Teaching Tips

Reducing the difference: Strategies to mitigate the detrimental effects of role strain and stereotype threat on nontraditional students' educational success

Suggestions for how instructors can facilitate learning and success of nontraditional students.

By Jennifer Ramsey, PhD

Most would not be surprised to learn that the roles, responsibilities and stressors of an 18-year-old who lives in a college dorm and works part-time at a bookstore differ significantly from those of a 35-year-old mother of three who owns a home, attends PTA meetings and works full-time. However, some may be surprised to learn that both of the aforementioned individuals are in the same introduction to psychology course. It's worth mentioning that the 35-year-old mom of three is not the professor; both are first-year college students. Though freshman year entails a host of new stressors and challenges for every student, many of those faced by nontraditional students — such as the 35-year-old mom of three — are unique compared to those faced by traditional students, such as the 18-year-old bookstore employee. So what? Does it matter that nontraditional students face different challenges than traditional students?

The answer is yes. It matters that students 25 years and older — or nontraditional students — experience different challenges and stressors relevant to their postsecondary education compared to 18- to 22-year-old students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2011), nearly half of students enrolled in colleges and universities in the United States in 2011 were considered nontraditional students, and this number is projected to increase by 2019. This means educators at the collegiate level will likely, if they have not already, encounter nontraditional students in one or more of their courses. Again, so what? Even if traditional and nontraditional students differ in some ways shouldn't educators hold these students to the same standards?

Again, the answer is yes. Both traditional and nontraditional students should be required to abide by the same institutional, departmental, program and course policies. It is essential that educators refrain from differentiating between traditional and nontraditional students in terms of the students' abilities and the educators' expectations. The unique challenges faced by nontraditional students should be acknowledged and addressed only so that their postsecondary academic experiences do not significantly differ from that of traditional students. As many educators with experience teaching both nontraditional and traditional students can attest, any differences should be addressed only so the effects of said differences can be mitigated. Some of the challenges unique to nontraditional students that may impact their success in higher education include role strain and stereotype threat (Bamber & Tett, 2000; Dill & Henley, 1998; Hollis-Sawyer, 2011).

Role strain results from the stress or perceived stress brought on by competing life roles and responsibilities (Dill & Henley, 1998). Compared to traditional students, nontraditional students tend to report a greater number of social roles and responsibilities (Fairchild, 2003). The resulting role strain has been found to negatively impact academic performance. How is this relevant to the educator? Of course, an educator cannot simply inform a nontraditional student that he or she no longer has to cope with the stressors of being a parent, spouse, caregiver, full-time employee and student, and expect role strain to disappear. However, an educator may be able to mitigate the effects of role strain by first acknowledging that many nontraditional students occupy more life roles than traditional students. An educator may then choose to alter certain classroom procedures accordingly.

For example, many educators ban the use of cell phones during class time. This policy is meant to limit distractions and ensure students focus their attentional resources on course materials and not social engagements. This is a valid concern. However, as many nontraditional students occupy the roles of parent and caregiver in addition to student, they may need access to their cell phone during class time should an emergency arise. The inability to do so may result in greater stress or perceived stress on part of the nontraditional student. One solution may be to include a statement similar to the following in the syllabus:

“Please be considerate and use proper judgement when using cell phones during class time. As adults we may have responsibilities outside of the classroom that require our immediate attention and consideration during class time. If you need to make a call, read/send a text, please be respectful of the other students in the class. If you must answer or make a call please leave the classroom to do so. The use of a cell phone during a test will be considered cheating. If you need access to your cell phone during an exam due to a family, work, etc., matter or emergency, please make arrangements with me prior to the exam.”

Such acknowledgements of multiple roles on the educator's part may help to alleviate some of the perceived stress or stressors resulting from role strain. Of course, if nontraditional students in a class are permitted to receive calls during class time, then traditional students must also be granted the same accommodations. An alternative would be to ask students to meet on an individual basis if they believe their current situation may require the use of a cell phone during class time. Again, the educator must also be willing to grant the same latitude to traditional students.

Another strategy for mitigating the effects of role strain would be to offer students the option of meeting via Skype, and if possible, later in the afternoon. Nontraditional students do not live on campus, and many also work and care for children and families. As a result, they may not be able to make a special trip to campus for an in-person meeting during scheduled office hours but may benefit from additional assistance or clarification from the educator. Providing a variety of options for individual meetings, such as Skype or phone meetings, may encourage nontraditional students to seek assistance when needed. Again, educators must provide the same accommodations for traditional students as nontraditional students or risk propagating stereotype threats.

As we know, stereotype threat increases the risk of confirming negative stereotypes about one's group (Steele & Aronson, 1995). Negative stereotypes of nontraditional students tend to suggest that these students attend postsecondary institutions later in life because they lack study skills and time management skills. These stereotypes also tend to be ageist in nature by suggesting that the greater chronological age of nontraditional students compared to traditional students is associated with age-related cognitive deficits (Richardson & King, 1998). Research indicates there are few differences in academic performance between nontraditional students and traditional students (Richardson & King, 1998). However, many nontraditional students report feeling less capable and valued compared to traditional students. They also tend to report feeling educators have different expectations of them compared to traditional students (Kasworm, 2005). These beliefs and stereotype threats can negatively impact academic performance. So, can educators eliminate stereotype threat? The answer is yes, but not entirely.

Educators can mitigate the effects of stereotype threat by refusing to propagate the negative stereotypes associated with nontraditional students. One strategy is to avoid drawing attention to age and experience during classroom discussions. Drawing attention to differing experience levels of traditional and nontraditional students may promote negative stereotypes. For example, when discussing language acquisition an educator should not single out the nontraditional students who have children and ask these students to recount stories of their child's language acquisition. Research indicates that nontraditional students report being treated differently in classrooms when traditional students defer to them as sources of authority (Kasworm, 2005). Though life experience is beneficial for nontraditional students, being singled out for being older and more experienced can further the negative ageist stereotypes. Of course, nontraditional students and traditional students alike should be encouraged to relate course material to life experiences. However, these students should not be directly asked by the instructor to provide personally relevant examples because of age or station in life.

Stereotype threat and role strain can negatively impact educational success. Therefore, educators should acknowledge the unique challenges faced by nontraditional students compared to traditional students so that the effects of these differences can be mitigated. Perhaps an additional strategy would be to eliminate the terms “traditional” and “nontraditional” entirely and refer to these individuals simply as “students.”


Jennifer Ramsey, PhD, is a visiting assistant professor in the psychology department at Belmont Abbey College.


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Dill, P. L., & Henley, T. B. (1998). Stressors of college: A comparison of traditional and nontraditional students. The Journal of Psychology Interdisciplinary and Applied, 132 (1), 25-32. doi: 10.1080/00223989809599261

Fairchild, E. E. (2003). Multiple roles of adult learners. New Directions for Student Services, 102, 11-16. doi: 10.1002/ss.84

Hollis-Sawyer, L. (2011). A math-related decrement stereotype threat reaction among older nontraditional college learners. Educational Gerontology, 37 (4), 292-306. doi: 10.1080/03601271003608845.

Kasworm, C. (2005). Adult student identity in an intergenerational community college classroom. Adult Education Quarterly, 56 (1), 3-20. doi: 10.1177/0741713605280148.

National Center for Educational Statistics. (2011 ). Projections of education statistics to 2019. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2011/2011017.pdf

Richardson, J. T. E. & King, E. (1998). Adult students in higher education: Burden or boon? The Journal of Higher Education, 69 (1) , 65-88. doi: 10.2307/2649182

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test-performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69 (5), 797-811. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.69.5.797