Non-Traditional Students and/or Adult Learners and How to Support Their Needs

Here is something I wrote for one of my classes this semester (Fall 2019) that I wanted to share. It relates to non-traditional students and how to accommodate and support their needs as they may be different than the “traditional” student.

There are a few characteristics that the National Center for Education Statistics uses for defining what a “nontraditional” student is. Some of these include: age, race, and gender. Most studies will use “age” as the primary variable because it captures a large, heterogeneous population of adult students who have family and work responsibilities as well as other life circumstances that may interfere with their educational objectives. Many are self-directed in learning, bring a vast reservoir of experience from the real-world, exhibit a readiness to learn, are internally motivated, and exhibit readiness for a task- or problem-centered concept rather than subject-centered.

Here are some tips I found from reading a few articles on adult learning (cited below) that I hope to utilize when framing and designing future course materials.

-Provide opportunities and services to engage with outside of work hours.

Ex: Office hours later in the evening for those working; Designated spaces for studying

-Frame and integrate material off previous knowledge and life experiences.

-Accommodate different learning styles (kinesthetic, auditory, visual, etc.)

-Engage with adult learners personally by drawing on their experiences in discussions and providing personalized feedback.

-Create opportunities for collaboration and interaction through in-class group activities, or flexible opportunities to work with classmates outside of the class. (Links to an external site.) (Teaching Adult Undergraduate Students) (Links to an external site.) (Nontraditional Undergraduates / Definitions and Data) (Links to an external site.) (Is the Adult Student the New ‘Traditional’ Student?)

No Wrong Answers

I have been a Teaching Assistant for the Food Microbiology Lab Course for the past two years (one year at NC State and one here at VT). I always assumed that the class was “hands-on”, “real world”, and “thought-provoking”, but with what I have learned this year in Contemporary Pedagogy, I realized that I wrong. Lab exercises provide instruction for students to follow and complete the work but don’t ask students to question the process behind it or innovate. The labs all relate to a specific microorganism that is isolated and grown on a nutrient agar plate. Students come back to observe these plates and record the results. Many have become so focused on the plates and worry when they don’t get the bacteria to grow as they need to. They chalk it up to failure immediately and do not consider why “X” organism may have not grown as well as it should have.

Seth Godin’s TedxYouth Talk had a part where he talked about an activity he did with people where he brought in a bunch of blocks and asked people to take four and form whatever word, sequence, acronym, etc. with them. He stated that people hated this activity because there was no one right answer. I love this statement because it means that everyone’s interpretations of what they have are different. In addition, students are “collecting” the information on the microorganism, but are not “connecting” the results to other areas. Relating this back to the class, something I’ve included in my Teaching Philosophy is:

“For students’ laboratory activities, I aim to challenge students to critically analyze their data, make conclusions, and discuss their work. There are times with lab where they do not work out as intended, and these are moments where students are asked about what could be done differently next time. It is valuable for students to realize that experiments fail and that learning from these mistakes is what matters.”

I believe that failure is okay. Innovation occurs in the fields sometimes due to failure. Yes, Food Science and Food Microbiology may be characterized as a “conservative” field due to its reproducibility, according to Edelstein’s article, but these changes through tinkering, transforming, and revising what is already there, is what leads to innovative ways of solving problems. Creativity and innovation can be applied with the help of questioning what is already out there. We can learn alongside and teach our students this intellectual process. Rather than making labs like a recipe that can be followed by every student (with hopes of reproducibility), varying and differing what is done can be beneficial.


Week 8: Inclusive Pedagogy

The podcast “Dismantling Racism in Education” had a section at the start where one of the authors Cornelius goes into the constituent parts of the learning system and provides the example of “if only writing counts as work, the kids that are culturally predisposed to speaking…nets less in that system.” He goes on say that your particular culture and/or racial or ethnic background doesn’t allow for success. This reminded me of an experience I had as an English as a second language speaker back in grade school.

