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Limber up for role as flexible friend

Mature students often have responsibilities such as childcare, so the more adaptable you are over deadlines and timetables, the better. Harriet Swain offers advice on how best to meet their needs.

She's ten years older than you are, has twice as much experience in your specialist field and earns three times your salary working part time. And you need to tell her to get her essays in promptly.

Feel a bit intimidated? Don't, says Alexandra Withnall, senior lecturer in lifelong learning and health at Warwick Medical School: "You have to realise that they are in awe of you." This is just as true of mature students as of others, she says - sometimes more so because they are likely to have particular respect for someone who followed the academic course they never did.

Carey Singleton, director of student recruitment at Reading University, warns that this level of respect can make mature students particularly nervous about their first contact with a university. Reading is one of several universities that produces guides for mature students.

Singleton says it is important to find out the background of potential students when they make an initial inquiry. If they are mature, they may need to be steered through the application process, particularly if they do not have traditional qualifications. "We never assume that they understand the system," she says. "We never assume that they understand what postgraduate and undergraduate study is. We lay it all out for them and listen to what they have to say."

She says that, as with any student, it is important to respond to their individual needs. This is particularly true as the term "mature student"

covers everyone from 21 to 70-plus. Singleton adds that new age discrimination legislation may make the very use of the term redundant.

Simon Larter, mature students officer at Roehampton University, says many who have been out of education for a long time find their first year particularly nerve-racking - even mustering the courage to ask a tutor for help can be hard. "There seems to be an attitude [among lecturers] that grown-ups can sort themselves out," he says. "But, particularly in the first year, quite a lot of hand holding would be good."

Withnall says treating mature students as individuals is essential.

"Recognise that, although they are all mature, they are very different in all sorts of ways - previous experience, attitudes to learning," she says.

"It's important not to lump them together as a group."

She says it is always worth finding out in detail what their different expectations and experiences are. Those who have been away from education for some time might need quite a bit of extra support, particularly with understanding how to employ critical analysis and academic writing.

Mature students may also be more set in their ways about learning styles.

They often have a set pattern of learning that has stood them in good stead from school onwards and may need persuasion to use new technology, for example, or different learning tools.

Veronica King, vice-president (welfare) at the National Union of Students, points out that mature students may have childcare and financial commitments. She says mature students are often eligible for various benefits but that the help available is not always well publicised. You should know how to point them in the right direction and lobby for better provision where necessary. "Universities and colleges should provide free and decent childcare because it's such a massive barrier, not just for mature students but for women," she says.

Singleton says it is also important to make sure mature students are given the opportunity to get together. "The hardest thing for mature students is developing the confidence to handle their studies," she says. "Very often, all they need is to be able to talk to someone else who is a mature student." Larter adds that having somewhere quiet to "sit and be" rather than being assaulted by the bright lights and loud music of the student bar makes life much easier for mature students. "When they have a lot of other things going on in their lives, the hubbub of a lot of undergraduate kids is quite tiring," he says. Individual locker spaces are also particularly useful for students grabbing a few hours at university after dropping kids off at school and doing the shopping, he suggests.

Singleton says that although mature students can lack confidence in their studies, you should be prepared for them to be more demanding than others.

"They are working people or have children and are likely to make more demands, and that's perfectly reasonable," she says.

Withnall says it is important to make clear when you are available and how you like to be contacted so that they do not knock on your door any time of day or night.

She has carried out a small research study on teaching mixed age groups and warns that there is a tendency for mature students to dominate discussions by talking about their own experiences. This can be hard to handle if they are learning with 18-year-olds, who don't have as much life experience to relate. "You have to steer a careful course to make sure they don't dominate discussions, while encouraging them to share the things that can help younger students," she says.

At the same time, don't be too harsh over deadlines. King says that time management is a constant headache for mature students and advises being as flexible as possible over the timetable.

Be prepared to hold occasional evening tutorials, she says, and set long deadlines so that students can plan study around caring and other responsibilities.

"Don't make assumptions about students," she says. "Don't assume that they are all 18-year-olds without responsibilities. There's no such thing as a typical student any more, and you need to remember that."

Further information

Mature Students Union: www.msu.org.uk

National Union of Students: www.nusonline.co.uk

TOP TIPS

Find out about their individual needs and experiences

Know what help is available to them

Be flexible about timetables

Draw on their experience only when useful

Don't be frightened of them

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