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.

Self-Assessment is Essential to Lifelong Learning

by Nkem P. Nonyel, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Holy Cross Hospital 

Self-assessment is the process of ongoing reflection, self-judgment, and self-monitoring to summarize one’s strengths and clarify areas for improvement. This includes learning from one’s experiences; judging one’s personal, educational, and professional performance; examining personal characteristics based on evidence, external standards, and explicit criteria for the purpose of future quality and performance improvements. Research has shown that self-assessment can improve learner's communication skills, and can result in behavior change.1 

Self-assessment skill is beneficial to every learner. McMillan and Hearn state “Students need to self-assess to know when they are learning, how much effort they must expend for success, when they have been successful, when they are wrong, and which learning strategies work well for them”1 The reinforcement of one’s knowledge, skills, values, and behaviors can enhance one’s self-esteem and influence motivation by strengthening self-efficacy and readiness to change. Self-assessment is an essential for lifelong learning for students, educators, and professionals.

Self-assessment can help learners “to discover their own learning potential” by developing self-awareness of their own beliefs and potential misconceptions. It may be used to promote ongoing appraisal of the qualities of one’s performance, and reinforce one’s cognitive abilities and skills. Through self-assessment, one can discover one’s likes and dislikes, knowledge gaps, and opportunities for self-improvement. Self-assessment may also be used to improve morale, strengthen commitment to competent performance, and enhance motivation to take responsibility for one’s professional growth. Self-assessment is facilitated by using and incorporation feedback from peers, teachers and/or preceptors as a learner sets goals and formulates action plans.

Self-assessment involves reflection, planning, acting, evaluating, and recording. Self-assessment could be completed using paper or electronic methods. Other self-assessment activities might include keeping a journal or diary of activities, proofreading and revising one’s work, asking questions to clarify doubts, recording and reviewing audiotape or videotape of one’s own performance.

Teachers should engage and assist learners as they perform their own self-evaluation. The teacher can do so by first explaining to learners how he/she sets and evaluates his/her own goals. Next, the teacher can use thought-provoking questions to stimulate the learners’ thinking about pertinent concepts that should be addressed during goal setting. Such questions allow the learners to assess their thought-process while completing a task, evaluate their strengths and challenges during the assignment/project, and assess the amount of time invested in the assignment/project versus what they gained from the assignment/project.

It is common for any learner to over-estimate their performance. Video recording a student’s performance, either during oral presentations or practical activities, allows students to view themselves and critique their performance.  An educator can either videotape the learners or encourage them to videotape themselves.  Videos should be reviewed in private or with the instructor to avoid shaming. The educator may have the students complete a written self-evaluation immediately following an activity before they view the video, and again after viewing the recording. This way, the student is able to differentiate between the perception and reality of their performance. The University of Maryland School of Pharmacy uses videotaping during Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE).

An educator can also model self-evaluation and the need for continuous performance improvement by videotaping some of his lectures, and having learners watch and critique his performance and provide feedback on his communication skills and teaching style. The educator may intermittently hand out evaluation forms, or use a suggestions box to seek the learners' opinion on how well the class is going, what the teacher is satisfactorily engaging the learners well or not.

Assigning learners to write Personal Learning Plan may help them become active participant in their education since they can create goals based on their perceive personal and professional needs. A written Personal Learning Plan will also facilitate dialogue between educators and learners because learners will have the opportunity to meet with the educators to review the set goals and the activities to ensure the attainment of the goals. Educators may also assign reflection essays to students to prompt them to reflect on ways to bridge gaps in knowledge and skills.

Self-assessment is an essential metacognitive skill that learners use to gauge their general background knowledge but determine the best strategies to problem-solve.4 In a study to evaluated the implementation of self-assessment among student health care practitioners and its impact on learning, Dearnley and Meddings noted that self-assessment enhanced the student’s ability to think reflectively and to achieve their academic potential.6 

Students can tell that they have learned when they can use self-testing, self-questioning, summarizing, repeating or explaining to improve their understanding of pertinent concepts.4 Teachers can tell that students have learned from self-assessment, not merely from grades, but when they “develop reflective skills to become self-regulated and lifelong learners”, consistently use analytical methods to approach problems, apply their knowledge and skills across a variety of situations, and require less prompting.4 


    1. McMillan J, Hearn J. Student self-assessment: the key to stronger student motivation and higher achievement. Educational Horizons 2008: 40-49.
    2. Bose S, Oliveras E, Edson WN. How can Self-assessment improve quality of the healthcare. USAIDS Quality Assurance Project 2001; 2(4).
    3. Krueger JL. Pharmacy students’ application of knowledge from classroom to introductory pharmacy practice. American Journal of pharmaceutical education 2013; 77(2) article 31
    4. Kurnaz MA, Cimer SO. How do students know that they have learned? An investigation of students’ strategies. Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences 2010; 3666-3672.
    5. Sarget J, Armson H, Chesluk B, et al. The process and dimensions of informed self-assessment: aconceptual model. Academic Medicine 2010; 85(7); 1212-1220.
    6. Dearnley CA, Meddings FS. Student self-assessment and tis impact on learning – a pilot study. Nurse Education Today 2007; 27; 333-340

      June 12, 2015

      Constructive Conflict

      by John Dolan, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Carroll County Hospital 

      Conflict is a part of our daily lives. Whenever there are multiple people in a room, there will be multiple opinions. Conflict arises when there are differing needs, emotions, or perceptions. Conflict can arise from a threat to something tangible or — more commonly in a classroom — intangible, such as ideas, values, and beliefs. While hot-button issues often provoke different viewpoints, conflict is not always over “big issues.” Sometimes a deadline or how to organize group work can provoke a disagreement. Adult learners are just as likely to conflict with their teachers as other students.1 As a rowing coach, I often provide instruction to adults. They are doctors, lawyers, engineers, and teachers. They are intelligent and have different ideas and perspectives. Handling disagreements among the group can be a delicate matter.  Depending on how the conflict is managed, it can ruin a practice or lead to improvement.

