Bring outsiders into the fold

October 27, 2006

Part-time students often feel isolated. Harriet Swain explains how you can help them to become part of the group with a bit of creative thinking and a flexible approach to setting work

Half the time she says she knows it already, half the time she says she doesn't know what you're on about - and if she manages to stay awake for the whole lecture it's a miracle.

She's probably had a busy day. "If you are full time, everyone expects your studies to be a priority," says Caroline Gattrell, author of a guide for students on managing part-time study. "If you are part time, you are going to have to make the argument to employers and family and it helps if the academic recognises that and helps the argument along."

Mantz Yorke, author with Bernard Longden of Retention and Student Success in Higher Education , agrees that you should make sure that the student's workplace is kept "in the loop".

He says that teaching staff need to acknowledge that part-time students may be tired when attending evening courses after work and are likely to benefit from active learning approaches rather than lectures.

He also stresses that it is important to recognise the value part-time students bring to the course in terms of life experience. "Valuing experience is likely to have a positive effect on motivation," he says.

Phil Race, assessment, learning and teaching visiting professor at Leeds Metropolitan University, says: "You don't want to be telling them things they already know. You want to build on what they can do."

He suggests that before you start a topic, you ask them to write down the most important thing they know about it on paper of one colour and what they want to know on paper of another colour. That will allow you to find out who knows what and perhaps use the expertise of some to help the others. This, he says, encourages the group to bond and gives part-timers confidence.

Jan Sellers, co-ordinator of the student learning advisory service at Kent University, says she gets students to discuss among themselves their motivations for studying and what they hope to get out of the experience.

This helps them to reflect on what they know and to get to know each other.

She says it is essential to build in time for students to develop support networks. "So often students feel that learning has to be an isolated experience," she says. "The more we can do to make them feel part of an academic community, the better."

She says it is also crucial that they know how to access more formal support networks. Often they miss out on the kind of orientation events at which students are informed about these networks.

Ismail Malik, president of the student union at Birkbeck, University of London, says you must also ensure that part-time students realise they are eligible for the same perks as full-time students, such as discounts on books and tickets, and participation in activities related to their subject.

Race says part-timers need feedback even more than full-timers. "Don't let them learn for too long without something formative where they can find out whether they are on the right track," he says. It can take part-timers longer than full-timers to tune into academic culture because their exposure to it is limited. You may need to explain in greater detail what you want, particularly when it comes to writing essays and reports.

Race says you also need to recognise that part-timers may not have unlimited time or access to resources such as broadband. "You need to identify the resources that they must use rather than give them a long list and hope they look at it all," he says.

Malik says academics dealing with part-time students should expect to communicate regularly by e-mail and to set course material available on the web because it will be easier to access.

Think about a student's lifestyle, he says. Don't expect an essay to be delivered at a time of day that clashes with work or childcare and don't expect students to lug several books into university when they may have had to carry them around all day at work.

Sellers says you shouldn't assume that making changes to fit in with part-time students will be impossible. "Often it is possible to make adjustments and meet the needs of students with creative thinking," she says. "You have to ask."

Ormond Simpson, senior lecturer in institutional research at the Open University's Institute of Educational Technology, says you need to take the initiative in contacting students. "Waiting for them to contact you doesn't work well," he says. "Students who need help the most request it the least." He suggests focusing on the most vulnerable students and enlisting the help of family and friends in giving them support.

Sellers says it is a good idea to invite students from earlier years to give advice to new students, either through websites or contributions to open days.

But remember, part-time students are not a homogeneous group, she warns.

Some will be returning to study for professional reasons, others will be studying for the first time. "It's a mistake to regard all part-time students as having the same needs."

Gattrell says you have to be aware that part-time students may struggle to sustain levels of motivation since their studies last much longer than those of full-time students, and you will need to help them regularly redefine their goals. But you can't be too soft on them. "They are students and they have to earn their degrees," she says. Sleeping through seminars is not an option.

Further information

How to Win as a Part-Time Student , by Phil Race and Tom Bourner, Kogan Page, 1990.

Supporting Students in Online Open and Distance Learning , by Ormond Simpson, Taylor and Francis, 2004.

Retention and Student Success in Higher Education , by Mantz Yorke and Bernard Longden, Longden, 2004.

TOP TIPS

  • Help them make the case for studying to family and employers
  • Help them make friends
  • Use what they know already
  • Make sure they get support with skills if they need it
  • Treat them as proper students

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