For many mature students, returning to university after years away from the lecture hall is an exciting and uncertain experience. Will they be able to keep up in lectures? Can they successfully balance the demands of postsecondary education and home? How will it feel to sit in a lecture hall where the majority of students are perhaps the same age as their own children?
A new course offered by the Atkinson Centre for Mature and Part-Time Students (ACMAPS) at York University is addressing these anxieties. Developed with funding from York University’s Academic Innovation Fund (AIF), a project called “Enhancing the First-Year Experience of Mature Students through a Voluntary First-Year Experience Course” brought together a cross-functional team from the University led by Brian Poser, director of ACMAPS, to create a 10-week program to blend academic skills development with life skills for new mature students admitted into the fall 2012 term.
Brian Poser, director of the Atkinson Centre for Mature and Part-Time Students
“What we learned over the years during our fall orientation is that in general new mature students are nervous about their skill sets,” says Poser. “We also recognize that our mature students may be at higher risk for attrition than those students coming into university from college or high school.”
“Our mature students are very bright and committed students. They do the readings, homework and come to class prepared and with a penchant for deeper learning,” says Poser, noting that many return to school while continuing to work in full- or part-time jobs. “They may have children or parents they are caring for, ongoing community commitments and other life influences that compete for their attention and sometimes circumstances mean their university studies are put on hold or abandoned,” he says.
“I thought it would be interesting to explore a project that looked at extending the orientation of mature students in a coordinated fashion through the first term of the academic year to see if it had an impact on mature student retention and engagement,” he says. He looked to other AIF projects such as the YU Start cluster and projects focused on new student transition, along with research conducted on student retention. Poser and his project team built a non-credit, modular course that was delivered to a group of 25 mature students who volunteered to take the course over a 10-week period.
The goal, he says, was to establish a set of networks and connections that not only support access to services and skills development but also build the students’ connections to the campus and each other.
Each of the modules offered focused on a core topic and included related touchstone topics for discussion by the group. Module facilitators were drawn from different support services on campus – Learning Services, ACMAPS, the University Libraries, Health Education & Promotion, Counselling & Disability Services.
Guided by the course facilitators, students explored topics that included transition to university, setting goals, time management, note taking and research skills, analysis and critical thinking skills, maintaining wellness, mindfulness meditation, and more. In addition to covering the topics, they were introduced to providers of support services and each other.
“If the students felt that the touchstones related to the central topic needed more explanation, we went with their suggestions because they were adult learners and we felt that they would want some ownership of the experience and course.
The course was designed in a way that topics intersected with other material. “For example, we looked at the intersection between doing research and making really good notes about what was researched as a building block to academic writing so that academic integrity was looked after,” he says and this was blended with modules on self-care that addressed stress and managing competing demands.
Feedback from the students and facilitators has been very positive, says Poser. He is in the process of adjusting the course based on feedback from the students.
The result is a course that is sustainable financially because it draws on experts from around the campus and has the potential to migrate to a blended or fully online format that could be scaled to meet the needs of other student populations.
Poser says he favours the blended learning approach because it provides an opportunity for students to meet and connect with each other.
“The AIF funding has permitted us to move ahead with gathering the design team and putting important evaluation pieces in place,” he says. The course is being offered to new mature students coming into the winter semester and Poser is working with the Institute for Social Research at York University to do a formal evaluation, something he says would not have been possible without AIF support.