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Breaking the Mold: Different Learning Needs for Different Types of Students

An institution needs to be able to offer a student what they need, including relevancy and connection, no matter what type of learner they are
An institution needs to be able to offer a student what they need, including relevancy and connection, no matter what type of learner they are

Different students with different needs and expectations can have wildly different campus experiences.

Nontraditional students may want flexibility, while traditional students want a strict method to adhere to. An institution should be able to provide both.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How do the expectations of nontraditional and online learners differ from more traditional students when it comes to campus experience?

Jazz Jackson (JJ): The populations differ in their needs for community, encouragement and career aspirations. When it comes to community, usually traditional students form meaningful relationships through classes, dorm life, student organizations and volunteer work. And while nontraditional students value forming relationships, it’s less of a priority for them because they’re at a different stage of their life. Usually they’re juggling school, work, parenting, supporting elderly families, etc. Thus, their expectations are usually geared toward getting to the finish line as quickly as possible to advance their current life circumstances. When we think about levels of encouragement, traditional students really have an inspiring mindset because college is the natural next phase of their journey and a time when they’re learning about themselves and where they fit in the world.

Nontraditional students see things differently. Some feel extremely nervous about starting over, while others think about the opportunity cost and benefits of returning to school. For these reasons and more, nontraditional students sometimes require more encouragement to build confidence, achieve a growth mindset and build resiliency to overcome those barriers and challenges. The last thing is thinking about their career aspirations. Both populations have similar expectations of learning: to change their trajectory. However, nontraditional students often know exactly what they want to do: get a promotion, leverage skills, start their own business, switch careers or industries. And the traditional students are usually in an exploratory phase because they’re still learning what they’re passionate about.

Evo: What does it take for universities serving these nontraditional and online learners to deliver an enriching and engaging experience?

JJ: It really depends on the university and student population. Every university model is different. It takes certain measures to make sure you’re modifying the specifics for your population. However, when you’re thinking about these enrichment and engagement experiences, there are a lot of commonalities. Things that we want to include, maybe orientation, supportive staff, engaging curriculum, engaging faculty, as well as learning community. I think orientation is one of the most critical parts for these students because not everyone is familiar with navigating the online space. Therefore, students need some form of onboarding system with assistance. They need to learn about leveraging university resources and finding key information to be successful from the start. Staff support is also critical because usually students will only contact the university when they have a problem.

And while most of the information can be found somewhere on a website, students want information instantly because time is of the essence. Therefore, they need people who are willing and able to help guide them to the right resources at their convenience. And then we think about engaging curriculum. Most traditional students already have a lot of real-life experience. Therefore, it’s important for us to develop curricula that provide relevancy. Essentially, how do they apply what information they’re learning to today and tomorrow, not in the next few years like we usually have for traditional students? And then engaging faculty is needed because they can enrich learning by bringing the curriculum to life and help students to understand how learning outcomes can be applied to their current life.

Faculty can also leverage the student experience to help students understand how learning outcomes surface differently in each one’s life. They all have these lived experiences that can be leveraged and utilized to process and understand learning outcomes. And essentially most students don’t always get an opportunity to meet their classmates in person until graduation, especially online learners. However, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a need for connection. We have learning communities we can deploy in many different ways—through courses, programs, specific identities. The intent is to bring these students together to develop and learn and build connections with each other. I can’t forget about the support services that enrich students’ engagement—from ADA accommodations, to peer coaching and tutoring.

Evo: Within the institutional context, there’s a lot of opportunity for folks to build and develop skills that can serve them in their professional lives but that aren’t necessarily recognized as part of their academic process. How does a student affairs team work to ensure student skills and competencies are developed outside the classroom?

JJ: Many universities, like the one I’m working for now, leverage prior learning. So many of our adult learners have experiences that can be translated by completing some form of assessment to demonstrate prior learning. And prior learning allows them to get credit for specific areas in which they haven’t taken specific courses. It allows them to get to the finish line much faster while leveraging their experiences.