I started in the English Speakers for Other Languages program in the 1st grade and went to the ESOL classes that were scheduled a few times a week. I was stuck in this program until I went to middle school. As a quick learner, I was proficient in English very-quickly, but I felt that I was chained to the program. I excelled at the subjects taught whether it was history, science, math, or even English. I yearned for more to learn and more to do, but was unable to fill that void. This would have been offered by the “Gifted and Talented (GT)” Program at my school, but I was unable to join it. The reason cited for this was that I was still in ESOL and that I could not succeed or do well in it…It took me a long, long time to realize that this had even happened to me.


Shifting gears a little, as a teaching assistant and educator, I loved reading on open-minded, inclusive materials and how to utilize those. I am terrified about trying to incorporate these “difficult conversations” that may arise in my classroom from utilizing such material. Although there are tips provided on establishing guidelines and ground rules, a big fear of mine is that I will say something inappropriate without meaning to, or a heated argument will occur.

Guilty as charged

As a student and as a teaching assistant, the question of “is this on the exam?” was and continues to always be on my mind in a classroom setting. I find myself zoning in on minuscule, insignificant details as a student for fear that small piece of information may appear on an exam or assessment. I am guilty of memorizing concepts, prioritizing easier tasks (a shorter book, a familiar topic), and skimming books at one point– all the reasons concluded in Kohn’s article about the effect of grades. I have been taught the ins and outs of how I can succeed at “being a great student” by performing well on an exam or paper.

I wonder what it would have been like to go through schooling in an environment where grades were replaced be measures of progression and learning itself. I felt like I would have learned more rather than be forced to think in a way to do well on an exam. I see both sides of the argument for grading. Efficiency and ease cannot be beat and would be argued by some as the reason for staying with grading. I see a system where grades can be utilized to an extent but be done with more meaning rather than be a simple “ranking”. Maybe grades that represent an overall period rather than just a single performance time/date like an exam.

My reflection on my current educational career so far and this weeks’ readings have sparked a curiosity on correct usage of grades and alternatives. I am curious about how to incorporate these ideas into a classroom where you are not the main instructor. I love the idea of portfolios and evaluation-free zones but wonder how I would discuss these concepts with a professor in hopes of adding/trying it in their class for which I TA for.

Week 1: Networked Learning

The way I see it…

There is no one way of learning or teaching. Students and teachers both learn, teach, explain, and process information differently depending on their backgrounds, thoughts, and perceptions.

As someone who prefers to utilize my abilities to be in a surrounding and interact with the course content, I connected strongly with Gardner Campbell’s Networked Learning as Experiential Learning article and his perspective on how experiential learning provides opportunities for learning that are beyond that of “schooling”. Experiential learning is defined as studying abroad, internships, service learning, and undergraduate research. I was afforded the opportunity as an undergraduate in Biology to do research in the current field, Food Science, that I am pursuing a doctoral degree in. Being able to integrate knowledge learned in the classroom and apply it in complex ways rather than on an exam was something I loved. The practicality of what I was doing made the concepts learned in class easier to understand.

The TedX Talk “What Baby George Taught Me About Learning”, brings an awesome and valid point on the current educational system not allowing for failure. If you don’t know the information, you might be screwed out of a class for the semester. Learning from your mistakes is something we are taught in grade school. In some classes, there is not an opportunity to learn; rather, the material you are being asked about is on one or two exams for the year. Personally, I am not a fan of exams as a way to gauge knowledge. There are many perks associated with it like time-saving and convenience. Some people, like me, are not test takers. Regurgitation of information can only go so far in the “real world”.

I am excited, yet nervous to be blogging this semester. I loved blogging in the past having had experience with blogging through writing for sports websites. Obligatory shout-out to my D.C. sports teams! (#Wizards #Redskins #Capitals #Nationals). Let’s hope that I can take some of those blogging skills and apply it to the Contemporary Pedagogy class.

My old P.I. was excellent at controlling his digital identity and developing himself on social media, specifically on Twitter and a blogging site. I want to increase my openness for what I do research-wise. My goal for this semester is to develop my writing style. I want to be able to discuss my opinions and thoughts with others while also understanding their perspective better. I hope that I can express and articulate my thoughts fluidly on the topics this semester.

Thanks for taking time to read my post. I hope that we can engage in some meaningful dialogue.