Traditional university programmes in the UK are geared towards young undergraduates, but many of today’s students are older. High tuition fees are likely to eventually change university demographics, as they already have in the US. What do academics need to know?
One of the biggest differences between mature and typical students is that they are less likely to place lecturers on a pedestal. They may well be your equal in age and experience, or even senior to you. They will not appreciate it if you make assumptions otherwise.
Mature students also come carrying baggage, and that can be positive or negative. Some have past experiences of university success, and will constantly be comparing your performance with that of former lecturers. Others have past experiences of educational failure, and come prepared to once again fail. Both need your respect, regard and response.
Mature students are taking a big leap when they start a university course. Unlike undergraduates, who are doing exactly what others around them are doing and typically funded by student loans, they are spending a lot of money (usually, their own) on their own initiative. They will experience many moments of self-doubt, These can include doubt over whether the programme will be “worth it” according to their own criteria or in career terms, whether they can meet academic demands, and whether they can stay the course. It is important to discuss their concerns openly early in the year, or even before they start, to ensure they don't feel overwhelmed.
Juggling, and jumping through hoops.
Mature students generally have far more demands on their time. They are often working and may have family and community commitments that cannot wait until the end of term. Flexibility from course leaders is needed, especially when it comes to scheduling tutorials and group work. Universities also need to extend hand-in times and administrative office hours—your advocacy can help.
Psychological aspects to being a mature student are often left unacknowledged. Simply being 10 or 20 years older than the rest of the group can leave them feeling left out when there is group work or talk about social activities amongst classmates. For many, the only part of campus life they see is your classroom.
Do what you can to defuse tensions. Their experience may actually be a huge and much-appreciated asset in a room full of less-experienced students—but only if it’s called on. Ensure that they are fully included in all aspects of discussion and work. Include them explicitly when you talk about “students” as a group, rather than saying things based on the assumption that all students are under 21 and out partying every weekend.
Also watch out for mature students who fear that they are “drinking in the Last Chance Saloon.” They can put a huge amount of pressure on themselves, leading to precisely the failure that they fear. They may need explicit advice on how to structure their non-class time to get work completed, extra tutorials to build their confidence, or assigning to a study buddy. Many are unaware of services available to them on campus, such as Disabled Students Allowance, study support, Students Union services, and help from librarians. Some may also need particular help with areas like using online learning environments and literature searches.