Tip 52: Adult Students

An award-winning study of nine adult students who persisted at a Western community college finds that connecting with an instructor – not with campus activities — made the difference, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. Rosemary Capps followed older students who started in remedial reading, a high-risk group, for her 2010 University of Utah dissertation.

Now an academic developer at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of California at Davis, Capps said colleges need to reach adult students ”in their classrooms.”

says Community College Spotlight’s “Why Adult Students Persist”

Capps said in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education:

if colleges want to reach adult students with their retention efforts, they’re going to need to reach them in their classrooms, and not through the traditional kinds of advising centers and activities.

One of the strong patterns in my data is that knowing students personally and validating them can make a huge difference. I also believe strongly in faculty advising. You see that at elite colleges, and you see that in graduate study, but I think it should happen more at community colleges. Sometimes adult students don’t have time to go to an advising center—they have to rush out of class to get to some other obligation. But they might take three minutes at the end of class to talk to a faculty member they trust. “Do you have any ideas about what classes I should take next?” So I think it’s important for faculty to get familiar with general-education requirements and the major requirements in their fields, because students who feel comfortable with them are going to come to them first with those questions.

Colleges could do more to highlight the stories of their successful adult students. They could set up mentoring programs in which persistent adult students could reach out to adult students who are just starting out. I think that could be very heartening for everyone involved.

I think this last would be great. I think that maybe we could get the students involved with this by touting their success and how this mentoring/encouragement role, even just in speaking to a class for ten minutes later on, can be helpful in getting a job. If students have experience mentoring those who are coming behind them, they are going to be more successful in training and management.

One thing I am trying to emphasize in my developmental classroom is how far the students in it have already come, how far they’ve already gotten ahead, just by making it into the college classroom. I am not sure how successful I am with that, but I hope that hearing it helps.

What ways do you validate your students?

And on a totally different, but completely related, topic:

My data suggest that developmental classes have benefits that go beyond their academic content. Making sure that students have experience in a small class with a caring teacher before they get into the harder content and higher expectations of credit courses—for the nine students in my study, that process seemed to make a difference. Their developmental-reading instructors were champions for them.


That’s what I am trying to do in my developmental classes and I think I need to concentrate on doing it earlier, too, even before I’ve managed to get down pat all 75 students’ names.

2 thoughts on “Tip 52: Adult Students”

  1. The most significant difference between “traditional” and “nontraditionals” students is that the adult students know why they’re there, they know the skills will be relevant in their lives somehow, and they often apply some of them on the job immediately. Young students see curriculum as irrelevant, simply an extension of the meaninglessness of high school. Another difference in adult students was articulate last semester by one student who said, “This is for ME; this is MY time. The rest of the time I am somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother, somebody’s employee, but then I’m here, it’s all about me.” That means my job is to provide as rich of an academic experience as I can through dialectic that invites the adult students to relate anything and everything in class to their already existing knowledge and experience. This creates “knowing students personally and validating them.”

  2. Agreed. My first assignment is developmental writing is a narrative essay, specifically designed not only to help them practice writing, but as a way for me to get to know them on a more personal level. Although some people disagree, I do share elements of my life outside the classroom with them, specifically that I am the mother of two young children. It would be hard to hide seeing as though we live less than a block away from campus and it’s a small college town where I can often be seen out and about with the kids.

    It’s also one of the reasons that I hope to stick around; I want to be there for them if things get difficult as they move forward. I want to be that one person they feel comfortable coming to, but also that they know I can and will help them in whatever way I can.

    Funny story: I was in my gmail one night and I get a panicked chat request from a former students (gmail just automatically assumes that if you’ve answered someone with another gmail address, you must be friends). Both of us have moved on from when we had met, but he saw me online as he was freaking out over an essay he was trying to write. I remembered him well, and took five minutes to talk him down and gently remind him of some of the tips I gave him when he took my class. I don’t know how it turned out, but it felt good to know that for at least one students, I was someone he could still turn to for support.

    Right now, most of the adult students in my class are the same age as I am, but with way more “life experience.” It is fun to be able to talk about the same moments in history (like, you know, before google, iphones, and the Internet) and “teach” the rest of the class about olden-times.

    Great advice. Now, if only we could get admins to listen and actually invest in the people at the front of the classroom…

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