When has anything ever been “typical”? The “typical” college experience is shifting dramatically as online education continues to grow, as classrooms embrace new technologies and non-lecture based pedagogies, and as the government pushes for free community college education. The stereotypical story of fresh-faced 18- to 22-year-old students moving straight from high school to four-year institutions with active on-campus faculties (and, not to mention, thriving social lives) is no longer the norm. Just as higher education options are multiplying, the higher education student experience is diversifying.
When I taught freshman composition at a four-year state university, I assumed that most of my students fit the "typical" story. From the outside, many of them did, but I wish I had dug deeper to see how they challenged this story—and wish I’d found ways to show them how to use their different experiences to shape unique projects and approaches to research and writing. When I taught at a nearby two-year community college, I saw more varied “stories,” but I was too new to the profession to know how to adapt my approach beyond an audience of that fresh-faced 18-year-old from an American high school—because that had been my story.
More first-generation students and international students than ever are enrolling in American colleges and universities, and more people are returning to school later in life to complete degrees or embark on new career paths. According to a report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, between 70-80% are working while enrolled in classes, with about a quarter of all full-time college students working full-time jobs (“The Struggle of Work-School Balance”). Tuition hikes and the increasing weight of student loans contribute to these patterns. And there are now online education opportunities that allow students to return to school later in life when they have more financial responsibilities—and, often, children (30% of community college students are parents)—to nurture and support in addition to their studies. Unfortunately, the incredible juggling many of these students must do has led to problems with retention.
That last point, especially, tells me that the myth of decreasing student performance isn’t necessarily true: so many students are working harder to do more than ever before, and their work is affected by a multitude of factors, many of them invisible to the instructor at the front of the classroom. This is true for
- minority learners whose cultures and home lives may differently inform their approach to education and classroom topics,
- students from a range of socio-economic backgrounds whose level of access to education may affect their work processes, or
- older students whose additional life experiences and/or high school education in an earlier era may shape their approach to classroom authority or their level of comfort with academic discourse,
- and others; there are so many experiences.
Most instructors know, too, that students’ increasing diversity presents not only new challenges but new opportunities. True, it might be more difficult to assign a recent article on, say, transgender actors in Hollywood or a video of the most recent GOP debate and prepare a discussion based on expected student response. But not knowing what to expect can also force instructors to be more creative in their assignments and to adopt practices that allow—and encourage—flexibility. A diverse classroom is an opportunity for more voices to reflect our diverse world—with a good, collaborative assignment, students can learn from each other and see how different experiences lead them each to shape a different educational path of their own making.
The “typical” student, then, is a student of their instructor, their peers, and of themselves. And an atypical student body provides greater opportunities for instructors to be students in their own classroom. Teaching to the “typical” student, then, is impossible. Instead, instructors need to be given the best tools possible to approach their students and course goals, and the best tools possible include flexible options and room for adaptation to the individual student. The Macmillan Community is one such tool—a way to connect with Macmillan authors and with other instructors who are teaching the same mix of students or who are using the same book, and to find out how they bridge the gaps or embrace the differences in their classrooms.
In my next post, I’ll talk more specifically about classroom approaches and activities that can help a diverse group of digital natives and returning students work together. Stay tuned!