Teaching Tips

Teaching Non-Traditional Students

By Mary J. Allen
California State University-Bakersfield

A freshman in 1964, I went to a major university and was surrounded by peers who, like myself, were going to school immediately after high school. We were "traditional" students: predominantly young, White, middle-class, full-time students. Students with learning disabilities were "invisible," and students who worked were rare.

The student body has changed since then. The Chronicle of Higher Education annually reports summaries of students at two-year and four-year colleges. Over the last several decades the proportions of students who are women, older, Asian, Hispanic, and part-time have been increasing, while the proportions of students who are male, young, White, and full-time have been decreasing. The "traditional" student is becoming increasingly uncommon, and faculty face a rich mixture of students, diverse in age, gender, ethnicity, and the exclusivity of academics in their lives.

I teach at a small college in the California State University system. Over half of our students are non-White, and many are first generation college students. They include children of farmworkers, refugees from Latin America and Southeast Asia, and descendants of Dustbowl migrants. Almost every student I know works, many full-time. Many are parents, and many help older family members interact with the English-speaking world that surrounds them. They lead complicated lives, and their college degrees will open opportunities for them that many of their parents will never see. How can faculty meet the needs of such a diverse student body?

Chickering and Gamson's (1987) widely-accepted seven principles of good practice in undergraduate education continue to be relevant. These principles encourage student-faculty contact, student reciprocity and cooperation, active learning, prompt feedback, good time management, high expectations, and respect for differing learning styles. In addition, Chism (1999) has articulated some basic principles for teaching in a multi-cultural environment. All students must believe that they:

  • are welcome.
  • can fully participate in their classes and campuses.
  • are treated as individuals.
  • are treated fairly.

How do we put these principles into practice? Faculty might find the following teaching tips useful for teaching non-traditional students.


  • Teach by objectives. Communicate your learning objectives to students. Non-traditional students will appreciate the extra guidance the list of objectives provides. Explicit learning objectives focus faculty and students as they prepare for the course.

  • Consider the students' perspective. As you design the course, consider each element from the perspective of your students. Are assignments culturally relevant, fair, and interesting? Are readings selected to include pluralistic perspectives and relevant research on diverse groups? Diversity materials may not be available for every course, but should be included when possible.

  • Consider optional lessons. Do students have the prerequisite knowledge and skills to succeed in your course? If some may not, consider designing optional learning experiences to develop the prerequisites and schedule them in the syllabus appropriately. Returning students who took prerequisite coursework years earlier may benefit from the focused opportunity to refresh skills and information. For example, you might provide a basic statistics review or an introduction to technology skills required to complete your course.

  • Consider community assignments. Non-traditional students may not have ties to the local professional community, may have trouble seeing themselves as professionals, and may not be aware of the full range of career opportunities available to college graduates. Community service assignments may help them overcome these disadvantages and develop a professional self-image.

Community engagement is not relevant for all classes, but could be integrated fairly easily into such courses as child development, industrial psychology, and community mental health. Also useful would be to have community guest lecturers relate courses to real-world applications and career opportunities and to suggest that students connect with your institution's career/placement center.


  • Use classroom assessment. In the diverse classroom it is difficult for faculty to be aware of each student's progress. Classroom assessment techniques (CATs; Angelo & Cross, 1993) are excellent ways to keep in touch with student attainment of learning objectives. In addition, use CATs to assess prerequisite knowledge and experiences and to provide topics that stimulate productive discussion. Common CATs include the muddiest point (ask students to describe what is confusing at the end of a course session) and the one-sentence summary (ask students to summarize what they just learned).

  • Require student-to-student interaction. Group work increases student learning, student attitudes toward learning, and student persistence (Cooper & Robinson, 1998), so is well worth the time. In addition, interactions will enrich the experiences of all students by engaging students in the sharing of personal perspectives. Students on my campus are often amazed to hear about their own community through the eyes of people quite unlike themselves. Older students have life experiences related to work, family, and cultural changes that younger students may never have considered; students varying in cultural background often have different experiences and perspectives; and international students can add cross-national information.

  • Encourage outside preparation. Encourage students to obtain their first exposure to materials outside of class time. Readings and assignments can be used to promote student exposure to course content before they come to class, allowing you to spend more in-class time engaging students in active learning exercises, group activities, and consolidating higher-order learning. Students who need more time to digest materials can spend that time outside of class, rather than during class. Journal assignments, quizzes, study questions, and routine integration of pre-assigned readings into class activities may help motivate students to complete readings in time.

