Lecturers and their institutions have been urged to adopt a more sensitive approach to mature students following evidence that older undergraduates can become intimidated by bright teenage classmates.
The National Institute for Adult Continuing Education has produced a paper, Finding a Voice, based on interviews with 21 mature students, aged 24 to 59. It reveals that they often suffer acute shyness in the face of "fantastically brainy" teenagers though none of the respondents considered themselves to be shy people.
Responses from the interview- ees show that seminars topped the list of dreaded situations, with one describing them as "some of the most horrific social situations you'll ever come across".
John, a 30-year-old student, said: "Well, there were these fantastically brainy, intelligent 19-year-olds, who were years ahead of me. I hadn't been in education for ten years, you know, and I felt terribly sort of lower class and everything - it was just oppressive, terribly oppressive."
Jackie, aged 40, said: "I looked around and saw all these people and I felt like hiding away. I mean I felt very shy and I used to hate going to the library because I'd see all these young people around me and they probably thought 'what on earth is someone like that doing here?'" The remarks highlight the ageism encountered by many mature students. And crucially - in this European Year of Lifelong Learning - they underline the need for institutions to seek more effective ways of supporting the growing numbers of adult returners.
The paper's authors, W. Ray Crozier and Alison Garbet-Jones, say that lecturers ought to be aware of non-participation in tutorials - seen as one sign of shyness. They should create opportunities for mature students to contribute by, perhaps, organising regular meetings in a bid to build self-esteem and confidence in their abilities.
The authors summarised their findings saying: "Few of our respondents considered themselves to be inherently shy but there was widespread agreement that university produced shyness."
Many of the mature students interviewed said that, over a period of time, confirmation of their intellectual abilities - in the form of marked essays and other work - began to boost their confidence and willingness to participate in tutorials and seminars.
The authors also call upon institutions to consider introducing induction courses for mature students to give them a chance to voice and discuss their concerns, perhaps with other final-year mature students.