Ready, Set, Engage: Adult Students Need the Same Love

First engage adult students; then you'll keep them.
First engage adult students; then you’ll keep them.

We’re all busy. In addition to work and family responsibilities, adult students must also carve out time for their courses from their hectic schedules. But, some students don’t have the discipline or loyalty to do so.

In this interview, Amy Stevens, Associate Vice President, eLearning at Southern New Hampshire University, shares how she keeps the university’s adult students engaged and active even when they’re faced with other distractions.

What are the biggest extrinsic and intrinsic barriers to retaining adult students who may have full-time jobs and other obligations that make it difficult to stick to their online learning courses? How can these barriers be abated?

One of the greatest things about higher education today is the diversity of our student body, while there is no one set of demographics that describe them; there are some commonalities we see among our students. Online Masters Students are, for the most part, career driven, focused and able to leverage the success they had in completing their undergraduate experience and apply some of those lessons learned to success at the graduate level. Students who are career changers and who may be transitioning into growth fields like Health Professions and STEM face additional challenges because they most likely didn’t have any of the more demanding science or math experience that would make them fully prepared for the rigors of the field. We know these students will be more successful, for example, if we can get them into foundations courses that will help them meet the competencies demanded for the core courses in their new programs. However, those courses add to the overall time and cost.

Again, there is tremendous diversity among undergraduate students, many of whom had really negative educational experiences along the way. Being really clear in the admissions process, understanding the student’s goals and then constantly making that alignment clear to the students can prevent/situate some of the challenges that students are likely to encounter. The other challenge is that those negative educational experiences have a tendency to make students resistant to taking risks in the classroom. It is essential to create an environment where they feel safe to make some mistakes, and not do so in front of their classmates.

How do you engage a typically diverse and sometimes disloyal online student body?

First and foremost, the educational experience must feel relevant to them and align with their goals. If a student feels like the work they are being asked to do doesn’t have real world applications, or won’t help them get ahead, they will not benefit from the experience. So even when we are dealing with things like General Education requirements, we really try to make sure our students understand that while this may not have immediate ties to their chosen profession, employers tell us that they want graduates who are critical thinkers, great communicators and confident problem solvers and these courses are a way to gain those competencies.  It also helps if the student feels you are invested in their success and that is a message that can’t just be delivered from their faculty members, but needs to be consistent across their entire experience.

What can faculty do to create a culture of engagement with their distance learning students?

Engagement is essential; students need to feel part of the process. For example, they really appreciate high levels of individualized feedback, and they appreciate when faculty bring their real world experiences into the course to illustrate concepts and bring theory to life.

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