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Progress, Not Perfection, Is the Name of the Game
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Progress, Not Perfection, Is the Name of the Game

Adult students often expect too much of themselves when they enroll in higher education, and must be mindful of the value of learning as well as the grades they achieve.


In a previous article, I wrote about the importance of normalizing the college experience. It is very easy for students who are new to college — particularly first-generation students — to have expectations of what it means to be a college student. Those expectations are often not realistic, particularly if these students have additional challenges and responsibilities outside of school. It is essential that school support staff actively engage students in conversation about what their expectations are and whether they fit reality. Without proactive engagement to address any misconceptions, students may end up functioning with a skewed perception of “success” that may lead them to drop out if they do not measure up.

When I think about students who have more on their plates than just being students, it is the adult student that most often comes to mind. Most of us know how challenging it already is to work, raise kids and/or take care of aging parents, pay the bills and keep life moving day to day. Add full-time (or even part-time) school on top of those commitments and it’s a whole new ball game. Throw in true financial challenges — often, adult students return to school because they are in low-wage jobs, unstable careers or are unemployed — and there is the likelihood of true overload.

What always amazes me is that adult students, who are often struggling with day-to-day survival, have the highest expectations of themselves as students. In fact, in my experience, many see school as all or nothing: if they don’t get A’s and B’s, they believe they aren’t meant to be there.

One of the conversations I often have with these students is one of budgeting, and I don’t mean finances. In fact, those who are struggling with day-to-day survival are often skilled at budgeting their money; after all, you can’t put food on the table for a family of three on a minimum wage salary without knowing how to budget. The conversation I have with these students is about budgeting their time, focus and energy.

I once asked a student what type of clothing she would buy for her teenage daughter if she could. It was easy for her to share her wishes that she could provide more than hand-me-downs and thrift store clothes. She wanted to see her daughter, at least one year, have new school clothes like the other kids. I empathized (I myself wore hand-me-downs and thrift store clothes, before thrift store clothes were cool) and then reflected that, despite not being able to deck her daughter out in a new wardrobe each year, she did at least ensure her daughter was clothed, did she not? With a laugh, she agreed. Then I asked her, “How is school different?” I wanted her to understand that she had to separate fantasy from feasibility in her approach to education, in the same way she did when budgeting for her daughter’s clothes. This time, it was about what grades she could afford with her budget of time, focus and energy.

Adult students, particularly those with limited finances, are often experts on “getting things done” in many areas of their lives, and making the compromises needed to meet basic needs and make progress. They realize it can’t be about perfection if it is about survival and keeping things moving day to day. Why, then, do they often expect perfection in the academic realm?

When I work with adult students, I try to help them see their own strengths. Very few seem to acknowledge that putting food on the table for their family when the budget is tight, working overtime hours or multiple jobs, taking the bus two hours to and from a job each day or job searching for months shows incredible determination and perseverance. So many times when I have made this connection for students, they have laughed and said, “It’s just what I have to do.” That may be true, but that doesn’t mean it’s not strength.

I ask the coaches on my team to show students how those strengths can translate to their progress in college. It is about far more than offering praise, but about recognizing a specific action the student took (in or outside of school), tying that action to a character trait (determination, thoughtfulness, courage) and then sharing or asking the student to share how that character trait can help in his or her educational pursuits. This type of “praise” can be very powerful for students who may not see that the very same skills they use for day-to-day survival will help them earn a college degree, if they can only apply them to educational life.

It’s about progress, not perfection. A’s and B’s are great, and definitely worth striving for. But for adult students who are often attending college to create new opportunities for themselves and their families, it is about more than that. We must help them see that the degree itself and the experience of lifelong learning should be the real goals. Sometimes you have to budget — beyond just finances — in order to get there.

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2 Responses to Progress, Not Perfection, Is the Name of the Game

  1. WA Anderson Reply

    2014/03/03 at 4:12 pm

    This article highlights the need for institutions serving adult students to have strong advisory services in place. Adult students should be assigned an academic advisor to meet with periodically throughout their time at school. The advisor would be able to give the sort of encouragement and perspective Derrough is talking about, and also identify if a student is starting to have doubts about his or her enrollment, and offer support then.

  2. g s c Reply

    2014/03/03 at 8:01 pm

    Part of the problem is the way grades are assigned in courses. As an instructor who’s been working with adult students for a number of years, I have learned to have flexibility in how I give and mark assignments, as long as the learning outcomes have been met. When I give an assignment, particularly for an online course, I usually have four or five options so that students can pick the topic and style that suits them best. Some might choose to do a poster to present their learning while others prefer traditional essays or tests. When students feel comfortable with the type of work they have to produce for my class, I find they are more likely to do well.

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