Skip to main content

Best Practices

The LTO Best Practices

Issue No. 65: Non-traditional Learners

Welcome to the sixty-fifth issue of The LTO Best Practices. Each month, the Learning & Teaching Office will be spotlighting a timely topic in education and professional development in teaching. This May, our topic is "Non-traditional Learners."

Check out our page of Teaching Tips handouts for more downloadable documents on a variety of teaching topics.

Best Practices

In our previous issues of Best Practices we have talked about creating an inclusive classroom and flexible learning experiences. We have also talked about strategies for engaging adult learners. In this issue we break down the category of “non-traditional learners.” While “non-traditional learners” are most often defined as adult learners, with their primary characteristic being their age, in fact, “age acts as a surrogate variable that captures a large, heterogeneous population of adult students who often have family and work responsibilities as well as other life circumstances that can interfere with successful completion of educational objectives” (NCES).

The Non-Traditional Student Populations Network defines non-traditional learners as anyone who is not a “first-time, full-time, straight out of high school, living in residence, college student.” This can include re-admitted students or online and distance learners (NODA). Other variables that can be used to characterize non-traditional learners are their place of residence, their enrolment in non-degree or certificate based occupational training programs, or their background (NCES). Background characteristics that can be used to identify non-traditional learners can include socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or recent immigrant or first-generation status (ACSFA, 2012).

A 2002 report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) defined seven characteristics “not typically associated with participation in college.” The seven characteristics are:

  • delaying entrance to post-secondary education by at least one year following high school,
  • having dependents,
  • being a single parent,
  • being employed full time,
  • being financially independent,
  • attending part time, and
  • not having a high school diploma (Ross-Gordon, 2011)


These seven characteristics are considered by the ACSFA as “at-risk characteristics” that may increase the chance of attrition. These barriers to student retention can be divided into three categories:

  • Situational barriers are ones that “limit student’s ability to access and pursue higher education.” This can include high costs, lack of childcare, or transportation issues.
  • Institutional barriers “consist of practices and procedures which may discourage or exclude students from pursuing postsecondary education.” This can encompass excessive bureaucracies, course requirements, or admission fees, inflexible schedules, or courses that lack relevance or practicality.
  • Dispositional barriers “refer to student perceptions of their ability to access and complete learning activities.” These non-traditional learners may have anxiety or fear centered on their ability to learn or succeed in school (Bell, 2012).

Encouraging success in non-traditional learners

Creating an inclusive classroom is one strategy that has been identified as contributing to non-traditional student development and persistence (Brown, 2002). To create an inclusive classroom, Brown suggests following three steps:

  • “establish student/teacher interaction that reinforces the intercommunication among students” and “facilitates the sharing of common life experiences pertinent to course material”
  • “present course information in a contextual manner that allows for lessons to refer to the relationship between the learner and his or her knowledge base,” including family, career, community, and environment
  • recognize that “learning can be a transformative experience” that can be accomplished by “emphasizing in the classroom such diverse practices as reflective journal writing, story telling, role-playing, small group discussions, and metaphor analysis” (Brown, 2002).


Julian Hermida from Algoma University believes that non-traditional students are often unfairly seen as being “underprepared” for post-secondary education, when in fact their “preparation responds to a different way of seeing themselves and understanding the world that derives from their own cultures and traditions.” They may emphasize how things are interconnected, rely on contextual or emotional information, or see things in a subjective, inward-looking fashion. These different worldviews “influence the way students think, express themselves, interact in the classroom, and think in the disciplines.”

Hermida thinks a key strategy for ensuring non-traditional student success is not to try to force these learners to adopt “mainstream academic skills, disciplinary perspectives, and thought processes,” but to instead “open our classroom doors to teaching disciplinary content and academic skills from a wide array of diverse traditions.” This will not only encourage non-traditional student success, but prepare “traditional” students to “succeed as interculturally knowledgeable citizens in a globalized world.” To do this, Hermida suggests the following strategies:

  •  “Place student learning of diverse knowledge modes, and ways of generating, organizing, and expressing thought at the forefront of the curriculum. Include this within the course intended learning outcomes. And make explicit to your students that they will learn to approach the discipline and to generate, organize, and express thought from multiple traditions.”
  • “Help your students see the intrinsic value of acquiring diverse, non-traditional ways of seeing the world. Include a wide array of non-Western and non-traditional worldviews and values.”
  • Vary pedagogical methods. For instance, “teach multiple ways of writing instead of restricting writing to North American academic styles.”
  • Include disciplinary content that interests diverse groups of students. Make room for mature students to share their experiences with the class.
  • “Assess whether students can generate, organize, and express thought in a multitude of diverse ways… if your assessment actually evaluates whether and how well students have mastered a wide array of knowledge modes, diverse academic skills, and non-traditional disciplinary perspectives, students will be likely to achieve your intended learning outcomes” (Hermida).


To explore more methods for creating an inclusive classroom for non-traditional learners, check out our Teaching Tips documents on Engaging Adult Learners [pdf] and Teaching in a Mixed Age Classroom [pdf].

Work Cited

Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance. (2012). Pathways to Success: Integrating learning with life and work to increase national college completion, a report to the U.S. Congress and Secretary of Education.

Bell, S. (2012). Nontraditional students are the new majority. Library Journal.

Brown, S.M. (2002). Strategies that contribute to nontraditional/adult student development and persistence. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning. 11, 67-76.

Hermida, J. Inclusive Teaching Strategies to Promote Non-Traditional Student Success. Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning. 966.

NODA Non-Traditional Student Populations Network. Nontraditional Student Populations.

National Center for Education Statistics (1996). Nontraditional Undergraduates: Trends in Enrollment from 1986 to 1992 and Persistence and Attainment Among 1989-90 Beginning Postsecondary Students.

Ross-Gordon, J.M. (2011). Research on Adult Learners: Supporting the Needs of a Student Population that Is No Longer Nontraditional. AACU Peer Review. 13(1).


Next Issue

"The LTO Best Practices" is produced monthly by Michelle Schwartz, Instructional Design and Research Strategist at the Learning & Teaching Office, Ryerson University.

Do you have any thoughts, suggestions, or best practices that you would like to see appear in this newsletter? Please send all submissions to We look forward to including your contributions in our next issue!

Contact Us

Location: Kerr Hall West, room KHW373.
Phone: 416.979.5000 x6598