Evo: Is there any difference in the ways nontraditional learners are contacting the school compared to your traditional learners?

JJ: What I’ve experienced in the past is that traditional students are in this infancy stage, learning how to crawl or walk. But usually, in the adult learning spaces, this is not the first time these individuals are in college. And they know a lot through past experiences. Like any type of consumer, we don’t want them to spend too much time looking for the information. We want them to get the information instantly. So, we have a phone number and chat. Students do not want to spend the time to do the research when they can leverage the people ready and available to support them and provide answers within less than 30 seconds.

Evo: Why is it so important for higher ed institutions to find ways to improve engagement among non-traditional learners?

JJ: There are many different ways to do engagement in the traditional space because you’re on campus. Usually, you’re able to bring people together for events and a selling point to get them there is food. That’s not easily translatable to the online environment. I think about online learners like commuter students. Students essentially go to class and leave. While engagement is not always their top priority, a lot of research has indicated that not only do they want academic learning but they want some kind of engagement—and I equate engagement with connection. Multiple modalities can be deployed to support this engagement. It’s about fusing learning and connecting, from online workshops, webinars, project-based learning, peer coaching, learning communities, student organization, etc.

Evo: What does it really take to systematize and scale engagement among nontraditional learners to support their persistence and success?

JJ: That’s probably a problem for all online universities. Leveraging technology is extremely critical, and you can definitely leverage technology to support a proactive advising model, to support students during those early signs of non-engagement and poor academic performance. A second thing to think about is that there is, depending on the model of the university, an option of cohort learning communities. Enrolled students attend similar courses throughout their life cycle and are able to engage with students and learn from each other throughout that process. That doesn’t always work in adult spaces. For one, because so many adult learners come in with transfer credits, so everyone is not starting at the same point. An alternative to think about is developing specific learning communities within specific programs to allow students to engage with each other in ways in which they can learn.

And then you can provide seminars and webinars within these learning communities, so students learn from each other based on best practices. It’s a process of developing intentional sequencing pathways for our students. And I say that because you want to make sure that students get to the finish line as fast as possible. To do so, we have to develop the sequence that works best for them, which you can do that within an analytics space. How many students complete? What courses help students get to the finish line fastest? Which are those barrier courses? Engagement is a critical component today—developing those peer support programs to provide a personalized touch while offering flexibility for students’ schedule.

So many of our students encountered this level of insecurity and lack of confidence. One thing we know from a research perspective is that it’s always better to hear from someone who’s gone through the experience you’re going through and who can relate directly to students to inspire motivation. And not only that, these essential students also have already developed support strategies to help themselves succeed. They can communicate in a way that students are more receptive to. And then, the larger component is that the majority of students are engaging with some type of curriculum. We don’t want to focus on rote memorization; students must be able to apply what they learn from the curriculum.

So, we have to develop a curriculum that provides increasing relevancy for adult learners and that encourages a sense of academic belonging. We need to provide problem-based learning that is actually translatable, that they can possibly list their resume. And we need to create collaborative interactions. Because like I said, if they’re not engaging in the classroom, they may not ever engage with other students outside.

Evo: How do we ensure online activities work for students equally as well as in-person events?

JJ: One of the things we’ve learned from a time-offering perspective is that lunchtime or 7-8:00 p.m. tend to be critical times when we see the most attendees. And from an offering perspective, this is a continuing learning process. We’ve offered webinars about juggling competing priorities as an adult learner, translating current career experiences to a potential job, changing from a traditional chronological resume to more of a functional resume? So, it fluctuates between confidence-building to career-building, and it’s really based on student interests.

Evo: Is there anything else you would like to add regarding student expectations and nontraditional students?

JJ: My final thought is there’s a large pool of students out here. If we don’t focus on them and figure out the best ways to support them, we’re definitely doing them (and the economy) an injustice because there is a need. We have to learn from our experiences through many piloting programs. Like I said, our students’ behaviors are changing and so are their needs.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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