      Conflict can descend into animosity and personal animus, creating barriers to understanding and learning. My rowers are usually tired, in pain, and working hard.  It’s easy for them to react emotionally. When confrontation becomes the dominating theme, it can endanger the learning process, and alienate learners from each other. Therefore, it’s critical that both teachers and learners use confrontation in a constructive manner and minimize destructive conflict. It can be helpful to approach conflict resolution in adult education using the same tools successfully employed in business and politics.

      Constructive confrontation forces us to re-examine our preconceived notions or beliefs, and gives us an opportunity to see something from another person’s viewpoint. It often resembles collaboration, because there is a dynamic tension in which there is give and take from both sides.  Conversely, individuals who engage in destructive confrontation are more concerned with “winning” and “losing.” Under these conditions, the responses can range from avoiding or withdrawing, to labeling, attacking, or controlling the dialog. Making sweeping generalizations like “[blank] always happens” or attacking with “you would say that” or speaking over the other party is a conflict that does not seek to build consensus or encourage dialog.

      There are many conflict resolution models.2,3,4 You can attempt to “force” a win, “accept” a loss, or compromise. Some argue that one should not compromise, but rather “negotiate interests.” This is the foundation of Fisher and Ury’s “Getting to Yes” and the Harvard Negotiation Project.4 

      Rahim and his colleagues argue that there is no “best” way to resolve conflict.2 Instead, they propose a model in which one is either motivated by concern for the self or concern for others. Once this is recognized, one must chose from one or more styles of conflict management such as compromising, avoiding, obliging, integration, and domination.2 

      Regardless of the model, there are several common recommendations for making conflict constructive:
      • Create a safe space. All parties should remember that they are in a learning environment. There probably isn’t a “right” answer to the disagreement.  It is important to keep in mind that everyone is present to learn – including the teacher!
      • Seek understanding. Fully elucidate the other “side’s” perspective. Often when restated, we come to see that there is not always conflict in the belief, but rather a different path.
      • Define the problem. There is no point in arguing if you aren’t clear what you are disagreeing about. Too often students don’t take a step back and define their interests, goals, and beliefs.
      • Align. If you’ve clearly defined the problem and truly understand the other viewpoint, this is much easier to accomplish. Realize where each position happens to be congruent. Visualize conflict as a path from point A to point B. While the starting and ending point are the same, there are multiple ways to get there – and conflict arises where these paths diverge.  Sometimes we watch video of a good race to have a common goal.
      • Pause. Taking a moment to breath can make all the difference. It will be perceived as thoughtfulness – and can trigger reflection. Reacting too quickly can lead to misunderstandings, and further widen the gulf between two perspectives. I give my rowers a water break before we talk.
      • Use “I” statements. Be careful about assuming someone’s identity, even with good intention. Instead of “You said…”, say “I understand your point to be…” Ground statements in observable facts, if possible. I videotape practice to provide an objective viewpoint.
      • Agree to disagree. Help students understand that total agreement is not always possible if they remain wedded to their beliefs.3,4
      As Socrates said, “Know thyself.” Understanding how each student approaches conflict can also be useful. I’ve learned that there are many different personalities in a boat. Successful conflict management is based on having the proper tools and knowing each rower. Consider using a tool such as the Thomas-Kilmann Inventory5, the Kraybill Conflict Style Inventory6, or the Mouton-Blake Managerial Grid Model7 to assess each student's innate styles of conflict management.

      Dealing with conflict is a ongoing process; the participants are continually reevaluating themselves and each other. The path might start at “A,” but there is not always an endpoint to a discussion or disagreement. In order to foster constructive conflict, educators must recognize this and constantly search for ways to align their students’ paths. 


      1. Johnson DW, Johnson RT. Conflict in the Classroom: Controversy and Learning. Review of Educational Research. 1979 Winter;49(1):51-69. Abstract available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1169926
      2. Rahim M. Toward a Theory of Managing Organizational Conflict. The International Journal of Conflict Management. 2002;13(3):206. Abstract available from: http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2003-00976-004
      3. Walker M, Harris G. Negotiations: Six Steps to Success. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentiss Hall; 1995.
      4. Fisher R, Ury W. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Penguin Books; 2011
      5. Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument [Internet]. Sunnyvale, CA: CPP, Inc; 2009 [cited May 13, 2015]. Available from: https://www.cpp.com/products/tki/index.aspx.
      6. Style Matters: The Kraybill Conflict Style Inventory [Internet].: Riverhouse Press; 2015 [cited May 13, 2015]. Available from: http://www.riverhouseepress.com.
      7. Blake R, Mouton J. The Managerial Grid III: The Key to Leadership Excellence. 3rd edition ed. Gulf Publishing; 1994.