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Creating Cognitively Nurturing Spaces Online


Adult students are busy.

So busy that we nerdy academic types have labeled them as experiencing “time poverty” because they literally do not have enough hours in the day to do the things that they need to do.

Competing obligations are nothing new in post-secondary settings. Work, family, and academic aspirations have competed for prioritization for all of us who have pursued higher degrees. When I interviewed single mothers in college for my dissertation, I discovered that women felt tremendous guilt when trying to make time for school. Each day something has got to give. Some of the women in my study described weighing and measuring which priority they had to focus upon in a daily shuffling. “Am I going to be an awful daughter, a terrible employee, or a bad mother today?” Time poverty means that you may be financially stable, maintaining decent grades, and yet you deprive yourself of sleep and other essential elements of self-care to make it possible.

Online educators supporting adult students need to recognize that their classrooms must do more than provide access to academic content; these spaces must nurture the students who are so short of hours in the day that online learning is the best answer to their higher education aspirations. These adult learners chose online learning because their classrooms enter their living rooms. When our classes enter people’s living rooms, their living rooms invariably enter our classrooms.

Years ago when I was teaching at the undergraduate level, one of my capstone students shared with me that her infant daughter was battling a terminal illness. As a mother, my heart went out to the student. She was in her last semester of her studies, and she wanted to complete her degree. I couldn’t imagine bringing my laptop into an infant hospice. I cried when I read her email, and I arranged to speak with her. We reviewed a number of her course concerns, and at the end of our conversation, I offered to work with her advisor to obtain a leave of absence. She declined the offer. “School is the only thing that is keeping me sane right now.”

As online adult educators, our classrooms are designed to transfer knowledge and help our students develop essential professional competencies. Our classrooms are also refuge for our students from chaotic work and personal realities that we, their teachers cannot even fully grasp. We need to create cognitively nurturing spaces where all learners, especially those who are struggling with other aspects of their life, can thrive.

Here’s what you can do to help.

  1. Welcome your students with an ice breaker that extends past the typical “where do you live and what do you do” introduction. Ask your students about their favorite books, the best meal they ever had, bucket list vacation destinations, their pets (get breeds and names too), and intellectual heroes. Make sure to share your answers to the ice breaker questions to humanize the space where you are all learning together.

  2. Acknowledge the professional experiences and wisdom of your adult students. In discussion boards, make sure to push students to contrast their professional experiences with the academic material you are reading in your assignments. If a student displays savvy with technology, try to recognize and reward their expertise in the classroom. When adult students are seen and acknowledged for their wisdom, they are more inclined to share it. By the end of the term, I try to make all my adult students teaching assistants in their own knowledge realms.

  3. Allow one “penalty free late assignment” each term because life happens. This does two important things: it frees the adults to choose a kid’s ballet recital or a professional conference over their assignment for one week. That cycle of prioritization requires that students are allowed to put their studies second at least once per term. It also discourages individuals who are chronically late to one event per term without penalty. It evens the playing field by letting your adult students know that you value their contribution over the time it arrived in your inbox.

  4. Make your classroom an oasis of calm in the storm of noise and churning anxiety that is modern life. Make your classroom resemble the green peaceful expanse of Central Park that delineates the chaos, a raw green juxtaposed with New York City’s population dense metropolis. So too, our classrooms should be places to escape to and reflect in, as opposed to another punitive necessity and unrewarding grind in an already unrelenting world.

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