June 19, 2015

Meeting the Unique Needs of Non-traditional Students

by Imran Chughtai, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Resident, Holy Cross Hospital 

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) states non-traditional students have one or more of these characteristics:1 
  • Entry to college delayed by at least one year following high school
  • Having dependents
  • Being a single parent
  • Being employed full time
  • Being financially independent
  • Attending part time
  • Not having a high school diploma
Institutions of higher education have seen an increasing number of adult learners with life demands returning to school.1 These non-traditional students experience social and financial burdens more than the traditional student. Due to non-traditional students’ life experience, they frequently have a keen understanding of the economic, professional, and social success that can be gained from higher education.1 Non-traditional students require a unique approach to teaching and need to be taught differently than traditional students. 

Instructional methods that appeal to adult learners are most effective for non-traditional students. Methods that allow non-traditional students to talk about and use their past experiences, collaborate with peers, and reflect are often more successful.2 “According to tacit theory, adult learners acquire their metacognitive skills from peers, teachers, and the local culture.”2 An example includes mentoring where teaching occurs through role modeled behaviors. Educators of non-traditional students tend to gravitate to this framework because it facilitates learning in the absence of a traditional academic setting. In essence, the educator is meeting learning objectives by individualizing the “classroom.

A major problem faced by non-traditional students is the high risk of dropping out.3 In the study described by Gilardi and Guglielmetti (2011) the number one reported risk factor for dropping out was the student’s employment status -- 35% of students who dropped out had permanent jobs and 49% of students had temporary jobs. Evidence supports a negative relationship between the weekly hours worked and the rate of retention.3 

A successful educator can mitigate the demands of employment by engaging students via non-traditional teaching methods, such as distance learning or “e-learning,” and thus increasing the “perceived quality of [the learning] experience.”3 By creating a flexible teaching/learning process the non-traditional learner is motivated to persevere through the rigors of higher education. The non-traditional student will meet learning objectives when he/she perceives the instructional will result in a meaningful learning experience.  This can be enhanced by the addition of social support from peers. For example, non-traditional student experience greater success with content that has “implications and applications of theoretical knowledge in their own professional context.”3 

Learning assessment tools such as the Learning and Study Strategies Inventory (LASSI)2 can be used to help adult learners identify their pre-existing learning strategies and preferences. The educator can use that information to introduce new learning strategies that may be more effective for the student and it encourages students to develop metacognitive strategies. Repetition, presenting information in similar, but not duplicate environments, is essential to strengthen course material.  Moreover, educators should force students to re-examine their pre-existing learning strategies (less than optimal strategies) and adopt new ones that will allow for optimal learning.

Non-traditional students are often self-directing and goal-oriented – and this can be used to the educator’s advantage! These attributes are key in promoting lifelong learning. Non-traditional learners often pursue higher education for professional development and advancement. This can provide motivation to increase engagement in the learning process.

When compared to traditional students, non-traditional students are more likely to4

  • Ask questions in class or contribute to discussions (80% vs. 72%)
  • Prepare two or more drafts of papers and assignments (61% vs. 40%)
  • Come to class prepared (87% vs. 76%)

One study found that successful non-traditional students often used social supports, programs, and services to overcome time constraints.4 Social supports included study groups and online communication with teachers.  Face-to-face meetings are not always time friendly for non-traditional students. Non-traditional students also benefit from online-lectures or discussion boards which allowed remote participation without having to physically be present on campus.

The educator needs to use instructional methods that have fluidity in order to integrate the adult learners’ professional experience and individual learning preferences. The educator should use a student’s stated goals to tailor the learning objectives and activities so that the student has a more meaningful experience.  The non-traditional student has unique needs but they can be successful if educators employ appropriate methods and strategies. 


  1. Ross-Gordon JM. Research on adult learners: Supporting the needs of a student population that is no longer nontraditional. Peer Review 2011; 13(1).
  2. Kenner C., Weinerman, J. Adult learning theory: Applications to non-traditional college students. Journal of College Reading and Learning 2011, 41(2): 87-96.
  3. Gilardi S., Guglielmetti C. University life of non-traditional students: Engagement styles and impact on attrition. The Journal of Higher Education 2011; 82(1), 33-53.
  4. Wyatt LG. Nontraditional student engagement: Increasing adult student success and retention. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 2011; 59(1), 10-20.

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