What’s Different About Teaching Non-Traditional Students?

September 9, 2021

One major challenge to teaching higher education is the broad range of students and backgrounds you have to teach. One type of student you’ll be faced with is the non-traditional student. Also known as adult students, non-traditional students can infuse your classroom with valuable perspectives and viewpoints that traditional students wouldn’t bring to the table. But to serve non-traditional students, you must understand where they’re coming from and the unique challenges they bring to the table. 

What Are Non-Traditional Students? 

The term non-traditional students refers to those students who didn’t go to college immediately after high school. That being said, the term doesn’t usually refer to students who took a year off to travel or determine their major. Non-traditional students are generally 24 years old or older. 

There are a number of reasons you may face non-traditional students in your classroom. Some are first-time college students coming to college later in life. Others may be part-time students taking certain courses to receive a career certification. Furthermore, others may be starting their second career path. 

What Are Some Challenges Adult Learners Face? 

Unlike traditional students, who usually live on campus or close to campus and view getting their education as their main job, adult learners often juggle multiple identities while attending school. For example, they may not live locally, they may be single parents, or they may be attending school while holding down a full-time job. Understanding the challenges they face can help you reach these students and encourage their education. 

Financial Challenges

Depending on the country you live in, one challenge your adult learners may face is the financial ramifications of coming to school later in life. Many federal grants and bonds are aimed at traditional, first-time college students. Older students often receive less financial aid, especially if they’re only going to school part-time. 

Balancing Life and Education

Balancing life and education is another place non-traditional students differ from their peers. While your other college students may be leaving class to go to a party, a campus job, or the library, non-traditional students are often heading out to pick their kids up from childcare facilities. They may be acting as a parent, a spouse, and a student at the same time. This creates extra pressure on these students to get good grades while not dropping any of their other responsibilities. 

Academic Anxieties

Many non-traditional students have anxiety regarding being in the classroom. 

Non-traditional students who are first-time college students may feel self-conscious about missing out on the “typical” college experience. They may have their GED instead of a high school diploma and may think that they aren’t smart enough for school. 

Academic anxieties may also be present in students who are retrying college after dropping out when they were younger. These students may be in school to prove to themselves that they’ve matured since the last time they were in school. However, they may also have anxieties holding over from the last time they were in school and the circumstances under which their education originally ended. 

How Can Teachers Best Serve Non-Traditional Students? 

Knowing some of the challenges non-traditional students face can help you have empathy when developing your lesson plans and classroom policies. 

For example, while group projects can be a good way for your students to bolster communication skills and creativity, non-traditional students may already be struggling to attend structured meeting times. Finding time to meet with their classmates after class can put added pressure on them. Instead of having group projects that need to be completed outside the classroom, consider doing small group work during class time and maintaining individual homework assignments. 

Another way you can serve non-traditional students is by relaxing strict attendance policies. While taking attendance can help inspire traditional students to show up for class after a late party, for non-traditional students, these policies may create barriers if childcare facilities shut down, their child is sick, or bad weather prevents them from traveling safely. One choice is to provide an opportunity for non-traditional students to attend certain lectures remotely or make up missed classroom time later so that they can put in the time for their education without worrying if something crops up in another part of their life. 

The Value of Non-Traditional Students

Non-traditional students bring diversity into your classroom. They bring different experiences and viewpoints out that your students might not otherwise have access to. Knowing how to serve these students, and understanding where they’re coming from can help you facilitate the type of classroom where everyone can learn and gain the education they deserve. 

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