Nontraditional Students: Their Perspectives, Needs

As a
student I face ostracism,
prejudice and misunderstanding
regarding my motives for
taking a seat in a full

Diana PegueseDiana Peguese

By Diana Peguese
Senior Library Technology Assistant
Florida Gulf Coast University library

Walking into the classroom that first Monday morning, I can see that I am easily the oldest student in the room. The class quiets. I am wearing a suit, because after class I will return to work at my campus office. Just for fun I stop at the front of the classroom and ask the students to open their books to chapter one so we can begin.

Once again, I have returned to school. As the wife of a career member of the military, I have attended university classes for most of my adult life. This time I intend to complete a BS in business management followed closely by a MS in library science.

This stunt on my first day in school was an attempt to mask my fear. I am afraid of being in class with younger students with whom I will be competing for grades: Students who, unlike me, have not been out of the classroom for more than two decades. And I am afraid I will be unable to keep up, to hold knowledge long enough in my memory banks to complete a course and receive a passing grade.

Of course I am also returning to a whole new level of technology. My working knowledge of several computer systems began with those that filled whole rooms and spat out 80-punch cards. I began working in libraries when they moved from the wooden card catalogs to an electronic version. And although I rarely tweet, I am fully aware of the value of computers and technology in all aspects of our lives, especially the ease with which they help me to produce college-level work.

Yet even after declaring my affection for the computer, my college course in beginning computing nearly sank me. The interactive features didn’t interact. This was no small detail as I spent endless hours and thousands of keystrokes attempting to complete on-line assignments.

In an act of contrition my professor finally admitted that the section he had assigned had not, in fact, been activated. This discovery came just as I had reached a level of frustration that nearly caused me to withdraw from all of my classes.

Easing back into school after two decades of hit-or-miss attendance was reason for me to construct a whole new set of priorities. Any time that I had available outside of work was now devoted to my studies. And when it came to studying, I found that I needed to read and then re-read (and re-re-read) to capture dates, facts and figures.

As the oldest student in class, I found it hard to relate to students who were younger than my own children. With the start of each new semester, I would enter the classroom, find a seat in the back with the other ne’er-do-wells and wait for the instructor to arrive. Usually by the end of the first class, the instructor and the students had pegged me as the one student who would actually attempt to answer questions posed to the class.

Distinctions of the adult learner

As an adult student, I found three distinctive attributes to be dissimilar to those of first-time students.

First, I really required a connection with the instructor, who often was closer to me in age than to the other students. Perhaps it was our status as colleagues that helped me to connect.

Second, the instructors quickly became aware that I might challenge their theories. This was my attempt to both fully understand their theories and to offer an alternative theory based on my past experience or readings. The other students who sat near me on the back row soon learned to slide away from me, to the left or right, to escape the instructor’s line of fire.

Third, during classes I wanted to be fully engaged in the class discussion. I wanted to connect with the instructor and not just fill a seat. Here I make the distinction between relating or connecting to the instructor and engaging in the class. I wanted to be active in the process that should take place in the classroom.

For example, I believed that instructors’ questions— which were often met by students’ blank stares—merited an attempt (even a stabbing guess) at an answer. I also understood that because an hour of classroom instruction requires years of education and hours of preparation, the instructor deserved at least some acknowledgement that we were paying attention.

Unprepared students

Was it evidence that the other students were ill prepared if they did not attempt an answer, as a result of not completing the assigned reading? Or was it cultural? Was it “un-cool” to respond in class? I don’t discount this alternative, though it could be as simple as not wanting to extend the lecture longer than needed.

It always surprised me when students candidly admitted to me that they had not completed assigned reading and homework, even when the instructor had exhausted a whole class period explaining each line of the syllabus.

Even when grades were transparent, students appeared clueless. Percentages of credit were graphed, charted, spelled out and illustrated in color to explain credit for student participation, homework, exams, quizzes and labs. Even with my limited math ability, it was clear just what was expected from each of us to do well or just to earn a passing grade.

A major disadvantage to my being the oldest student in class is the isolation that I often feel. My age sets me apart from the other students; even when projects are assigned to a group of which I am a part, the younger students form a sub-group and then defer to my efforts to complete a project. This has been detrimental to my ability to bounce ideas and concepts off of my classmates. So for the most part, I have been flying solo.

At the start of a class, I often wonder, how does the instructor grade? Is class participation required? How much?

