Older College Student Tutoring

Here are some tips for tutors on how to accomodate the educational needs of an older college student.

For a long time, we could gauge the approximate age of a college student by his or her class standing. A freshman student was obviously fresh out of high school, no older than 18 or 19. Graduating seniors were no older than 22, and most candidates for advanced degrees were in their mid to late 20s. This concept became so ingrained in our way of thinking that we automatically define these age brackets as 'traditional'. The few older students who did not fit this narrow parameter were saddled with the moniker 'non-traditional student'.

But times have changed dramatically, and it is not uncommon to see 36 year old freshmen sitting next to their 18 year old counterparts. Retired citizens are taking advantage of free college courses and pursuing degrees well into their 70s.

Former students who could not continue their educational goals due to financial or family obligations are returning to school while working at a full-time career. The general student population of many schools is steadily become older, because of the increased demand for degrees and higher education in the workforce.



With such an influx of older students comes an increased need for tutors. Non-traditional students have been out of the educational loop for many years, causing them to need remedial or entry level help in order to catch up with their classmates coming straight from high school. Older students have special tutoring needs, and tutors should be sensitive to these needs if they want to make a better connection with their clients. Here are some considerations when dealing with an older student at the tutoring level.

1. Remedial and refresher courses do not imply lack of ability. Older students may be especially sensitive about taking remedial or basic courses, because they must deal with the fact that some basic concepts have been forgotten along the way. A student in his thirties wants to believe that he remembers enough basic math and English to pass a freshman-level course. If that student discovers that he did not do well on a placement test, his pride may be hurt badly. Taking a refresher course may be his only option, but not one he'll enjoy. As his tutor, you must emphasize that this course is essential for his continued success down the road. Obviously, some of the material will be remedial and far too simple, but don't allow your student to jump to any conclusions. At some point, the material will become challenging enough to warrant such placement. Discuss what will be expected of your student in future courses, and don't hold back. An older student may excel in many other areas because of their real-life experiences, but that does not necessarily translate into an automatic advancement in weaker subject areas. Keep your older student focused on passing the class at hand, not on the unfairness of the situation.

2. Older students are often more studious, and isn't easily distracted by noise. An eighteen year old freshman just leaving home for the first time is bound to find many pleasurable distractions on a college campus. He or she may enjoy loud music, or the frenetic lifestyle of dorm living. Studying is for emergency use only, saved for the night before the big test. Older students, on the other hand, have already lived through their rebellious period. College is a time of quiet reflection, with time spent in a library or in a secluded dorm room. The key to their success lies in study and more study. Older students show up for every lecture, ask questions in class, and approach professors during office hours. This is the type of student you will be tutoring. Make sure your working environment is conducive to learning. If a tutoring lab environment becomes too crowded or distracting, older students tend to become very annoyed. Tutoring is a profession, so keep your meetings professional and mature, even if you are a younger tutor. Older students respond very well to a two-way communication style. Ask them what they have learned or what their concerns are, rather than structure an hour of straight lecture.

3. Older students can sometimes have 'conditioned helplessness'. While many older students are very studious and business-like in their approach to college experiences, you may encounter some who are completely overwhelmed by the atmosphere. Returning students who have been away from the educational environment for a long time sometimes develop anxieties and mental blocks. They become convinced that college life is much too difficult, and that their chances for success are minimal. This opinion is based almost solely on the first courses they attempt. If you are tutoring an older student in a remedial course, chances are pretty good that they have taken the course before and failed. Your role as tutor runs the risk of becoming savior in their eyes. Such students exhibit high anxiety and extreme nervousness, especially before a major test. Most of your conversations lean towards reassurance that they are not going to fail. Any new concept is greeted with a smokescreen of protest and resignation. What you must do as a tutor in this circumstance is ignore their outward reactions and try to reach their inward abilities. If your student becomes frustrated and agitated at a more difficult exercise, wait until they have calmed down and then explain the procedure again. Give plenty of examples, and break down the lesson into bite-sized pieces. Reassure them at every step that they have the knowledge to pass the test, but they just need the confidence. With each new success you should see an improvement in demeanor and confidence. The main trick for a tutor is not to give in to their protests too early. If you are in a position to do so, offer to be their tutor in higher level courses as well, giving them a much-needed sense of continuity in their college career.

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