challenges while pursuing their higher education goal – often dealing with the responsibilities of caring for a family, holding down a full-time or part-time job, or even the stress of starting their careers anew
Here are four key strategies instructors can deploy in their own classroom to help support the needs of non-traditional students:
One of the most critical classroom components to help non-traditional succeed is flexibility. That doesn’t mean promoting non-adherence to deadlines or acceptance of irresponsible behavior, but when the opportunity for some flexibility presents itself, consider doing so. Life gets in the way for all of us but for non-traditional students unexpected challenges and conflicts (a sick child, demanding employer, a car breaks down, etc.) these stumbling blocks might be both unavoidable and frequent. One way to offer some flexibility, while maintaining class standards, is to offer additional time or attempts on lower-stakes assignments. For example, when using McGraw-Hill Education’s Connect program, I typically create 13 assignments in total and require only 10 be completed during the term to receive the full points value. This allows my students to skip 1 – 2 assignments if needed when unplanned situations come up.
Variety in Course Materials
Provide course materials in multiple types of media (print, digital, audio, etc.) has been extremely beneficial to all of my students. Rather than mandating a traditional, print-only selection of course materials, I have begun experimenting with alternative mediums like audio and digital textbooks. All of my students appreciate the variety but for my non-traditional students, this approach is particularly effective. They can listen to audio versions of their texts in the car during their commute, or review lecture notes online on their phone/tablet while keeping an eye on their children. Having a variety of mediums for course materials has helped provide more opportunities for engagement and learning with all of my students.
Multiple Assessments + Feedback
Flexibility and variety are important but at the end of the day, an instructor needs to ensure that all the students in his/her class are mastering the course learning objectives. One great way to do this, that’s extremely beneficial to non-traditional students, is to provide multiple micro-assessments throughout the semester.
Non-traditional students often are returning to school after some period of time in either the workforce or staying at home. Jumping right back into academia can be hard. Non-traditional students may be learning the material but struggle with getting back into the groove of taking quizzes, tests, writing papers, or completing reports. To help ease them back into this process try structuring your syllabus with multiple micro-assessments or low-stakes practice opportunities early in the semester. If possible, try to assess a concept in different formats by allowing students to hand in a paper, make a video, or provide a presentation. One critical aspect to this type of approach is providing immediate feedback. Students across the class will demonstrate increased improvement if given immediate feedback to their mistakes and misunderstandings. Try using automated grading materials (online software or scantrons) when possible to provide early feedback without overtaxing your schedule.
Non-Traditional Office Hours
Part of what makes a non-traditional student “non-traditional” is their path to college and the obligations beyond the classroom.
Non-traditional students will very likely have commitments between the regular work hours of 8am to 5pm. Consider holding some of your office hours virtually or during non-traditional times. This doesn’t mean you have to be on campus or available 24/7 to your students but providing an opportunity once a week for either very early or late office hours can make all the difference in your non-traditional students reaching out for help. Virtual office hours, either by email, chat, or phone, are an excellent way to make yourself available to your non-traditional students without overburdening your own work/life balance.