Making part-time students welcome

Fight feelings of isolation by part-time students with some creative thinking and a flexible approach to setting work

January 17, 2008

“If you are a full-time student, 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 that argument to employers and family. It helps if lecturers recognise your situation.”

Mantz Yorke, author with Bernard Longden of Retention and Student Success in Higher Education, says that teaching staff must acknowledge that part-time students may be tired when attending evening courses 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 their experience is likely to have a positive effect on motivation.”

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. Build on what they can do.”

He suggests that before you start a topic, 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.

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.

She says it is essential to help students develop support networks. “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. Part-time students often miss out on 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. You may need to explain in greater detail what you want, particularly for 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. “Identify the resources that they must use rather than giving them a long list and hoping 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 on the web for easy 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.

Ormond Simpson, senior lecturer in institutional research at the Open University's Institute of Educational Technology, says you need to take the initiative with part-time students. “Waiting for them to contact you doesn’t work well,” he says. “Students who need help the most request it the least.”

But part-time students are not a homogeneous group. Some will be returning to study for professional reasons, and others will be studying for the first time. “It's a mistake to regard all part-time students as having the same needs,” she says.

Gattrell notes that part-time students may struggle to sustain motivation since their studies last much longer. But don’t be too soft on them. “They are students and they have to earn their degrees,” she says.

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.

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