Trends toward increased enrollment of non-traditional students are expected to continue (Stringer, 2015). Discussions about nontraditional college students often highlight some of the challenges our adult students face, such as balancing work, family, and school commitments, overcoming previous academic patterns that no longer serve them, and adapting to new approaches to learning (such as online classes.) The flip side, though, is that many non-traditional students bring a wealth of personal and professional experience to their pursuit of a new degree, which serves to the benefit their academic cohort (Stringer, 2015).
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When Sheri Litt became dean of arts and sciences at Florida State College’s Open Campus, one of her priorities was to address the issue of online learner satisfaction and success. “We started looking at the data,” Litt says. “We looked at students’ comments on surveys to find out what they were disappointed with in their online courses. And a lot of comments [said, in essence,] ‘I felt my instructor didn’t care’ or ‘I felt my instructor would just log in once every six weeks’ or ‘It would take an entire semester for the instructor to grade an assignment, and [he or she] didn’t really give me any feedback so I could develop my skills.’” Based on this qualitative approach, Litt and her colleagues developed a set of best practices that have improved student motivation, satisfaction, and success.
As a college faculty member, you speak to audiences both large and small on a daily basis. You know how to deliver information, create learning opportunities, and build engagement. And yet, presenting at a professional conference brings a whole new set of challenges. How do you establish credibility and authority among your peers? How do you make your session relevant for those who, unlike your students, have at least some familiarity with the topic?
It’s always important to help students be successful, but with returning adults, success often seems more elusive for a variety of reasons. They often have a hard time fitting schooling in with other life demands (including family obligations and work). In addition, many adult students are worried about their abilities as students and about learning in an online environment.
Many of the learners in today’s online courses are adults who are returning to school to upgrade their qualifications. It’s worth considering what kinds of adult students are in your courses and what their needs are.
Understanding learner needs is essential for providing quality education. One approach to understand learner needs is through the use of student evaluation questionnaires which allow us to collate student feedback or suggestions. A common argument against the use of student evaluations is that students do not know their own needs. However, many studies have shown student feedback/suggestions to be reliable and valid. If we do not even attempt to understand their needs, we may fail to recognize the support they require to be successful.
Adult learners typically have very specific reasons for taking online courses and are usually highly motivated. They also bring a wealth of experience. However, being away from formal learning and having to adapt to the online learning environment can be quite challenging even for the most motivated and intelligent students.
With the number of non-traditional students growing, many educators have discovered that adult learners are fundamentally different than their younger counterparts in many ways. Yet, most instructors have been left to their own devices to figure out how best to reach these students who come to class with an entirely different set of challenges, demands and expectations, and generally at a much different level of maturity.
When you think about all the reasons why a college or university would want to offer courses online, “Because it’s easy” isn’t one of them. Yes, it’s a smart way to grow your programs and reach a greater number of students. Yes, it can be an attractive revenue stream. And yes, in order to attract today’s learners – adult and traditional-aged students alike – you likely need an online offering.
My recent foray into using MP3s to teach college level English classes came out of my need to reach more of my non-traditional students. I saw a trend developing where more adults than ever were seeking a college education or even returning to college to change careers, and it only followed that I had a responsibility as an instructor to try and reach these students. It also became apparent in my classroom that I wanted to not only reach, but to retain these non-traditional students who seemed to become easily frustrated with the more traditional lecture and textbook methods.