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Best Practices

The LTO Best Practices

Issue No. 47: Teaching in Mixed-Age Classrooms

Welcome to the forty-seventh issue of The LTO Best Practices. Each month, the Learning & Teaching Office will be spotlighting a timely topic in education. This May, our topic is "Teaching in Mixed-Age Classrooms."

This issue is excerpted from our Teaching Tips document of the same name.

Download "Teaching in Mixed-Age Classrooms" [pdf]

Best Practices

With a student body of over 40,000, Ryerson University’s diversity is one of its greatest strengths. Within this population, there are both traditional learners, usually thought of as students attending university full-time right after high school, and non-traditional learners, usually defined as older students returning to school after having spent time working or raising a family. These non-traditional learners may also be completing coursework on a part-time basis, while remaining in their jobs.

When traditional and non-traditional students share the same classroom, there are some differences to be aware of, as well as strategies that can help reduce any issues that might arise—being aware of the “potential problems and learning some strategies to address them, we as educators can create a dynamic, inclusive environment” (Bishop-Clark & Lynch, 1992).

Differences between traditional and non-traditional learners

Bishop-Clark and Lynch state that non-traditional learners are more likely to:

  • Treat the professor as a peer – the smaller age difference between themselves and the instructor, as well as their greater life experience, means that non-traditional students “are not as likely to be awed by the person assuming this role” and will thus develop a different type of relationship with the instructor than traditional students (Bishop-Clark & Lynch, 1992).
  • prefer informal learning - non-traditional learners prefer active, hands-on, and practical examples, and realistic and tangible experiences. Younger students, on the other hand, are “more tolerant of impractical examples” and are “more content in passive mode.” They often prefer lecturing to discussion or hands-on activities, which they see as unimportant
  • are more internally motivated to learn and more goal directed - older students rank subject matter that they believe will improve their job or life-related skills as being more important than more abstract or general subject areas (Bishop-Clark & Lynch, 1992).

Non-traditional students are also more likely to find the library and more recent developments in education, such as learning management systems, intimidating or unfamiliar, and may require more support than traditional students in accessing them (Milheim, 2005).

Issues between traditional and non-traditional learners

These differences can have several effects on the classroom environment. For example, because older students may feel discomfort amongst younger students, this can affect their self-confidence and their belief in their ability to succeed (Bishop-Clark & Lynch, 1992) or to be accepted as students in the classroom (Kasworm, 2005).

Bishop-Clark and Lynch describe how younger students can be intimidated by older students, seeing it as “unfair that they must compete with someone who is more experienced and who is as grade conscious as an older student appears to be.” Older students, conversely, can see the traditional students as “immature, unmotivated, and unappreciative of the educational environment.” These issues can create a distance between the two groups, which can make it difficult to hold class discussions or have students work together (Bishop-Clark & Lynch, 1992).

Similarly, the different orientations that traditional and non-traditional learners can have toward the professor can cause resentment or outright hostility between student groups. As described by Bishop-Clark and Lynch, “what typically occurs is that the professor is unintentionally interacting and treating the two groups differently” (1992). Kasworm found the same, with faculty reporting that they had a “more respectful, appreciative attitude toward adult students” (2005).

Strategies for teaching in a mixed-age classroom

When planning to teach in a mixed-age classroom, it is important to build an inclusive course from the top down. For instance, the curriculum should be “inclusive with regard to students’ cultural backgrounds, including those from marginalized groups.” The course design should create a balance that will satisfy both non-traditional learners’ preference for “learner-centered (flexible and responsive)” instructional activities and traditional learners’ desire for a more “teacher-centered (structured) learning environment” (Ross-Gordon, 2003).

Bishop-Clark and Lynch list four methods for reducing conflict between traditional and non-traditional learners.

  1. Encourage personal contact by decreasing “the barriers between groups. Helping the student get to know one another will reduce the biases of each age group.”
  2. Discuss differences – encourage students to talk about why they are taking the course, their interests, and their expectations.
  3. Approach each group similarly – “by becoming aware of the differential treatment, we should be able to be more cautious and more fair.” Bishop-Clark and Lynch suggest having a peer reviewer critique your treatment of older and younger students, such as “acknowledging one age group more than another or using examples more likely to appeal to one age group.” Peer reviewers are available to the Ryerson teaching community through the Teaching Assessment Program.
  4. Increase awareness of similarities between groups – encourage students to see themselves as equals who have come to the course with similar objectives and a common ground. Bishop-Clark and Lynch suggest a “first day strategy of having small groups of students ask whatever three questions they want—about the course, the subject, or the professor” (1992).

Strategies to encourage participation in a mixed-age classroom

The most important thing to keep in mind when teaching in a mixed-age classroom, is that the “instructor influences the character of the learning environment more than any other single factor. The climate should be one that results in the learners feeling accepted, respected, and supported” (Faust, 2002).

Both traditional and non-traditional students participated when they perceived the instructor’s teaching style as helpful, reassuring, relaxed, enthusiastic, and easy-going. A “tone of informality and mutual respect” was found to encourage participation. Behaviors that encourage participation include making eye contact with students, giving nods of approval, and adding supportive or encouraging comments. By showing consideration for the feelings of others, modeling inclusive attitudes, and providing students with a language of disagreement, instructors can provide students with a safe learning environment for expressing their opinions or making comments (Faust, 2002).

It is also important for instructors to “humanize the classroom” and reduce the feeling of isolation or anonymity between both students and instructor. By giving students the opportunity to get to know each other, students will become more comfortable contributing to class discussions (Faust, 2002). Howard, Short, and Clark suggest having students introduce themselves to one another, giving them nametags to wear early in the semester, and putting them into small collaborative learning groups where they can increase their familiarity with each other (1996).

Howard, James and Taylor provide the following additional suggestions for creating an interactive learning environment:

  • begin each class with a review of the previous session, “asking students questions they can answer by referring to their notes,” warming them up for further discussion as well as setting the context for the day’s material;
  • use student-generated illustrations of concepts and principles;
  • show short video clips to illustrate course concepts and then ask for student comments;
  • give “short and relatively easy multiple choice quizzes to illustrate key points in the assigned readings and as a starting point for class discussion”;
  • have each student grade their own participation using a rubric. This “forces students to reflect upon both the quality and quantity of their own contributions” (Howard, James, & Taylor, 2002).


For more suggestions, and for a full list of our works cited, download our Teaching Tips document on teaching in a mixed-age classroom [pdf]


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"The LTO Best Practices" is produced monthly by Michelle Schwartz, Research Associate at The Learning & Teaching Office of Ryerson University.

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