Published on 2013/02/28

What Teachers Can Do for Returning Adult Students

What Teachers Can Do for Returning Adult Students
Post-secondary instructors have a major role to play in ensuring the retention and success of adult students.

I certainly don’t have to tell the readers of The EvoLLLution that some colleges do better than others at meeting the needs of returning students. The more receptive institutions have flexible schedules for classes and services, provide child care, distribute financial aid more effectively, expand counseling to include referrals to social services, have special programs for veterans and so on.

These very important accommodations are at the institutional and administrative level. But what about in terms of teaching? What happens in the classroom is vitally important — that’s where you spend most of your time — yet we don’t hear much about teaching in discussions of what colleges can do to accommodate the returning adult student. Some returning students possess strong academic skills, and they slide right into college life with little trouble. But some students didn’t have the benefit of a good K-12 education, and some have been away from school for so long that going back seems like starting over. What happens inside the classroom matters.

For starters, teachers can tap into the variety of life, work and (sometimes) military experience older students bring to the classroom. Equally important, the effective teacher conceives of teaching as more than transmitting a body of knowledge, but also as providing entry to the skills and tricks of the trade necessary for fuller participation in learning.

Most teachers orient students to the textbook and other instructional materials and computer-based augmentations, like class websites and e-portfolios. And, given the continual digital divide, careful guidance with online aids is crucial, as is directing students to resources on campus where computers are available. But some faculty members go further and provide instruction on note-taking and on reading the textbook. Learning and tutoring centers on many campuses offer workshops on study skills, note-taking and the like, and, at some schools, the centers are set up such that staff can put on a workshop on textbook reading and note-taking for particular classes.

It is routine for teachers to go over the syllabus, class requirements, due dates and grading criteria with students. But they can go a little deeper. They can, for example, explain what plagiarism is and provide a few examples. They can talk about the time it typically takes to complete an assignment. (I saw a fashion instructor take out her daily planner and show her students the way she counts backward from an assignment due date to determine when she needs to begin a project.) And if the expectations for the class are going to clash with the typical expectations students bring with them from prior schooling, teachers can address that issue up front. A speech instructor I met tells her class on the first day that, although they may have been allowed in high school to give a speech by reading it, that won’t work now. I’ve seen math and science instructors demonstrate the difference between memorizing material and using that material in the service of understanding a problem and trying to solve it.

Teachers routinely list office hours, but some explain what office hours are, how they function and why they’re useful. And some teachers schedule students into appointments, even if it’s just a 10- or 15-minute consultation — enough to open the path to their door. Finally, it’s not uncommon to establish a formal connection with a writing or tutoring center, whereby instructors require students to get tutoring as part of their course work.

Students can be reluctant to speak up or ask for help. There’s a wide range of reasons: shyness, fear of revealing ignorance, distaste for claiming the spotlight or codes of masculinity. Students sometimes rely on peers for help and form their own networks of assistance. That’s terrific, but to forego faculty help is to be walled off from valuable intellectual resources — and social resources, as well, for it is often faculty who write letters of recommendation and know about scholarships, internships and jobs.

Teachers can be instrumental in fostering help-seeking behavior. They can discuss this issue directly, providing anecdotes from their own and their past students’ experiences. Teachers can ask to see students and make the appointment on the spot. Central to these issues is the kind of atmosphere faculty create in their classrooms, that is, the sense students pick up from the way a teacher addresses them, responds to questions and deals with requests. Here’s the bottom line for students: Is this a safe place, and do I feel respected? If the answer is yes, students will be more willing to answer or ask a question, participate and take a chance.

To conduct good classroom discussion — especially ones that include everyone — the teacher has to listen closely, not only to what’s said but also to what might be intended but not fully articulated. Then the teacher can assist performance: “Say more; I think I see where you’re going.” “Don’t shut yourself off; you’ve got a good idea there.” “Ah, OK, so let me say it back to you to see if I got it.” Listening closely also enables the teacher to make connections, bringing two students’ contributions together, sometimes statements made much earlier or on another day. And students, as would be any of us, are impressed and feel validated that a teacher remembered what they said and deemed it worthy enough to put back into play.

All of the above seems like a lot, but much of it can be accomplished with small adjustments to the first week or two of class, with a little more focus on getting students to office hours or tutorial centers, and with a greater emphasis on certain kinds of instructional interaction. By seeing the role of teacher as providing an introduction not only to subject matter but to college life, by making the hidden visible, by being systematic in getting students to office hours and tutoring centers, by striking up a casual conversation and by just talking openly about the tricks of the trade, teachers can end up making a big difference in their students’ lives.

This article is adapted from Mike Rose’s new book, Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education.

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Readers Comments

Bill Wright 2013/02/28 at 10:02 am

These are straightforward, useful tips that we as educators often seem to forget. Perhaps it’s the result of the time we’ve spent in the academy. I often have to catch myself when speaking to new students, and end up backtracking to explain terms or processes I consider commonplace. For example, I used to provide rubrics for each assignment, thinking it would help my students to complete their work according to the requirements. It took a while before I realized that many students didn’t know how to interpret the rubrics, so having access to them wasn’t helpful in any way. Now I make it a point to go over the rubrics in class to make sure they’re clear.

Henry Smalling 2013/02/28 at 2:56 pm

I was thinking about what you wrote about instructors as potentially valuable social resources for students (for mentorship, career connections, etc.), and I wonder if there is a way to formalize that relationship. It seems to me that few students take advantage of the opportunity to connect with their instructors. Perhaps instructors could build in a requirement for their students to have a sit-down at the beginning of the term to go over the latter’s expectations for the course, career goals, etc. to see where the former could be a resource.

It would require additional effort for the instructor to arrange meetings with all students, but it’s at least an idea.

Ewan Philipps 2013/03/01 at 1:35 am

These are some good suggestions for instructors to become better able to support their students. My concern is that some instructors will take the initiative to apply these while others simply won’t (or perhaps don’t know how). I think institutions have to give the directive for all instructors to use these teaching strategies. Along with that, perhaps some professional development courses are needed for faculty to learn how best to engage adult students.

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