Classmates who are repeating the class could provide valuable guidance. I need to learn how to reach out to these students more effectively. This failure may contribute to my seeking out a stronger rapport with my instructors.

Yet, even this rapport does not provide me with immunity. During a presentation in one of my classes, a young man presented this thesis: “Grannies should be taken off the road.” This was necessary, he declared, in part because old women are high on illegal drugs.

His statement brought laughter from my classmates before they recalled that I was sitting on the back row; they surreptitiously looked to see my reaction. I did not challenge him during class. Had he even understood that what he said was offensive?

Professors’ respond

After completing some of my courses, I have returned and spoken candidly to my professors to get their perspectives on having an older student in class. While a few said that they made no changes in how they taught in response to my being in class, others admitted to making subtle changes.

One professor acknowledged that he purposely made me the last presenter in class for the last four of our five presentations. He had noted that after my first presentation, many of the later presenters emulated my manner of delivery, and he was concerned that they would not “find their own voices.” I did not mention to him my concern over the student who had presented on druggedout granny drivers.

A professor for a required class spoke to me about her having sent out an email to all her students to ask if anyone had found and would share helpful suggestions for successfully completing her class. She admitted to me that her request was in reaction to my having shared with her a one-page, quick-reference sheet that I designed as an aid to keeping track of her class assignments and test dates.

Another professor found that she and I have often spoken on a level that is dissimilar to the usual exchange between student and professor. She asked for my impressions and recommendations on her class, which I consider to be a direct result of my age, experience and interest.

In another required class, I adopted a student who was being ostracized by her table’s group and helped her to complete a critical assignment. On my final paper the professor wrote, “I wish that I could have you in all my classes.” Later, during a private conversation outside of class, she said, “I see you as a rescuer.”

During and after classes I often have continued conversations with my instructors and professors. Again, this could be a direct result of our closer ages or work affiliations, but according to one of my instructors, it is also due to my having asked for guidance and responded to questions during class. Often having noted students’ lack of understanding yet refusal to ask for clarification, he noted that I often asked questions that were of benefit to the whole class. I assured him that I was not being altruistic: I was desperate to earn a good grade!

Tips to teach adults

Having taken numerous classes as an adult student amid students closer in age to my children, I offer some tips to guide those instructors and professors who now find us in their classes. (After more classes, I plan to expand this list to include reactions of other older students).

As older students we may have a width and breadth of life experience that may even be greater than that of the professor, though we may be reluctant to share it. Professors should welcome this wealth of knowledge within their classes.

Isolation of anyone from any group is still segregation, and it is counter-productive to doing well in class. Modeling inclusion should be assumed.

My responsiveness may feel foreign to teachers. I am used to conversing with other humans; and I understand that you deal with students who text with friends while in your class. I strive to understand your concepts and theories, not be a know-it-all.

As older students, we are not to be sullied with, made fun of or ignored. We are different from all the rest only by the circumstance of time.

Tips for older students

Other older students reentering school often wonder whether they can complete a course. As of this writing, I am about to enroll for the third time in a college algebra class that has defeated me twice, both times during the first week of the semester. Although my brain seems to be a bit rusty, I refuse to give up. Here are some tips that so far have gotten me more than halfway through the coursework for my BS degree.

Find other older students who identify as non-traditional students. They will bring and share their own wisdom as well as offer moral support. The value of comparing and sharing your resources and knowledge should not be discounted.

Ask a librarian to help you find resources and to provide you with technology updates.

Offer support to other students in your class who may be experiencing difficulty but may not share your capacity to ask for assistance.

Keep your eyes on the prize. I work so much harder in class than my younger classmates; I know this is so, because they affably tell me it is true. I understand better than they do just how valuable this degree will be.

In the past I have failed to achieve positions due to my lack of a degree, only to observe someone who has a degree fail for lack of life experience or job experience. But my rewards are beginning to appear. This semester I was chosen for our school’s honors program. There are far more requirements for this program than simply performing well in class. I don’t know whether I can sustain the effort necessary to stay in it, but I’ll certainly try.

I am confident that it is worth the effort, even this late in life, to complete my degree—a degree that would have been so much easier, but not half as sweet, 30 years ago.

Reach her at

Peguese, Diana. (2013, May). Nontraditional Students: Their Perspectives, Needs. Women in Higher Education, 22(5), 7-8.

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