Dos and Don’ts of teaching non-traditional students online

Returning to school can be a challenge for an adult learner, especially in an online environment. Adult non-traditional learners are highly motivated, but often have a number of concerns about returning to school. In order for these students to succeed, the faculty must be a mentor, a facilitator, a cheerleader, and a holder of high standards, and sometimes even a friend.


Cartoon with check mark

  • become acquainted with the students
  • treat adult learners with respect
  • honor what adult students already know
  • be a coach for online course technology
  • hold high standards

Cartoon with x mark

  • expect adults to be quite as tech savvy
  • expect adults to remember how to be a student
  • forget about bloom’s taxonomy
  • forget the importance of feedback
  • forget that adults have different goals

Elisa Robyn, PhD‘s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do become acquainted with the students

Non-traditional learners bring many challenges and strengths to the classroom. These are adults who are highly motivated to succeed, but have concerns that are different than younger students. Take the time to become acquainted with these students and understand who they are as individuals. Be aware that adult learners, as all learners, have a variety of learning styles. This is not about becoming friends; this is about building a learning bound between the faculty and the student, so that the faculty can help the student learn.

Do treat adult learners with respect

For faculty used to working with 18 to 22 year old students, dealing with adults who are 29 – 65 years old (or older) takes a mind shift. Some of these students have fought in wars, raised families, worked in other fields, run companies, immigrated to the US and learned a second language, and faced various other challenges. These learners are in school because they want to be there. They are often adding school to work and family obligations, and in fact might be putting adolescent students through college. This means that adult students ask serious questions and want answers that are respectful in nature.

Do honor what adult students already know

Adult non-traditional learners have lived complex lives, just like the faculty. These students might not have a degree, but they do have a great deal of life experience. An adult learner might not have learned to apply critical thinking in a philosophy class, but they have clearly used critical thinking at work or while raising children and running a household.

Do be a coach for online course technology

Just because learners are in the Gen X population, they are not necessarily computer savvy. Even if they are computer savvy, they are not necessarily used to learning online. This type of coursework requires a shift in perspective. Students post rather than talk. They read rather than listen. They have to post or email a question and wait for an answer. The class isn’t all working at the same rate, so a student might post a comment and not have a response from another student for 24 hours or more. The course shell requires a bit of computer savvy. Adult students need a mentor and a cheerleader in order to succeed, especially regarding the technical aspects of learning.

Do hold high standards

Adult students want to succeed in courses, but more importantly they want to learn. They are either paying or taking on debt to attend college, and they want the courses to be of high-value. Adult students will reach to the bar we set, and they want that bar set high. Adults are proud of returning to college, and they expect to be challenged in the courses. Setting high standards helps adult students stay motivated, feel challenged, and be proud of succeeding in college.

Elisa Robyn, PhD‘s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not expect adults to be quite as tech savvy

Just because students have used computers for email and for word documents, they still may not understand how to navigate a drop box, doc share, threaded discussion, share a link or use or the library data bases from home. It is helpful to record short videos, showing and explaining the use of the course shell and other online elements. These videos can be posted in the announcement section of the online course so that students can refer to them throughout the term.

Do not expect adults to remember how to be a student

Returning to school can be challenging and frightening, especially as adult students try to research and write papers or study for tests. It has been a long time since adults have participated in these tasks, and the tasks are different online. Research demands the use of the online library databases. Tests are timed online. There are no review sessions before a test. Adults have not memorized concepts for tests, reviewed journal articles for research papers, or used APA or MLA writing formats for many years.

Do not forget about bloom’s taxonomy

Bloom’s taxonomy spells out types of classroom tasks that tap into different levels of learning. For example, a young student might recognize and understand what the civil war was, but a college student needs to be able to analyze and synthesize the causes and effects of the civil war. A graduate student needs to be able to evaluate theories and perhaps create theories about the war. Using Bloom’s taxonomy to design online courses for adults guarantees that the courses are challenging and relevant.

Do not forget the importance of feedback

Adult students want to know why they have earned a certain grade on a paper. Even if the student earned an A, they want to know why they earned that A and how to improve in future work. Adults want details, not just grades.

Do not forget that adults have different goal

Adult learners need degrees for better jobs or to return to the work force. They do not have the time to explore many disciplines, or the luxury of taking summers off. These students want to complete a degree quickly so that they can improve their lives, and the lives of their children. They are focused and want to learn, and expect the faculty to help them reach these goals.


Adult non-traditional learners are highly motivated to succeed but have different challenges, needs and strengths than traditional college students. These students can be highly successful online, but need a different type of support. Faculty must remember who these students are as individuals and design and run courses in ways that address the adult learning needs.

Similar Posts