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Engaging Non-Traditional Students in the Classroom


Wed Mar 28 2012


Who are these students?

The Philippines has announced that beginning with the school year 2012, incoming students will spend two additional years in high school.  Imagine being in Higher Education and recognizing that you will have a two year window with virtually no high school graduates coming into your college.  In the United States we don’t have quite that extreme of an issue but we do know that the number of high school graduates is decreasing and there is a high level of recognition that we can no longer expect traditional students to fill the seats at our Colleges and Universities.  


The good news is there is an influx that we are seeing of “Non-Traditional” students.    They are single parents, career changers, displaced workers, grandparents, veterans, immigrants.  They are older, more of them are women, many are 1st generation college students, some have learning or other disabilities, many work a full time job or nearly full time. Some are technology wizards, others don’t even have basic computer skills.  We have fewer full time students and more part-timers as they balance their lives with their education.  

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) lists seven characteristics that make up a “non-traditional” student. 

1. Delayed enrollment in postsecondary education by a year or more after high school

2. Attended part time for at least part of the academic year

3. Worked full time (at least 35 hours per week) while enrolled


4. Had financial independence according to financial aid eligibility criteria

5. Had dependents other than a spouse

6. Was a single parent

7. Completed high school through nonstandard means (such as obtaining GED or other certificate of completion)

We could probably all expand this list based on what we are seeing.  We now have many in our classrooms with a great deal of life experience. They have different expectations for their college experience.  They want to use their life experience to help them with their learning.  And they are here to learn.  But many are unprepared for college.  They don’t know how to balance their outside commitments with their coursework.  They lack confidence in their academic abilities.  They are dealing with personal issues.  They haven’t had to do any type of critical writing or more than basic math in years.  And they are not used to being in a traditional classroom setting. 


So how do we get these students engaged and help them learn? Many methods to engage these learners have been adopted from the adult learning community. These include:

    Allowing for the debate and challenge of ideas.

    Encouraging an exchange of ideas and opinions.

    Allowing students to be resources to each other.

We hear terms like “Flipping the Classroom” and “Peer Learning”.  These types of methodologies can help us to engage all the various groups we have in our classrooms, whether those classrooms are virtual or traditional. 

The first step, however, is to know who these students are.

About the author: Rebecca Boyle, SPHR, is the Executive Director of Human Resources and College Support Services for Trocaire College.  She has been a faculty member for Trocaire College, Canisius College and Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Please consider attending ASTD 2012 where you can hear Rebecca Boyle at her session, " Engaging Non-Traditional Students in the Classroom ", which is part of the Higher Education Session Track.

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