As a former nontraditional student, Dr. Wanda Carr meets her adult learners’ needs with abbreviated courses, customized lessons, and plenty of empathy.
Adjunct Professor of Business, North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount, NC
DBA, MS in Accounting, MBA, BS in Business Administration/Management, AA in Information System Technology
Wanda Carr, DBA, recognizes the challenges facing the adult students in her business and accounting classes. That is because she has walked that same road.
“I was there,” says Carr. “I got my degree online, and it was overwhelming being a single mom with a daughter in school.” She understood that she might not be able to do homework until Saturday, and so when she had a 30-page paper due Thursday, she would have to spend extra time early in the morning (even at 2 a.m.), doing her assignments before her workday started.
Today, Carr is a successful author, motivational speaker, entrepreneur, life coach, and adjunct professor whose various passions share a common theme: to help others be the best they can be. As such, she is proud to be part of the faculty of North Carolina Wesleyan College’s adult degree program, called ASPIRE, which serves students from diverse religious, cultural, and racial backgrounds.
“My typical student is an adult learner who has possibly been on the job 10 or 20 years,” Carr says. “Many have families. Some are older than I am.” Most of her students in the classroom are very engaged, she says. They come to class with a lot of work experience and are eager to learn. “They value education, but some dropped out earlier and are returning to it now. Some are coming back because they got laid off. They ask questions; they take their homework seriously. They want to get an A in all their classes. They are hoping to get better opportunities once they have a degree in their hands.”
Below, she shares some of her strategies for helping them take the next steps.
Adult learners face added stress and time constraints
Teaching college to students who are not “traditional” brings specific challenges. Many of Carr’s students have families to support and full-time jobs, both of which limit their time for coursework. Her students may be paying out of pocket or taking on debt, adding to their stress and struggles and leaving them feeling overwhelmed.
Devise flexible programs that encourage success
Carr has left the traditional lecture behind and relies on a blend of personal attention and modern technology to enhance learning. She has created an innovative condensed class schedule for student convenience, uses a variety of technologies to enhance learning and collaboration, and makes herself available for individual attention at any time.
“I like to take a moment—a learning moment—to find out what’s on students’ minds. You know, I just take a few minutes to ease their thoughts. I always talk with whoever is there early, and I make myself available after class or by phone.”— Wanda Carr, DBA
Course: ACC 202 Managerial Accounting
Course description: A look at how accounting information can be interpreted and used by management in planning and controlling business activities. Using accounting information in planning for future operations, controlling operations and making routine and non-routine decisions.
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Lesson: Adapt a course to meet adult learners’ needs
To meet the needs of adult learners, Carr acts as both coach and professor. She helps give students the confidence they need to pass (or ace) the course, as well as the skills they need to thrive. “I just want to see my students get their degree,” Carr says. Here are some of her secrets to success:
Cut (way) back on class time
To fit the course into her adult students’ lives, Carr created “hyper class instruction,” condensing the typical accounting curriculum into an eight-week course that meets in person just four times per semester. Each of those face-to-face sessions is devoted to reviewing recently completed homework, then tackling new lessons. “I don’t give busywork. If you are in my class, you’re a working adult—these are people who don’t have a lot of time,” she says. (In fact, she tries to let them leave early when possible.)
On the week when the class does not meet, Carr provides assignments to be done outside the classroom, such as writing research papers; having conversations with industry professionals; and even watching MSNBC, Fox News, or YouTube videos.
Take steps to ease their stress
“Students come in overwhelmed and worried they’re not going to pass the class,” says Carr. “I always tell them, ‘It’s not as bad as you think it is.’ I just have them take a deep breath in, and then breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.”
Once their jangled nerves are soothed, she tells them, “Now, here’s what we’re going to do,” and she walks them through it. For example, if students cannot comprehend a concept, she will break it down using everyday logic. To explain business accounting, she will compare it to balancing a personal checkbook. “I get up and draw a T on the whiteboard. On the left is your cash and on the right are your expenses. If you buy something, you take away from cash, so it’s an expenditure to you. An asset means I am adding to. Liability means I am taking away.”
Use technology to enhance at-home learning
Carr relies on learning management systems such as MyLab Management and Connect, especially in the weeks when the class does not meet in person. NC Wesleyan uses Jenzabar as its platform for teachers to provide instructions to students. For example, Carr says, “the syllabus, videos, and handouts can be uploaded in Jenzabar for the student,” she says. “And it’s a place for collaboration: When students ask questions, everyone can see my answers. It’s high tech and very efficient.”
Another favorite online tool is Capstone 2.0, an experiential business simulation that places students in the role of executive management at a multimillion-dollar company, competing directly against other teams to grow their business. It runs for the length of the semester and engages students by making them compete with one another for points. “It’s a lot of fun,” she says. “And it gets them to understand how the business works by showing every department.”
Make the most of your time together
Carr has found that lectures are the kiss of death for night classes. “When most of students come in, their attention span isn’t there,” she says. Her mantra is: “Sit down, get up and move, sit down, get up and move.” Group assignments and research in class further support a lively learning experience (as do assigned visits to relevant local organizations).
Be sensitive to all of their struggles
Carr works with a diverse group, so she adjusts the focus of the course each semester depending on the skills and experience of her students, spending extra time on some things and expediting others. For example, some groups need more training in software such as Excel, while others have a better understanding thanks to their day jobs in an office setting.
Carr also makes herself available by email or phone to assist her students at any time. And she is proactive about reaching out, particularly to students whose grades are at risk. “I check in to say, ‘Anything I can help you with? Did you know you didn’t complete an assignment?’”
When it comes to quizzes, she gives students two chances to pass. “If they flunk, I give them another option,” she says, telling them this: “If you have not read the handouts and booklet, you have time to research the questions and find out what you have done wrong so you can log back in and fix it.”
She is compassionate and understanding about their personal lives as well. “We had a hurricane that hit North Carolina last year, and some of our students lost everything, from laptops to housing. Some seniors were so stressed out about passing their classes; you know, they went without lights for almost a month.” Carr gave them extra time on assignments and reached out to local organizations to ask for donated laptops for those students who no longer had their own.
With one student, Carr says, “I just had to make myself available to talk with her via phone and email, because she was giving up. She had two small boys and had lost everything. I was able to get some friends together to get gift cards for her to make purchases and buy gas until she could find other resources.” Ultimately, that student was able to graduate on time, and she was grateful that Carr had rallied others to help lighten her load.
“We are not there for meeting requirements,” Carr says, in summing up her work. “We want to see the world change.”