3 Strategies for Teaching Non-Traditional Learners

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A typical path for the high school graduate used to be enrollment in college, making a transition from one learning environment to the next, even if a major had not yet been determined. For many high school graduates, this may still be the case. However, within the field of higher education, there has been a shift over time, with an increase in a different type of student who is attending school. This student is known as the non-traditional learner, or someone who waits for a period of time to return to school to pursue formal education.

A non-traditional learner could be someone who doesn’t enroll in college courses right after high school. This type of learner could also be someone who completed an undergraduate degree after high school, and then waited a period of time to pursue graduate or advanced education. What I have found, through my experience in higher education, is non-traditional learners are initially motivated to enroll in a degree program for specific reasons. This is especially true for online schools, which will offer degree programs for particular career interests.

I have been teaching and mentoring doctoral learners online for some time, and these students almost always fit the non-traditional category. For many, there may have been a time gap between when they began their doctoral program, and when they had completed a master’s degree. What I have also found is most have some type of career purpose in mind, when they enrolled in a doctoral program, either to advance in a career, or begin an entirely new career. Similar to myself and my doctorate program, many doctoral students I’ve worked with have a sense of purpose or calling involved; believing their doctorate degree will fulfill a life’s mission and vision.

Teaching online students already requires a different approach than traditional on-ground students. Now what I would like to emphasize are the additional needs non-traditional learners have and how these needs can be addressed with three basic online teaching strategies. Perhaps you will find yourself utilizing one or more of these approaches already. Or it may be possible you will discover something new to add to your instructional toolbox.

What Non-Traditional Learners Need

What you are likely to read, in most of the literature and resources related to non-traditional learners, is the importance of bringing real-world problems and issues to the classroom for studying. In other words, there is a de-emphasis placed on theory, and continued recommendations made for practicality. While I understand the need to avoid teaching a course strictly about theory, I also believe for some subjects, a balance is necessary.

For example, when teaching adult education as a subject, there are basic theories I recommend students learn about to establish a foundation. An important theory to study is andragogy, which is about teaching adults. This is in contrast to pedagogy, or teaching children. Yet learning about relevant theories should only be a starting point for a course. There also needs to be practical application, providing students with an opportunity to put into practice what they have learned.

I’ve also learned some lessons from working with non-traditional doctoral learners. First, I cannot rely upon the course content itself to meet the needs of students. While I cannot change or add to discussions and assignments, I can help to clarify and add relevance to them. For example, with class discussions, I can share theory, practical application, real-world problems, or whatever is needed to help make them relevant and useful.

Another lesson learned is the importance of contributing something of value to their chosen field for students. This relates back to the vision and mission most have for enrolling in a doctorate program. This is why it is important for discussions and assignments to be something more than busywork. Finally, many students are interested in social causes, and this is another driving force for pursuit of their studies and doctorate degree completion.

3 Successful Teaching Strategies

Based upon what I’ve learned about the needs of non-traditional learners, especially online doctoral students, there are three teaching strategies that can help make the class more meaningful and engaging. These strategies can be used for any subject and any graduate grade level. How you choose to implement one or more of these strategies depends upon how you teach your students now, and how you could add any of these ideas to your instructional practice.

Strategy #1: Teach the Value of Advanced Education

Students know their graduate degree holds greater weight than an undergraduate degree. For a doctoral student, they are usually aware this degree is the highest level of education possible in the United States. Yet do students really understand what this degree means as a reality, when it is time to begin their program, as to what’s required of them? From my experience, most students know what the levels of advanced education are, yet few understand the increased expectations and responsibilities which come along with it.

Take for example online doctoral students. I’ve taught non-traditional learners who worked in the fields of business and education, with jobs ranging from manager to college instructor. Many believe they already write appropriately and are able to demonstrate sufficient academic skill levels. The reality is usually quite different as these skills are not routinely required. Now at a doctorate level, there is an expectation for students to be able to demonstrate higher order thinking and proper academic writing, and apply theory into practice. This requires I spend a significant amount of time helping these students elevate their writing, and reach for critical thinking and analysis.

I’m certain you have found this is one of the most important lessons students can learn once enrolled, and a true value of advanced education, transforming how they think and what they write. I refer to changes they need to make as learning to elevate their writing, to help students understand they are building from what they already know at present. What I never want to do is to make a student feel as if they are back in grade school, and just learning how to write.

Strategy #2: Teach Self Self-Efficacy and Self-Empowerment

You, as the instructor, have an ability to greatly influence what your students believe about their ability to complete the required learning activities. The level of influence you have is held with only a few words written, and occurs primarily through the feedback provided. This is where you have a choice each week: Take time to offer personalized and constructive feedback, or complete your tasks quickly and offer a few quick comments which are basically not much more than canned commentary. Should you take time as I do each week, you choose to take advantage of the influence available to you, to help shape the beliefs of your students.

The most important beliefs students hold, especially as related to completion of tasks, retention, and making it to graduation, include self-efficacy and self-empowerment. Why do I believe this to be so? It is based upon over 17 years of online teaching experience, including my ongoing research in the field of adult education. Self-efficacy, in general, refers to a person’s ability to believe they have the confidence necessary to complete something, be it a learning activity or degree program. I have attempted to use a strengths-based approach to feedback, which means I focus on strengths first, and use those positive elements when addressing areas of development. In other words, I want to instill a sense of confidence within students, about their ability to complete anything they attempt to do.

