Over the past few years, there has been a lot of discussion about student persistence in online education and how to improve it (Lakhal et al., 2021). While exit interviews show that the most common reasons that students leave are ones they cannot directly control, such as a job change or loss, they also leave due to issues they should be able to control, such as missed deadlines. Thus, institutions are focusing on what they can do to help students succeed.
Much of this discussion has revolved around teaching students self-regulation skills, such as goal setting and planning (Cheng & Xie, 2021). But institutional efforts often fail to distinguish traditional undergraduates coming straight out of high school with returning adult students. Traditional students may lack self-regulation skills because they have not needed them, but this is not generally the case with working adults. Working adults with jobs and families have the self-regulation skills to keep their jobs and manage family duties. An adult student who is given a program on how to meet deadlines will likely be insulted, thinking something like “I’ve been working at Amazon for 10 years; I think I know how to meet deadlines.”
The problem with adult students is not a lack of self-regulation skills in general but rather a misunderstanding of how to apply these skills as an adult student. In my experience of working with adult students for over 25 years, they generally fail due to specific issues that they can easily address with proper preparation before they begin their studies. Here are the three major issues I see with adult students and ways that instructors can help these students move past them.
Grade obsession is a problem at all levels of education, but it can be a particular problem for adult students. They often see anything less than an A as failure and are demoralized by it to the point of quitting. Faculty and institutions have a hard time understanding this mindset since “Cs get degrees,” but we as faculty cultivate grade obsession by sending students the message that grades are the point of education, not learning. We do so when we use feedback as a way to justify the grade rather than improve performance. I have found that for faculty to shift from a grade-based feedback mentality to a coaching one makes a big difference on how students view feedback and their grades.
But instructors should also understand that students often fixate on grades because they think them a measure of their intelligence or ability to learn. Institutions can address this by teaching students to see grades as just a measure of their current performance, much like their performance evaluations at work. Thus, it is important to get these students to see their grades in the same light: as indications of their current performance and thus potential for improvement. Of course, it is also important to give them opportunities to improve with retakes on assignments that they failed. When students see that their failures will not follow them all the way to the end of the course, they will see their grades more as information than as the goal.
One of the great benefits of online education is that asynchronous discussion allows for more and deeper discussion than the face-to-face format does. It also allows for connections between students. This is less important to a traditional student in an on-campus environment, where their friends are in the dorms and clubs, and thus they are not that focused on acquiring more in class. But online adult students are different. They can come in feeling like they might be too old for college, and isolation from others can make them feel that they are the only ones in their situation. Connecting with other adult students shows them that their situation and struggles are common. It also provides a very important support network. I was always amazed by how well the online master’s degree students in a program I helped run already knew each other when they came to the on-campus residency at the end. With this in mind, it is extremely helpful to give adult students a way to communicate with one another in an open forum in their classes.
But one type of connection that instructors often overlook is connection to the institution itself. People want to feel a sense of community and to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Institutions tend to focus only on connecting on-campus students to the institution, but online students need that connection as well.
Thus, we had a lot of success improving persistence at a former institution with a variety of efforts to connect online students with the institution. For instance, the dean of the online division wrote a weekly blog on topics related to the institution. Plus, every program director needed to write a weekly blog on topics related to the program or field. I included a weekly puzzler challenge where I asked a question about the school and the state it was in, and I created a leaderboard to further entice student interest. This proved highly popular and was a simple way to connect students to the institution. I included questions about the state to give students a sense of grounding, as it helps to create a connection to the institution when students see it as having a physical location and activities. Faculty can facilitate these connections with these kinds of weekly announcements or puzzlers about their institution or department.
The number one issue I see with adult students is that they usually do not appreciate the time commitment their studies require, and as a result they fail to restructure their schedules to accommodate it. Institutions are generally good about telling students that they will “spend 20 hours a week” on their studies, and although adult students see that they have time between work and sleep to fit that in, they don’t always appreciate how much of that time is devoted to family obligations.
Thus, I have found success with teaching incoming students that they will need to restructure their and their families’ schedules to fit their schooling in. They need to understand that their family plays a major part in their academic success because they need to offload some of their family responsibilities onto others to make time for school. They need to make it clear that, for instance, “After work is Mommy’s school time, so any homework problems need to be brought to Daddy” or “Saturday is Daddy’s school time, so Mommy will be taking you to soccer practice from now on.” Adult students need to carve out a certain number of uninterrupted hours per week from their schedules, and this cannot be done on a case-by-case basis or by the student alone. Their entire family needs to play a support role for them to succeed.
It is important to understand the distinction between traditional and adult students when designing programs to held adult students succeed. These three practical interventions will improve adult student persistence and success.
Cheng, S.-L., & Xie, K. (2021, June). Why college students procrastinate in online courses: A self-regulated learning perspective. The Internet and Higher Education, 50. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2021.100807
Lakhal, S., Khechine, H., & Mukamurera, J. (2021). Explaining persistence in online courses in higher education: A difference-in-differences analysis. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 18. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41239-021-00251-4