Non-Traditional is the New Norm: Lessons from Teaching at Community Colleges

Editor’s note: This is the second post in a two-part series focused on  working with community college students and/or alumni. Please also see Samantha Lawrence’s post on challenging the community college stigma.

By Katie Webber

When referring to “college students”, many people think of a typical 18 to 22-year-old admitted fresh out of high school. While that might have been the traditional student for some time, the demographics of college students are changing. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 1 in 4 students are caring for a child and 20% are at least 30 years old. 40%—or 6.8 million— of these students are attending community colleges (NCES, 2015).

It is important to recognize that the demographics of our student population are evolving and to reassess the effectiveness of our teaching, moving away from looking at “traditional” students as the stand-in for “college students”. 

photo of author Katie Webber
Katie Webber is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication Studies with focuses in weight stigma, body image, identity, gender and media representations of diverse identities. She received an undergraduate degree from SUNY Oswego in Communication and Social Interaction, a master’s degree from Northeastern University in College Student Development and Counseling, and is currently completing UConn Graduate Certificates in College Instruction and Feminist Studies. Her goal is to teach in higher education, conduct research, and continue her body positive, anti-diet, Health at Every Size®, and eating disorder advocacy work after graduation.

 These “non-traditional” characteristics are common among students at community colleges. In my 8+ years in student affairs, I have only worked at 4-year public and private institutions, so I was curious what the differences were between teaching at four year institutions and community colleges. After all, one-fifth of all faculty members in U.S. postsecondary education work in community colleges (NCES, 2001; Huber, 1998), so it is not unlikely that you might find yourself working in a community college at some point during your teaching career. Even if you do not end up at a community college, many of your students may be transfers whose background and life experiences differ from the traditional college student of years past. The six faculty members across the US who I interviewed provided insightful tips for navigating the nuances of teaching at a four-year institution versus a community college. Below I’ve compiled recommendations that emerged in our conversations.

1. Make the Material and Application Relevant

While recognizing the variety of student experiences is important in any classroom, it is especially crucial in a community college where there is likely even more variation in regards to age, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, home-life, etc. To engage students of all backgrounds, the faculty I interviewed recommended provide learning opportunities and activities that enable students to apply what they are learning directly to their lives. One way this can be done is through the use of practical, inquiry based assignments. For example, Dr. Minielli of Kingsborough Community College spoke of how she has her “students identify a significant problem in NYC or NY State and come up with a new solution to the problem and then convince their classmates not only to care but to actually do something about it. I find it helps them understand the material as well as why it takes governments so long to do something and how a simple solution is actually rather complicated and affects other parts of the government (particularly fiscally).” 

2. Tap into the Diversity of Experiences in Your Classroom 

In order to make material relevant to students, it helps to first build a sense of community. You can do this by getting to know your students and asking them to share and apply their relevant experiences inside the classroom. These differences and “real world” experiences can validate their identities and serve as a resource to other students in your classroom. As Dr. Soczka-Steidinger at Mid-State Technical College explained, Non-traditional students who are eager to learn often share life experiences that apply to the communication concepts in the classroom, which traditional students do learn from. This advice isn’t ignored in the CC classroom, whereas, it may be at a university. I have had 18-year-old students tell me at the end of the fall semester that they were glad they chose to come to a community college first because they are learning so much more than their friends by having older students in class with them.”

3. Be Flexible and Creative in How Students Demonstrate Their Learning

While many students at 4-year institutions refer to “real life” happening after graduation, real life is happening all the time for many community college students. Whether it is a family at home, a job to get to, or dealing with poverty-level living conditions, often the balance of school and home is difficult. Dr. McCully of Lansing Community College remarked that

deadlines and quality are important, but sometimes it’s not that [students] they haven’t learned that lesson, it’s that life has prevented them from adhering to it. I’ve had students evicted from their homes mid-semester, caring for their dying parent, coaxing a 10-year-old laptop to run current software, or graduating from high school only because their teachers didn’t want to deal with them for another year.”

Echoing this comment, Dr. Soczka-Steiding noted that, “I know that most university students don’t have children to care for, they have parents to support them (not sabotage them), they have internet access at home/in a dorm, they have access to health care, and they have a reliable transportation. I can’t make any of these assumptions with community college students. I have to be more flexible with course policies, but also not become a pushover about late work.”

Maintaining course structure and keeping learning outcomes as a priority is crucial, but you may want to get creative with how you ask students demonstrate their learning. For example, consider reducing the amount of  take-home assignments and shifting to more in-class work. It is also helpful—and good pedagogy in general— to design assignments that are more inclusive of students’ interests, background, and available resources. 

Finally, scaffold instruction to prepare students for the assignments they will have. Dr. Soczka-Steidinger discussed how she builds in activities and discussions prior to exams to help students prepare. This is helpful in any classroom setting, but especially so when students are new to college and may have come from educational backgrounds that did not sufficiently prepare them for the types of assessments used in your classroom.

In addition to the recommendations above, faculty also frequently mentioned the higher teaching load at community colleges. For this reason, it is key that you make sure you are maintaining your own wellness and building in downtime in your schedule.  In the end, it benefits students as much as the inclusive teaching practices mentioned above.