Teaching Tips: Defense Mechanisms For Returning Students

Adult students who return to college after many years display certain problems that make tutoring difficult. Common situations, how to overcome them when helping them.

With an increasing emphasis on skilled and semi-skilled labor in the job market, many people are returning to school in order to improve their employment situations. Other older students return in order to finish their degrees or change career paths. Whatever the reason, college campuses are filling up with non-traditional students at a steady pace. With this influx of older student comes a need for new tutoring and counseling techniques.

Traditionally, tutors were generally upperclassmen who offered their assistance to younger students who had never had college-level courses before. Nowadays, a 21 year old tutor may have a 51 year old freshman student to work with, or an 18 year old computer major may find himself teaching basic computing skills to a fellow 40 year old classmate. Tutoring an older student sometimes requires a different teaching strategy, since they may have some unique 'self-defense' mechanisms based on their age or life experiences. Overcoming these obstacles to learning requires a little psychology and understanding on the part of the tutor, and some trust and compliance on the part of the older tutee. Here are some common 'self-defense mechanisms' thrown up by older students, and how to overcome them.

1. "I've been out of school for twenty years. I don't learn as fast as you young kids." This is often one of the first self-defense mechanisms you will hear from certain older students who are overwhelmed by the college experience. These students feel that they have gotten so far out of the educational system that even the slightest acceleration in a course lecture can create panic.

Once panic sets in, the learning process stops and their grades suffer. What you must do as a tutor is get to the real source of the student's learning difficulties and not be swayed by the age defense. Unless they have a definite disease such as Alzheimer's that affects the brain's learning center or dyslexia, there is very little difference in a 35 year old's brain from his 18 year old classmate's.

The ability to learn is still there, but something in the course itself is keeping the student from processing the information properly. You may ask the student if the instructor lectures too fast, if the textbook is difficult to understand, or if the atmosphere in the room is not conducive to learning. Oftentimes, an older student will honestly believe that their age and lack of academic experience is the root cause of their troubles, when in actuality it is something much more tangible. Suggest that your student record the lectures and play them back at their own pace, or purchase a supplementary textbook that may offer more insight into the subject. If the room is too noisy or uncomfortable, encourage the student to talk to his instructor for assistance or change his or her seating arrangement.

2. "I can't handle all this work. I've got 3 kids and a husband to feed." If your student is trying to raise a family and attend school at the same time, the root of their problems may be time commitment, not family commitment. For some older students, the demands of a family are a legitimate excuse. In this case, you should try to arrange for some extensions on deadlines or emphasize time-management skills. If you feel that your student is hiding behind his or her 'obligations' in order to avoid the course requirements, then tactfully point out that school work is just as much of a commitment as family work. No amount of tutoring will ever replace time set aside for school work. Suggest that your student try to minimize certain obligations at home if time is a factor. Hire a part-time babysitter or delegate some chores to other responsible parties. Find out what courses your student is taking besides the one you are tutoring, and determine if any other course requirements are superceding the one you're working on. Some older students who are not familiar with college courses take on way too much responsibility. You may have to suggest dropping the class or retaking the course at a later date. Otherwise, keep your student focused on task during your time together, and set up a definite course of action for meeting deadlines.

3. "My job will never require this type of work. I'm just taking the course because it's required."

This is a very common excuse for poor grades among those who are retraining or improving skills for their current jobs. In order to obtain their degree, they must pass courses that appear to have no bearing on their chosen careers.

The result is often a lack of interest in the class and poor grades.

What you must do as a tutor is point out the importance of that seemingly insignificant course on their future goals. If they can see the value in an English course or a math class, they may take more of an interest in the course and get better grades. Without motivation, your job as a tutor is ten times more difficult. Some older students actually resent the idea of having to hire a tutor for a course that should be much easier than it is. This resentment often leeches into the tutoring sessions themselves, with uncomfortable silences and little feedback from the student. If this situation becomes intolerable, you may have to confront the student directly. Express your concern that he or she does not appear to be interested in improving their course grade and that further tutoring efforts may be a waste of time and money. This may be enough to snap some students out of themselves and return to the task at hand. Others may just need a little more interactivity added to the tutoring sessions, or some variety in the routine.

4. "If I don't pass this class, I won't ever succeed at college. That's just one more thing I'm no good at..." Some older students present even more grade anxiety than an incoming traditional freshman. They have returned to college after a failed career choice or a failed marriage or a difficult life in general. Self-esteem is at an all-time low, and the instructor isn't making it any easier. Making matters worse, their scholarship or other financial aid assistance is directly connected to performance. Too many failed classes, and all hopes for a college degree are gone. This is the mindset you may be dealing with as a tutor. An overanxious student is a barely-functioning student. They get caught up in the details of the class and can no longer deal with the 'big picture'.

If this describes your older student, then you have got some work to do. You need to maintain your professional bearing and not get involved in your student's personal situation past the level of a concerned friend. If they want to spend some time talking about personal matters, listen patiently but always return to the task at hand. If they appear especially anxious about a particular assignment, reassure them that you can indeed help them out. Share some of your own experiences from that course, so that your student will know that he or she is not alone in their anxiety. Keep careful track of whatever grade information you can obtain, and point out to your student that they are indeed making progress. Anxiety about grading can sometimes be masking anxiety over personal performance. Your student may not really be looking for assurances that the latest test score is acceptable, but that they appear to have a handle on the subject matter personally. Some older students find themselves without a support network for the first time in their lives, so some of their anxieties and concerns do have merit. If their personal situations require more attention than you are prepared to give, recommend a good guidance or personal counselor. Your job should always be that of a tutor first, counselor later.

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