Beyond Tradition: Understanding the Students in Your Classroom Today

Diversity/New Traditional Student, Student Success, Teaching Hacks, Teaching Methods

Article Summary

  • College student populations have shifted from the fresh-out-of-high-school, full-time-attendee to those from different backgrounds with other responsibilities.
  • Instructors have the power to create an inclusive learning environment where every student feels valued.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Like stressing over finals, lots of things remain a tradition in college—but your students aren’t one of them. Since 1996, student populations have shifted from the fresh-out-of-high-school, full-time-attendee who celebrates dorm life in their university-branded pullover with zero financial burdens. So why are many institutions still tailored to what’s becoming nontraditional?

Labels Hurt

Students who fit the “traditional” 18-to-22 year old college demographic, with few money- and family-related responsibilities, enjoy an experience designed with them in mind—while other students must go out of their way to adapt. For those labeled “nontraditional,” basic student services like on-campus tutoring, financial aid and career counseling are difficult to access during typical workday hours, and some services like childcare are completely absent. These challenges present barriers for students who are parents, have multiple jobs or face other challenges.

Understanding the needs of those who fill today’s classrooms can help you accommodate real students—instead of just one archetype. Learn how to separate myth from fact when it comes to the 74% of undergrads falling into “nontraditional” categories.

Traditional vs. Today

Traditional: College students enroll right after high school, making them 18-to 24-years-old.

Today: 41% of college students are 25 years-old or older, delaying post-secondary enrollment—and many lack a traditional high school diploma, often preventing them from being fully prepared for college-level courses.


Traditional: College students live in on-campus dorms or apartments.

Today: Only 13% of students live on campus—and 9% reported being homeless within the past year.


Traditional: Students enroll in college full-time, with school as their main focus.

Today: 39% of students in 2016 attended college part-time, another 58% work while in college and 26% of today’s students are parents. With childcare being more expensive than tuition for many Americans, finding someone to watch the kids while tending to school proves challenging.


Traditional: Students’ parents are college-educated, giving them an immediate resource for navigating their academic career.

Today: 34% of students are the first in their family to attend college, making it difficult to grasp college fees and other idiosyncrasies in the higher education experience without parental advice.


Traditional: Students of all backgrounds are given a fair shake to attend college through completion with their graduating class.

Today: Students of color may face microaggressions that can create a negative climate, impair academic performance and lower their graduation rates—in fact, Hispanic and African American college students attending four-year public institutions graduate at rates 10 to 20 percentage points lower than their white peers as a result of being stereotyped by others.

What You Can Do

“Nontraditional” student enrollment has not slowed down since less-educated employees lost nearly four out of five jobs during the Great Recession. Here’s how to create an inclusive, respectful learning environment where every student feels valued.

You can:

  1. Have students fill out a confidential background questionnaire at the beginning of the term. Asking students about their previous experiences with class topics or fun facts about themselves can create connections to new material.
  2. Make your office and contact information known to accommodate different students’ schedules and emphasize they can come to you with any question or concern.
  3. Arrive to class early and stay a little late to chat with students who may feel uncomfortable raising questions during class.
  4. Buffer the negative effects of microaggressions by defining respectful communication in the syllabus and listing words to avoid with the help of your students.
  5. Build your own understanding and awareness of the issues your students are facing.
  6. Keep an easily accessible list of local food, housing, transportation, healthcare and employment resources for students.
  7. Discuss study skills and tips for navigating the college experience to benefit students who are first in their family to attend college.
  8. Facilitate group exercises during class time to help students of different backgrounds connect with each other and possibly become friends.
  9. Provide specific details on assignments and other activities, and avoid assumptions that your students already know typical college assignment requirements (e.g., “all assignments must be typed.”) 
  10. Empathize and express compassion to students who share their personal stories with you and follow up with relevant support or resources.

(see here and here for additional insights)

Instructors play a huge role when it comes to building student confidence—in the classroom and in life. If a student feels their instructor cares about them as a person, encourages their goals and challenges them academically, it has a positive lifelong impact. Plus, the mentor/mentee relationship you create can especially benefit students who bring fresh perspectives to higher education—like these instructors who received letters from their students. How will you break tradition?

For more tips on improving student success, check out our checklist for boosting confidence.