  • Test and grade fairly. Unless vocabulary is being tested, use simple, direct language in your test questions, and give students who might have English as a second language time to complete tests. If the goal of the test is to assess student learning, don't confound that with vocabulary size or processing speed. I once had a student who grew up speaking Persian, went to school using French, then came to the United States. She would take exams by translating the English to French, then to Persian. She would compose her answer in Persian, and translate from French to English before responding. Yes, she needed more time to take exams, but her exams demonstrated mastery of course objectives. Use a variety of exam formats so students have various ways to demonstrate learning and consider alternatives to exams, such as student portfolios that document their learning. Grades are important to students, and all students should be given the opportunity to earn a grade that reflects their learning.

  • Use a non-competitive grading system. Grading on a curve encourages students to compete with each other and makes some students who come from non-competitive cultures uncomfortable. In addition, it discourages students from working together and helping each other because they may reduce their own grades in this way. Have high standards, but all students who meet your standards for a grade should receive it. Noncompetitive grading based on absolute standards creates a "community of learners" within your class, and this community includes you because you and the students jointly strive for student success.

  • Encourage study groups. I want my students to be actively engaged with the course and with each other. Encourage study groups by distributing study questions that go beyond "memorize what's on page 82." I'm delighted when groups of students drop by my office before an exam, describe their debate about a study question, and seek more information. In my experience, active participation in a good study group can move a student up at least a grade, and all students develop better understanding when they explain concepts to peers.

  • Consider using technology. Web links can be used to give students options and to expose them to materials not in traditional academic libraries, including international and non-English materials, and email communication allows students to thoughtfully compose questions and receive personalized attention. Nontraditional students who are quiet in traditional classrooms and students who require time to frame statements in English may open up when allowed to communicate electronically, and give those with scheduling problems access to your wisdom.

  • Avoid assumptions. Faculty assumptions about life experiences may inadvertently exclude some students from the desired impact of an example, and may alienate students whose values and expectations differ from their own. International students are about 3 percent of students in American colleges, and other students may be first-generation Americans; they may have quite different reactions to your references to historical events, literary allusions, or your implied assumptions about life experiences. A student recently told me about his childhood in Mexico, and how every day he carried a can to the central well to bring water to his household. An example of rewarding a child by buying a new movie or videogame may miss the mark with this student.

  • Slow down. Give students time to think during class discussions. Although native-English-speaking extroverts may participate immediately when you stimulate a discussion, other students may need time to process your question, to collect their thoughts, and to phrase them for presentation to the class. Consider asking students to write responses before the discussion begins, and consider a "think-pair-share" strategy in which students share responses within dyads before the whole-class discussion. Although it takes a few more minutes, all students should be able to contribute to the discussion. "Taking the stage" and challenging authority may violate cultural norms for some students, and special sensitivity, encouragement, and shaping of such behaviors may be necessary.

  • Allow class time for group projects. Commuting and working students and students with family obligations may have difficulty working on group projects outside of class, especially if their schedules differ from others in their group. Give them the opportunity to participate during class.

  • Diversify references. Use a variety of ethnic names (e.g., Imelda, LaKeisha, Shoreh, Tran, Rafael, Buford, Ahmed, Jin) in exam questions and examples. For example, I include reference to Dr. Perez as well as to Dr. Jones in exam questions, and I deliberately balance names with roles, so that sometimes the professional has a female name and sometimes the professional has a male name. Students should see opportunities for people like themselves.


  • Communicate assignments clearly. Nontraditional students may not know what you want when you assign papers, projects, or activities. Tell students what you expect and describe grading criteria to clarify their task. Communicate assignments in writing, so students can refer back to instructions as they proceed.

  • Role model respect. Show respect for and interest in differences in opinions and perspectives, and correct student misinformation based on stereotypes related to age, ethnicity, sex, disability, religion, sexual orientation, etc. Be prepared to cite relevant literature that undermines stereotypes, or, if relevant, provide students opportunities to explore this literature among their course assignments.

  • Encourage office hour visits. Non-traditional students may be more comfortable discussing personal issues in private, and you will learn much from them. For example, gay and lesbian students may be uncomfortable discussing their reactions to homophobic or disparaging remarks in class, but may help you recognize and avoid problems in the future. Informal advising during office hours may allow you to help them broaden their educational experiences and deal with barriers to their success.

  • Show confidence in students' abilities. Nontraditional students may lack confidence in their academic skills. Older students, who often end up with the highest grades, frequently begin with low self-efficacy. Their basic skills and motivation generally are very high, and they need to learn that they can compete with younger students. First-generation college students often feel out of place and inadequate in the academic environment, and they respond especially well to faculty who genuinely believe in their potential for success.

