Faculty Club / Student Engagement / 7 Heartfelt Ways to Support Nontraditional Learners

7 Heartfelt Ways to Support Nontraditional Learners

Debra Jackson, PhD, teaches adults about their learning style, time management tips, and study tricks—and the basics of anatomy and physiology, too.

Debra Jackson, PhD, teaches adults about their learning style, time management tips, and study tricks—and the basics of anatomy and physiology, too.

Debra Jackson, PhD


Adjunct Instructor of Anatomy and Physiology,
Louisiana Delta Community College

PhD in Biomedical Sciences, concentration in Microbiology and Immunology; MS in Biology; BS in Microbiology

Debra Jackson, PhD, has impressive credentials—she does have a PhD in biomedical sciences, after all. However, if you ask her who she admires, you may be surprised by the answer: her students.

As an adjunct instructor of Human Anatomy and Physiology at Louisiana Delta Community College in Monroe, Louisiana, Dr. Jackson’s students are primarily what she calls NTS—nontraditional students. These adults have taken different paths to the classroom than she did, and she is amazed by how they manage it all.

“I don’t think I could raise a family, hold a job, and take classes,” she says. She once had a student who rarely spoke in class, so she started making a point of asking how his day was going. “Once he opened up, I learned that he worked full time, took care of three small children, and went to school,” she says. She was impressed by his drive and knew that she could help him succeed: She taught him how to maximize his study time, organize his notes, improve his use of note cards, and study from anatomy apps. His grades improved dramatically—and Jackson knew she was on to something.

“My role,” Jackson says, “is to help my students learn how to learn and develop the confidence and skills to be successful so they can carry that on to their next course.” To fulfill that role, Jackson has developed a number of best practices specifically geared toward nontraditional students—best practices that could fit into any course.


“My students have lived life, so when they’re coming back to school, they are focused. They mean business.”
-Debra Jackson, PhD

Course: BIOL 221 Human Anatomy and Physiology I

Course description: A descriptive presentation of the structure and function of the organ systems of the human body. The emphasis of the lecture will be on the physiology of organs and tissues. Topics covered will include the human organism, chemical basis of life, cytology, histology, integumentary system, skeletal system, muscular system, nervous system, spinal cord, spinal nerves, brain, cranial nerves, and integration of nervous system functions, autonomic nervous system and special senses. This course is designed for science majors and students majoring in a pre-allied health related field.

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7 tips to support nontraditional students in the classroom

Here are a few of the best practices Jackson has developed that help her nontraditional students succeed.

1. Encourage authentic, personal connections

During the first class of the semester, Jackson goes around the room and asks students to share something about themselves. Because some are shy and are not likely to say much in class, she also sets up an online chat room on Canvas, where students will collaborate on future projects.

2. Set expectations

Jackson also uses this time to go through the syllabus step by step, laying out her expectations regarding attendance, behavior (everyone’s opinion is respected; everyone is invited to participate), and the use of technology (she encourages students to use the classroom Canvas discussion board as well as anatomy and physiology apps). “I set the tone from day one,” Jackson says. “I don’t let anyone deviate.”

3. Help students identify how they learn

Jackson gives students a quiz called the VARK Questionnaire to determine their learning styles. The quiz calculates which of the four modalities—Visual, AuraI/Auditory, Read/Write, or Kinesthetic—is best suited to each student.

Based on the results, Jackson is able to help each student devise plans for time management and study techniques, based on the recommended best practices for each modality. Later in the semester, she schedules appointments with any students who are struggling to reevaluate their study strategies.

4. Help with time management

The biggest challenge for nontraditional students is time management. To address the issue, Jackson gets to know her students’ schedules so that she can help them get organized. Here is an example of the guidance she gives for reviewing chapter content:

  • Read over a chapter summary before each lecture.
  • After the lecture, go through the notes given in class.
  • Once you are comfortable with the material, answer the sample questions in the back of the book or take the textbook’s related online quizzes for that chapter.
  • Once you’re comfortable with the quizzes, move on to the next chapter.

Another example, for those with hectic schedules:

  • Always keep your notes organized and ready to review.
  • If you have only 30 minutes to study, focus on one particular topic within the chapter rather than tackling the whole chapter. Concentrated study can improve retention.

She has found that walking students through these processes gives them the basic practices they need to succeed.

5. Offer help with resources

Many of Jackson’s students assume that all the information they need is in their textbook, and if they cannot find it—or if they have trouble understanding it—they begin to doubt themselves. They are often uncomfortable asking for help—although Jackson says she can usually tell if they could benefit from extra support and encouragement, based on the results of the first exam and the questions students ask in class.

So Jackson encourages students to use her as a resource, reminding them that she is available to help them find the materials they need. (She promises to get back to them within 24 hours.) She also recommends that students use each other as study resources. “Everybody has strengths and weaknesses, and in the work force you’ll need to be able to work with others,” she explains. Students often use the class chat room for this purpose.

6. Bring in technology

When there are questions during class, Jackson will sometimes ask students to pull out something they do not expect will be of use, at least at first: their cell phones. She particularly likes to use online programs and apps to learn to identify bones and muscles. “I like to use apps for the muscular system, because the identification of muscles seems to give students trouble,” she explains.

Not only do students try the apps she suggests but they also find others that they recommend to their classmates. Jackson keeps a running list of the apps students likes best, as well as her own favorites, writing them on the board. Anatomy, Visual Anatomy, and Visual Anatomy Lite are among their combined recommendations. “I try to only list free apps so they won’t be [a] burden for the students,” she says.

7. Respect their experience

This is Jackson’s main piece of advice for those teaching nontraditional students: “Be mindful that your students come with many experiences,” she says. “Be respectful of them. Be patient. They bring a wealth of knowledge from many areas of their lives that can benefit the learning experience for everyone.”

For example, Jackson once had a very young student who was taking care of the grandparent who had raised her. “She brought a wealth of clinical knowledge from having to take care of her grandmother,” Jackson notes.

Outcomes/Student feedback

Based on student feedback, Jackson is succeeding in her efforts to support nontraditional students who are juggling many commitments outside of the classroom. As one student wrote, “[Dr.] Jackson cares about her students’ success and does not mind taking her time to teach and explain the material. A&P has always been a struggle for me and one of my least favorite classes, but I actually enjoyed this class and learned from it!”

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