Thoughts on Teaching Older Students

What do when someone possesses a great deal of professional experience.

Introduction

Today I officially start year three as a full-time faculty member at ASU. (Time flies.) I’ll be swamped with preparing for a new course and won’t have too much time to blog. Before I get knee-deep in the semester, though, I wanted to offer a few thoughts on something that most professors encounter at some point: teaching older students.

Because of FERPA, I am unable to access my students’ ages—not that I really need to view that information. Especially in my in-person classes, I can tell which ones of my students have followed the traditional college path and which ones are returning to get their degrees. Although the vast majority of students fall into the former bucket, each semester a handful of students come to the table with significant work experience.

Here are a few thoughts on how to effectively handle them—and make the class as pleasant and valuable as possible for students lacking significant work experience.

Identification: Start at the Get-Go

As part of my icebreakers on day one, I attempt to learn a little about my students—a process that I attempt to continue throughout the semester. When it becomes obvious to me that a student isn’t starting from square one, I make a mental note.

Acknowledge Their Experience

I strive in my classes to stress practice as much as theory. To this end, older students can actually increase professors’ street cred. I can think back to my own days as a student. Some professors merely pontificated about theoretical matters from their cushy ivory towers. It’s not that I didn’t believe my professors; it’s just that their message didn’t resonate with me as strongly as those with real-world experience.

Now consider the comments from older students. They often echo what professors are saying—and this makes for a better classroom dynamic. Unfortunately, I can’t produce any hard data on this, but intuitively I believe that this is the case.

Don’t Let Them Dominate the Discussion

In my teaching career, I found that “more experienced” students typically aren’t shy about sharing their tales from the corporate world. The vast majority of the time, their on-the-job experiences reinforce the material that I’m covering. For instance, in CIS440 we cover The Phoenix Project—a fictional book about a dysfunctional organization. I’ll often ask if this piece of fiction plays out in real life (re: if IT projects tend to break bad). As it happens, more mature students typically chime in with their own war stories. Translation: listen to what the professor is saying. He knows what he’s talking about.

Experienced students actually increase professors’ street cred.

For two reasons, it’s important to be careful here. First, most students lack real-world experience at this point and it’s natural that some may feel intimidated. (I know that the 21-year-old version of me would.) I assure them that it’s only a matter of time that even the greenest of students will see their fair share of tech- and data-related challenges in the workforce.

Second, professors need to bring introverted students into the discussion as much as possible—especially in smaller classes. If necessary, I’ll take loquacious students aside and tactfully tell them that it’s my job to get all students involved—not just those with significant work experience. Put differently, I value their contributions but need to hear from everyone. To quote Spock, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” A few times I have had to take these well-intentioned folks aside and remind them of this. In each case, that student has understood and altered his/her behavior.

Simon Says: Think of older students as potential assets, not detractors.

It’s misplaced for professors to think of mature students as threats or competition. In fact, these folks can serve as true assets in the classroom—particularly if the professor properly manages expectations and behavior.

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