  • Celebrate success. An "A" in your class may not be an objective for all your students. I teach statistics and research methods to psychology majors, and for many a hard-earned "B" or "C" is a proud accomplishment that we both celebrate.

  • Know yourself. Be aware of your own stereotypes and prejudices, and consciously avoid allowing them to affect how you interact with students. Don't make assumptions about students' background or competency based on how they look. Nurture the talents of students who don't give you positive first impressions; they may pleasantly surprise you.

  • Avoid "tokenism." Don't assume that a student can speak for his/her group, e.g., "Marta, how do Mexican-Americans feel about this issue?" Students may be uncomfortable when they are singled out, and they cannot respond for their group any better than one of us can respond for all faculty.

  • Avoid jokes that play on stereotypes. Students who believe they are outsiders in the academic environment may become convinced that they don't belong if they become the source of jokes based on stereotypes.

  • Don't patronize students. Be careful to avoid patronizing non-traditional students. They may be sensitive to subtle differences between genuine concern for their needs and implied assumptions that they are incompetent. Avoid the appearance of "talking louder and slower" to someone who doesn't speak your language.


  • Communicate expectations. First-generation college students and working students may have unrealistic expectations about the time commitment required to succeed in college. If reading assignments early, arriving on time, participating in class discussions, and writing well are important to you, let students know the rewards and repercussions if they fail to meet your standards. Academic dishonesty is increasingly a problem on college campuses, so be explicit about your policies and define key concepts (e.g., plagiarism) to avoid misunderstandings.

  • Teach English. Non-traditional students may need help developing their vocabularies. Define abstract words (e.g., altruism, anomie) when you first use them, and point out word roots. For example, correlation deals with how two variables co-relate, i.e., relate together (just like cooperate is to operate together) and bivariate means two variables (just like bicycle means two wheels). Written and spoken English will be important in students' academic and professional lives. Give them practice, feedback, and support to develop these skills. Consider allowing students to iterate drafts of papers, with feedback from peers or yourself on writing style.

  • Teach math and graphing. Non-traditional students may "tune out" when mathematical or statistical concepts are discussed or when graphs are displayed. Help them become math and graph literate by carefully explaining related concepts and organizational schemes. Have them do relevant calculations or graphs within groups so that students who understand such concepts can give one-on-one support to work partners.

  • Encourage participation in student organizations. Encourage non-traditional students to join your Psychology Club or Psi Chi chapter and to take on leadership roles within these organizations. Encourage them to be full participants in the academic community.

  • Offer mentoring. Offer mentoring to non-traditional students who may be overlooked by other faculty. Cultural differences may make some non-traditional students appear less responsive to individual attention, but many of these students blossom when receiving opportunities to conduct research or assist in the next session of the class.

Most faculty teach in an environment different from their own educational background, and they face increasing numbers of non-traditional students. Non-traditional students turn our classes into multicultural environments that can enrich student and faculty experiences. Faculty must be aware of themselves and their students when planning and teaching their courses and communicating with students. A variety of learning and testing opportunities, a non-competitive grading system based on learning objectives, and genuine concern for individual students support student achievement. They may be "strangers in a strange land," but with dedicated faculty, non-traditional students can join our academic culture and enrich our lives.

MARY ALLEN is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Faculty Teaching and Learning Center at California State University, Bakersfield. She is Past President of the Council of Teachers of Undergraduate Psychology, an Associate Editor of Teaching of Psychology, Chair of the Project Syllabus Task Force of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology, and coordinator of the Terman Teaching Conference for the Western Psychological Association.

References & Recommended Readings

Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques (2nd ed.). San Francisco:
Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate
     education. American Association for Higher Education Bulletin, 39, 3-7.
Chism, N. V. M. (1999). Taking student social diversity into account. In W. J. McKeachie, Teaching
     tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (10th ed., pp. 218-234).
     New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Cooper, J., & Robinson, P. (1998). Small-group instruction in science, mathematics, engineering
     and technology (SMET) disciplines: A status report and an agenda for the future. Available at
     http://www.wcer.wisc.edu/nise/cl1/CL/resource/ smallgrp.htm.
Davis, B. G. (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
McKeachie, W. J. (1999). Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university
     teachers (10th ed.). New York: Houghton Mifflin.
The Chronicle of Higher Education 1998-1999 Almanac Issue (1998, August 28).
Walvood, B. E., & Anderson, V. J. (1998). Effective grading. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Note: This article first appeared in the September 2000 (Vol. 13, No. 7) issue of the APS Observer.