Published on 2013/08/07

Back to School: Success Tips for Non-Traditional Students (Part 1)

Back to School: Success Tips for Non-Traditional Students (Part 1)
Adult students seeking to enroll in face-to-face programs need to focus on perfecting their study skills to ensure success in their postsecondary endeavors.

The world of adult education seems to be in a constant state of flux. New technologies are presenting opportunities as well as incredible challenges for instructors and students alike. The profile of the typical college student is changing and non-traditional students (those over the age of 25) are becoming an ever-increasing segment of the college and community college population.[1] At the same time, some things, including the need for a dedicated approach to learning, the wisdom of efficient planning and the use of strategic methods to create academic success, have remained essentially the same.[2]

Whether a student decides to pursue higher education in a face-to-face (f2f) or online setting, there is one issue of universal concern for students: the cost of education. Students should have a plan for how they intend to pay for school and must look beyond the overly simplistic advice to just take out loans. Non-traditional students, who more than likely have a job and other responsibilities, may be best served by taking a few classes at a time on a pay-as-you-go basis. Students who are employed can also investigate the possibility of employer tuition reimbursement. New graduates will typically enter the job market at entry-level wages, and this reality should be considered at the beginning of the process.

Another universal concern for both f2f and online students is course selection and time management. It’s important to take prerequisites and basic courses before signing up for advanced material. Students should plan for one or two hours of study per week for each credit hour of classes. Some courses, such as language classes or courses with lab hours, require additional study time, and students should avoid over-packing their schedules. It can be helpful to do a mini-assessment of time management, technology and academic skills at the beginning of each term before registering for courses. Admissions and advising staff can be helpful in this phase.

It is important for students to manage their expectations around educational procedures and study behavior. Students who meet in classes on campus should take advantage of having classmates to study with and tutoring centers and library resources for extra help. College instructors base their grades on results and not effort, and this can be a rude awakening for some students. Planning adequate time to study and using all available resources is far more efficient than fighting with instructors over bad grades or asking for extra credit assignments.

Special tips for face-to-face students:

  • Cover the basics: find the right room, show up on time and turn your cell phone off
  • If you want to record lectures, ask for permission from the instructor before the first lecture
  • Show up with readings completed and ready to take notes either with pen/paper or on a laptop or tablet
  • Organize your notes before the end of the day and mark areas where you may want to ask questions in the following class
  • Make an effort to meet classmates and form study partnerships or groups

– – – –


[1] National Center for Education Statistics

[2] Derived from my presentation Start Up, Survive and Succeed

This was the first installment of Karen Watts’ two-part series. To read the conclusion, please click here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Readers Comments

Simon Pickering 2013/08/07 at 7:42 am

Good advice overall. I would add that adult students need to very carefully assess what level they are at, and choose courses accordingly. There can be the temptation to sign up for a course at a slightly higher level than what you’re comfortable with because you want to speed up the time it takes to finish a program or cut costs by skipping an introductory course. However, a decision like this can backfire, and the price you pay (non-completion or a terrible grade) is not worth it.

Karen Southall Watts 2013/08/07 at 10:17 am

Thanks for my first comment Simon. You are so right; I’ve observed exactly what you describe. I believe if advising, counseling and registration staff are more aware of the pressures on non-trad students (financial, time constraints, emotions around education in general)that school leaders can help these students resist the temptation to skip essential course work. Our advising sessions need to be as honest and direct as possible (I’ve got a piece about that here on Evolllution too).

Tyrese Banner 2013/08/07 at 12:10 pm

As I’m reading the list of strategies, none of them seem particularly “out of the ordinary” or groundbreaking. To be honest, all of this seems to fall into line with what my 14 year old is learning in her study skills course.

If the issue is that adults don’t have basic, rudimentary study skills… should we not create a mandatory 2-week “study skills” course for non-traditional students to take upon enrolling?

Daniele Thomas 2013/08/07 at 2:33 pm

This is a helpful guide for adult students. I’ve seen a lot of adult students who are completely unnerved when returning to school after many years away, and you’ve offered very practical tips on what to expect and how to perform in the classroom.

Karen Southall Watts 2013/08/07 at 3:42 pm

Tyrese, it’s true that much of this is “old news” to educators and many students. However, as Daniele points out, many adults return to school feeling nervous and far from classroom ready. While I’d love to see schools, including my own, implement mandatory study skills or prep sessions that is not always possible. Even if college leadership is behind such an idea the wheels of new course development often move so slowly that groups of students are left out. If background, remedial or other “catch up” courses are not free students are usually resistant to taking them or financial aid sources refuse to pay for them as they are non-degree/non-program material. So it often falls to instructors, advisers and tutoring centers to help fill in the holes. This is the reason I’ve begun creating free resources and putting them online. It’s my own small effort to bridge the gap between where we want incoming students to be and where many of them are at registration. The presentation in the footnotes covers this material and I have another that reviews the basics of doing group projects (another area where student stumble)
A couple of schools have picked these presentations up as resources for faculty. The sad reality is that many adults did not learn, for whatever reason, those study skills your 14 year old is absorbing now. As an industry we will probably have to come up with multiple ways to make sure that we assist more students in rising up to meet higher standards.

    Tyrese Banner 2013/08/08 at 2:55 pm

    You make a good point here, and I think this should be an area of action for higher education institutions.

    Adults are the fastest-growing student group. Adults don’t have basic study skills.

    Why aren’t institutions forming links with local K-12 and adult basic education providers who offer these kinds of classes? Through a partnership, 2-week crash courses could be offered that would provide adult learners the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in higher education.

Linda Lee 2015/11/27 at 9:45 pm

My husband and I recently started college for the first time. We have been out of school for over 30 years, we were completely lost. I really appreciate your article. I do agree that we need something in place at the institutional level to help incoming nontraditional students matriculate through the university process.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *