Most people think of college students as young, twenty-somethings who have few responsibilities beyond academics. As instructors we know that many of our students are over the age of 25, have a job and a family to support. They have returned to school driven by a motivation to change careers, advance in their profession or complete a degree that was begun years ago. However, despite a firm motivation to succeed, these students face incredible challenges and stresses. What can we do as instructors to smooth their way and help them stay on track with their goals?

The advantage of experience

A 2007 study by the Department of Labor titled “Adult Learners in Higher Education: Barriers to Success and Strategies to Improve Results” found that unlike the traditional college student, adult learners are often “employees who study” rather than “students who work.” As such, adult learners come to college with certain advantages and challenges.

Advantages include:

  • They are more mature and focused
  • They have “real world” and industry knowledge
  • They may have tuition reimbursement

Yet, despite their experience and maturity adult learners often feel at a disadvantage in the classroom because they doubt their ability to meet the academic standards. An area that can be especially challenging is conducting research and reading academic journal articles.

Student success strategies

In her book, “Student Success in College: Doing What Works!, 2nd Edition,” Christine Harrington chunked key college success concepts into seven meaningful themes. Each chapter provides students with academic strategies to implement across their classes including: how to use campus resources, staying motivated, setting goals, making good decisions, staying positive and establishing a support system, using memory techniques and taking notes, and preparing for tests.

What makes this text unique is Harrington’s use of research studies to do the double-duty of giving background information and as a testing ground for applying learned skills.

Each chapter includes a section where students will analyze a peer-reviewed journal article to learn about key concepts from the chapter. The articles focus on research studies that have been conducted in the area of student success. Strategies such as the Cornell Note-Taking Model are included to help students in their assignments.

In chapter one, Harrington discussed how journal articles are constructed and the peer-review process. After deconstructing a journal article, Harrington followed with an overview of reading strategies for journal articles.

Finally, students were presented with a journal article on the effectiveness of a freshman seminar and asked to analyze the research question, method, results and discussion sections of the article. By using a journal article on student success strategies to teach and reinforce those same strategies, Harrington has made it more likely that students will successfully use those same skills and strategies in their academic careers.

In chapter five, Harrington dealt directly with helping students manage stress and stay motivated.

Her list of strategies for when college and life get challenging included:

  • Believe in yourself: begin by setting high goals, mapping out steps to accomplish goals, seek help as needed, remember that mistakes are learning opportunities
  • Get all of your needs met so that you can achieve to your potential: addressing your needs as they arise helps you achieve your high-level goals
  • Practice stress management: eat nutritionally, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, practice mediation and positive thinking

As instructors we are our students first line of support. By recognizing their particular challenges and addressing them we can be better prepared to help them stay motivated and succeed.

Reference: Harrington, Christine. 2016. Student Success in College: Doing What Works!, 2nd Edition. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

How do you help your adult learners to reduce stress and stay motivated? Tell us in the comments.