Teaching Mature Students

Several people have asked me recently if I have any strategies for teaching mature students. Often, the people asking this question are young, female, and painfully aware of age and gender dynamics that could play against them. Those who already have their PhD are somewhat less concerned because their title creates a buffer, but the anxiety doesn’t entirely go away. And as more and more graduate students are asked to teach their own courses before completing their degrees, many people don’t yet have that talismanic title of “doctor.”

This is an issue I have more than a little experience with since I didn’t take any breaks between my degrees, have something of a baby face, and started teaching about half way through the PhD. This meant that I had to come up with various strategies for teaching students my own age – and oftentimes much older. In several cases, I had to do this within the context of large lecture courses, where I needed to maintain authority over 150 students who all got to call me Sarah. And for the record, yes, it was extremely difficult, stressful, and tiring!

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[For those who don’t know me, this is me]

Even if you aren’t in this situation –you’re a little older and not worried about ageism, you’re extremely confident in all scenarios, etc… – mature students can be difficult. They bring invaluable real world experience and fought their way back into the educational system because they’re truly hungry to learn. This often causes financial strain, and unsurprisingly, they expect you to deliver something worth their time, money and effort. If your teaching style or the course content don’t live up to their expectations, chances are they will be pretty vocal about it, and that can be intimidating. It can also wreak havoc on your ability to maintain control over your classroom more generally.

Mature students therefore bring some really wonderful assets to the table. Some of them are bilingual, or even multilingual. Many of them have read much more widely than your average student. And as I said, they’re usually really eager. But those very characteristics can also get both you and them into trouble if they’re not properly harnessed and directed. These people have had time to formulate their view of the world, and they have the life experience to back that view up. But the whole point of humanities courses is to challenge the way people see and interact with their world: to make them more critical of social structures and more skeptical of so-called objective truth. Not all mature students are going to find this process easy.

Teaching any student to engage critically with human culture is difficult, but regular students are still in the process of formulating their opinions. It’s true. Many already have opinions passed down to them from their family or their immediate community, and they have never thought to question these positions or are loath to step away from. But they are usually discovering and examining things for the first time – experimenting, if you will. Mature students tend to be re-discovering and re-examining, and this is even harder.  Your classes are often asking them to challenge assumptions that have guided them throughout their entire lives, and that’s going to make them uncomfortable.

Mature students have my undying respect for having the courage to try, but this doesn’t mean they can’t also be a handful. Their social position and life-experience means that more than a few have pushed back when I am teaching newer, and often highly critical historiography. Others have been more content to let me prattle on, but then appeared in my office to explain that they were utterly and hopelessly lost because I was asking them to think about things in a completely foreign way. Not to mention, I then wanted them to write about these things and it had been an awful long time since they’ve written an essay.

So what do you do to make this process easier on yourself and your mature students? First of all, even if you don’t yet have your PhD, you need both to welcome criticism and to be confident in your response to it. The people you are talking to have many reasons for holding the opinions that they do, and if you waiver too much when they challenge you, they are likely to think that you really do just lack life experience and need a little more “seasoning” before you understand how the world really works. Remember, the majority of people tend to extrapolate from their own experience and to assume that everyone else’s life will be similar to their own. This is why people frequently deny that systemic inequality exists; if they made it, so can you. Likewise, many of these older students assume that everyone will come to think like them… eventually. If you do not, it is because you are young and naïve – or, if you’re older, that you’ve lived a sheltered life, insulated by the university. You therefore need to make it clear that you have indeed explored numerous vantage points, and that you still feel the need to ask some probing questions and teach the lessons that you do.

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[We might joke about this, but this scenario is legitimately terrifying if you teach history]

And that brings me to point number 2: ask the right questions! Again, the most frequent problem that mature students have to overcome is the tendency to make assumptions. They will not make progress in this regard if you simply tell them they’re wrong. You need to invite them to reflect (whether as part of your lecture, or during seminars) and to guide them back to a place where one can’t assume anything. Personally, I’ve found that abstract questions are most useful here. Things like: “why do we need to pay attention to what type of words a person is using?” Or “what matters more to understanding the past: what people actually did, or how they talked about it?” Since these are often the types of questions they have not been asked to think about before, they are less predisposed to a particular answer. But you can also get more specific, and ask them to discuss a particular text with a group, comparing their responses. I also have a tendency to lay out several different approaches to the same topic when I lecture and then to ask my students to tell me which one they find most convincing and why. This process won’t solve all your problems, but I’ll take a good question over the best answer any day.

Finally, and I’ve said this a million times, but I’ll say it again. Treat these people with the respect they deserve, and chances are they’ll reciprocate. What they are doing is hard. Period. And for that, I applaud each and every one of them. So even if they do need a little more help with their writing, or a little more work approaching sources with a critical eye, we as teachers need to help them through that. In most cases, even if their progress is slow at first, they will find their way, drawing upon the same unbounded energy that drove them back to school in the first place. Some will even begin the climb towards a graduate degree. But whether or not they are ultimately successful in your course, they will appreciate that you see value in their struggles.

As I said, I don’t personally know what it’s like to go back to school after several years away, so I’d love to hear from people who have made this choice. Whether you’re a mature student doing your undergrad right now, or someone who went back after several years only to become a professor yourself, I would love to see your thoughts in the comments below.

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