How Faculty Can More Effectively Support Adult Doctoral Students

illustration of online learning with computers and textbooks

Have you ever opened your email inbox the day after an assignment is due and received an email with the subject line entitled “request for extension of time”? My first thought is “Here we go,” but then I immediately switch my thought process to: “Be objective; my students are adults completing their doctoral degree.”

I work with online doctoral students in the school of education for a not-for-profit private university. The average age of our doctoral students is 47 years. These students are adults working in their specialized fields completing their terminal degree to further their professional endeavors. For the most part, they are professionals working full-time, and are married with children ranging from infants to college students to college graduates with families of their own.

These individuals are not students in an undergraduate program, fresh out of high school and still deciding “what they want to be when they grow up.” Adult students have many issues in their lives other than completing their doctoral degree. They deal with work deadlines, mortgages and bills, aging parents, sick children, divorces and child custody, to name a few examples.

When a doctoral student reaches out to me for help or for a little more time to complete an assignment, I always have an open mind. I want to assist the student and help him be successful in the degree program.

A Gap in Support

As I have discussed student issues and concerns with fellow colleagues, it has recently been brought to my attention that many adult doctoral students have poor views about their professors.

When did it transpire that faculty members became “the bad guys”?

Why do students believe faculty are unreasonable, a person without feelings?

Why do students think we believe that we are perfect and that they are beneath us and that we do not care about their feelings, problems or circumstances? That faculty members are only hired to teach the content of the course and nothing more?

As faculty members, it is our job to not only teach the content of the course, but to help the students as they complete the courses towards their degree. These students chose to complete the terminal degree at our university. It should be our obligation to help them reach that goal.

Empathy must be part of our thought process as we go into teaching each term.

I know it gets tiresome when we receive the same requests each term, but these are different students from the last semester that need our undivided attention when listening to their circumstances. For the most part, these are students who encounter unplanned situations that were not foreseen, and who just need a little flexibility in the course.

Here are three recommendations that are keys to supporting adult doctoral students.

1. Use effective communication and be informative.

A faculty member needs to set the tone of the course in written and spoken communication. This could be achieved in a welcome letter and/or class syllabus; or verbally in the first orientation class session. Make it known that you have high expectations of your students and that their work and assignments must be submitted on time.

However, also advise your students that you understand unfortunate and unplanned situations may arise that may prevent a student to submit an assignment on time. Let students know that in these cases, they should contact you immediately, explaining the situation and showing the work that has been completed thus far. Then, you can review the situation and decide a reasonable due date.

When you grant such a request, your student is often extremely appreciative and can now handle the “personal situation” without reservation while at the same time knowing his or her studies are not jeopardized.

Recommended Faculty Responses to Students:

  • “I have an open communication policy in my courses. Weekly, I use the Announcement feature in Blackboard to keep all students abreast of upcoming assignments.”
  • “I have been in your place before and know the struggles that you encounter…talk with me, communicate with me and I will see what I can do to help you complete and pass this course.”

2. Be compassionate.

From my experience, most students do not want to “air out their dirty laundry” to their faculty member. Students are very private and do not want to alert their faculty that they have an issue. They also do not want their faculty member to think poorly of them.

Again, we are people just like them. Let your students know that we are reasonable and approachable. Listen to your students … it is okay to let them know you care about their well-being. I cannot begin to tell you how many times my students have been grateful to me for listening to their problems and considering their request. This has made the difference between the student receiving an A or a B, in some cases between passing or failing the class.

Recommended Faculty Responses to Students:

  • “I appreciate your trusting me with this information and sharing your troubles; what is the problem?”
  • “I am very sorry to learn of your struggles; how can I help you through this difficult time?”
  • “Would providing extra time to complete the assignment alleviate some of your stress?”

3. Be available.

Often students taking an online course believe the instructor is unavailable to discuss the course or will be unwilling to entertain an extension of time to complete an assignment. Let students know they can contact you via email, phone, or meet you in the office. Let them know you want them to be successful in the course and that you will do whatever you can to help them as long as they do what is required of themselves.

This does not mean you should be available 24/7 just because it is an online degree program. But you can let the students know you are present and available to talk.

Recommended Faculty Responses to Students:

  • “Please reach out to me if you have questions regarding the syllabus or any of the assignments.”
  • “I work every day just like you. Please contact me during these hours so I can help you through the course.”
  • “I like to place a face with my students! Let’s meet via video conference to discuss your inquiry.”

I am sure there are faculty members that have a different view on accepting late assignments, who would not accept them at all or who would cite the injustice to the students who did complete the assignment on time. I understand that viewpoint.

However, my own experience teaching this particular group of adult students has broadened my views and my understanding of the sacrifices they have made to begin a doctoral program at this point in their lives. I completed my own doctoral degree in my twenties, and even though I had challenges and two toddlers, I did not encounter the situations these student encounter on a daily basis.

Compassion and understanding can be a powerful retention tool, a way that faculty can help the university secure their enrolled students. These students are committed. They are active and present; they are engaged and they intend to complete their work on time. Sometimes, like all of us, the students encounter a snag that prevents them from completing an assignment on time. What would it hurt to give them a few extra days to complete an assignment? Helping the student with this small request could retain the student in the course and aid the students in completing their degree program.

Yes, if you grant the extension, it may take a little more time and effort for you, as the faculty member, to manage the grades. However, I believe, as a faculty member, that I need to do my part to assist students to complete their terminal degree and give them a positive learning experience.