The other belief is related to self-empowerment, as I want students to know grades and outcomes do not happen to them. Whenever I read a student’s introduction and they tell me their goal is to earn an “A” average for the course, I know what their focus is, along with their locus of control. If I can help them learn they are fully empowered to be in control of how they learn, and more importantly the grades they earn, then my hope is this mindset will continue into the next course. If I am successful, this sense of self-empowerment may even extend into their own lives as well.

Strategy #3: Teach the Transformative Power of Education

I know why students enroll in their degree programs for the most part, and still, I have met few who really understand how transformative education can be, until the very end of their program. To help students better connect with their studies, I’ll emphasize the importance of growth as a student. This can be challenging for my online doctoral students at times, who are often leaders, working in an advanced capacity, or educators with extensive experience.

It relates to the idea of “going to school”, in which you “learn something new”, and then acquire a degree. The missing piece from these statements is “growing as a person”, or something related to it. It is simply not possible to enter a doctoral or graduate program and not be changed by it in some manner. What I remind students as well is that through growth, they can then become an agent of change in turn for their chosen field. In other words, you cannot enact change around you, if you alone are not willing to change.

In order to help emphasize the transformative power of education, there are two concepts I discuss when possible with my doctoral students. The first is becoming a lifelong learner. As students learn advanced higher order thinking skills, they are acquiring a method of questioning and examining, which will likely change how they read. This will translate into their career, and likely their personal lives as well. They will find themselves wanting to seek out credible and reliable sources, acquire new information, and in essence, continue to learn. This may be learning for enjoyment, or learning with a specific purpose in mind.

The second concept I emphasize at the doctorate level is that of scholar-practitioner. I remember when I was a doctoral student and was told about this concept, and the impact it had on my work. I took it to heart at the time, and have continued to view it as a responsibility that comes along with holding a doctorate degree. For my doctoral students, I talk about it from the perspective of the importance of elevating their academic writing, conducting research, developing a dissertation that contributes new knowledge to their chosen field, and developing a dissertation research topic of interest that they could continue to study even after their program has been completed. That’s what I did with my dissertation, select a topic that was a launching point for something I continued to study and write about ever since graduation.

Demonstrate Appreciation for Your Non-Traditional Learners

Every student deserves respect and appreciation. For non-traditional learners, there is an added level of appreciation you can demonstrate. It’s related to their background and experience. To provide a sense of contrast, consider those students who are enrolled in a college course right after high school. Some may have work experience, yet many have a limited number of years of real-world practical experience, as a general rule. Now consider an online, non-traditional doctoral learner who has 20 years of professional experience, as an example. When you engage with this student, you should not use any wording that in any manner discounts their experience or background. They likely know their profession very well, and could speak very eloquently about it. What this student may lack is current academic experience.

While it may seem easier to teach students with minimal life experience, I have always enjoyed teaching non-traditional learners. I find I learn as much from these students as they learn from me. Their professional experiences are usually different than my own, and I find these differences lend to engaging and fulfilling class discussions. Some of my non-traditional learners have resisted the need to change and grow, as could any student, and it comes down to a matter of their willingness to learn and adapt. I try to remain patient and willing to help students, as I too was a non-traditional learner, and I’ve always flourished most when an instructor demonstrated appreciation.

You can take an extra step, when engaging with your non-traditional learners, and acknowledge the experience these students write about in their discussion posts and papers. When you make this acknowledgement, you are demonstrating appreciation for them as experienced adults, and this helps instill a sense of positivity within them. They chose a program specifically for adult students, and as such, they do not want to be viewed as inexperienced or uneducated. While they may need guidance to reach the level of expectations required, they will likely reach it quicker with a positive focus, then one which is negative-based. Help your students remember their vision and mission as you interact with them, take time to provide developmental guidance, and then enjoy the learning process with them as they grow.

About Dr. Johnson

Dr. Bruce A. Johnson has 35 years of experience teaching and training adults. The first half of his career was spent in the field of Corporate Training and Development, with his last role as Manager of Training and Development.

Then in 2005, he made a transition into the field of distance learning. Over the past 18 years, he has been an online instructor, Faculty Development Specialist, Faculty Director, Faculty Development Manager, and Dissertation Chair.

Dr. Johnson is also an inspirational author, writer, and educator. His life mission is to teach, mentor, write, and inspire others. He has earned a PhD in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement (TPI), a Master’s in Adult Education, and a Master of Business Administration (MBA).

As a scholar practitioner, Dr. J was published in a scholarly journal, and he has been a featured presenter at an international distance learning conference, along with presenting at three faculty conferences. He has also published over 230 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and mindset development. Dr. J published three books related to higher education, including two about online teaching.

Getting Down to Business: A Handbook for Faculty Who Teach Business.

Transform Adult Education: Expert Teaching Strategies for Educators.

Transform Online Teaching: Expert Strategies and Essential Resources Every Educator Needs.

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