Faculty Focus


Managing End-of-term Stress: Keeping the Adult Learner Risk-informed

Single mom working on laptop while little girl colors next to her on table

Adult learners are arguably one group of learners who are at greatest risk for stress—not only at the end-of-term but throughout their academic program. The risk increases for female, single parent adult learners who often bear the brunt of domestic responsibilities alongside their professional ones, or who can be termed the bearers of “compromised commitment.” Post-pandemic time management and scheduling reasserted its demands alongside the other vicissitudes of life. Alongside those challenges come the familiar juggling of academic deadlines. All too often, the same scenarios keep reappearing: high dropout rates, poor submissions or late submissions of assessments, and frustrated learners. It is clear that interventions are needed to help amend this unfortunate situation. For adult learners, being risk-informed goes a long way toward preventing these negative outcomes—both the adult learner and faculty are integral to this process.

The first step for creating a risk-informed adult learner is an environment that facilitates social dialogue between the learner and the lecturer. Creating such an environment is the responsibility of the lecturer who should establish certain parameters for communication. Some strategies include:

  • Present yourself as a human, not a robot. Create a social presence in your class environment.
  • Create communication channels, both private and public for students to reach you easily. Set boundaries for instructor interaction with the creation of interaction plans.
  • Advance expectations for the course: include anticipated challenges, and discussion of assessment deadlines and features. Another important discussion is time management for the assessments—how and when to start thinking about assessment prep.
  • Create safe spaces for students to reach out throughout the course: anonymous session evaluations assist in this so students can inform you of possible issues.

The second step includes providing flexible opportunities for students. Tell students about what can happen and how you are prepared to deal with “life happens” moments, which can occur throughout the semester: illness, kids, professional commitments, etc. This creates a supportive environment, which can go a long way in mitigating stress for your adult learners. Some strategies include:

  • Provide students with information and benefits of mental health management and what the school offers.  Many adult learners often lack support systems that are crucial for managing the stresses of personal, professional, and academic commitments. Knowing that a campus counsellor or helpline is available via phone call, text, or email can provide a lifeline for learners who may need it.
  • Remind students of college policies. Consult with your head of department about the level of flexibility you are allowed regarding stringency and adherence to deadlines. Knowing that certain paperwork is needed for a makeup exam or an extension helps so students knows what to do upfront.
  • Be flexible about assessment deadlines within reason. Are you interested in getting all your papers in or are you more interested in getting your students’ best work? I have found it preferable to grade papers that demonstrate student efforts so that a more accurate snapshot of the student’s learning is captured.
  • Provide flexibility about assessment requirements. Video presentations can become audio presentations or papers. Let your learners know that there are options available for these situations in the event of technical issues or illness.  Being informed that accommodations exist helps to reduce stress for the learners later.
  • Provide credit or “insurance assessments” for students who can’t meet deadlines, but that still meet assessment outcomes and are properly weighted. Knowing these exist provides students with the reassurance that the stress of missing assignments can be alleviated.
  • Scaffolding assessments helps mitigate stress for learners. Assessments that are heavily weighted can be broken down into smaller assigned weightings and distributed across the term to prevent learners from becoming overwhelmed. Keeping learners informed about this process and the benefits of completing the smaller components before submitting the big project can help learners achieve their deadlines.

The third feature for creating risk-informed students is to ensure that your adult learners have certain competencies surrounding digital learning. It is to our detriment to assume that adult learners in our classrooms, despite the advent of pandemic learning, are aware of the stresses that digital learning can incur if not managed properly.

  • Inform your students about laptop use and possible warning signs of technical failure.
  • Discuss with learners the importance of backing up assignments on cloud drives or external storage.
  • Create or direct learners to video tutorials for assessments if you require the use of certain applications.
  • Teach your learners the importance of having backup plans for laptop crashes (emailing the assignment to yourself in a special folder) and infrastructure issues (sending it to the cloud for easy retrieval at another location).
  • Partner with the library to run tutorials on digital literacy—how to use email and how to use their cloud storage with their student accounts.

Being risk-informed means total investment by the instructor in helping their adult learners succeed. The outcome? Being perceived as more understanding and considerate builds a community of learners and increases trust in you as the instructor. Overall, if students are risk-informed, they are better prepared to meet most, but not all, of the challenges that come with being an adult learner. Knowing they have supportive lecturers and learning environments helps mitigate stress along way. Less stressed adult learners learn better, which is what we all want.

Saadiqa Khan currently serves as program dean for general education studies at Cipriani College of Labour and Co-operative Studies. She also coordinates the college’s Developmental Education Department and is an advisor for the college’s journal, The Caribbean Social Justice Forum.