Working With Diverse Students Including Adult Learners

The Best Choice .... according to the experts

Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity, 2003 – "American institutions of higher education . . . face the challenge of preparing students to live and work in an increasingly diverse society in which cultural knowledge and understanding are more important than ever before. To meet this challenge, the universities of the CIC must educate students from all segments of society and must provide those students with a meaningful exposure to cultures other than their own."

Lieb, 1991 – "The best motivators for adult learners are interest and selfish benefit. If they can be shown that the course benefits them pragmatically, they will perform better, and the benefits will be longer lasting.


  • Enrollment statistics show there is a great diversity of students entering college classes (Levine and Associates, 1990).
  • Strategies and tactics are needed to improve diverse students' personal, academic, and professional development.

Basic Information


Definition of Diversity

  • "Diversity usually is related to the ethnic background of students. It is, however, a much broader concept. Anytime that a student is different from the rest of the students in a class, that student is diverse. Diversity can relate to gender, sexual orientation, economic status, ethnicity, country of national origin, etc." (Oklahoma State University, no date).

Adult Learners

  • Adult learners: Knowles (1984) identified that adult learners have the following unique characteristics:
    • They are responsible and can direct themselves.
    • They come to class with a wealth of working experiences.
    • They are ready to learn what they need to know or do in order to solve real world problems.
    • They usually know what goal they want to achieve.
    • They like to know why they should learn something.
    • They are motivated to learn in order to apply what they learned to real life, to increase job satisfaction, etc.

General strategies in working with diverse students (Davis, 1999)

  • Recognize any biases or stereotypes you may have.
  • Treat each student as an individual, and respect each student for who he or she is.
  • Rectify any language patterns or case examples that exclude or demean any groups.
  • Do your best to be sensitive to terminology.
  • Get a sense of how students feel about the cultural climate in your classroom.

Selecting course content and material, consider (Davis, 1999)

  • Whenever possible select texts and readings in a language which is gender-neutral and free of stereotypes. For example,
    • Instead of Uncle Tom's Cabin, choose a more neutral or multi-sided perspective.
    • Assign a project that requires a female perspective.
  • Aim for an inclusive curriculum.
    • Use text and readings that reflect new scholarship and research about previously underrepresented groups.
    • Discuss the contributions made to your field by women and various ethnic groups.
  • Do not assume that all students will recognize cultural, literary, or historical references familiar to you; consider when they were born, where they live or have lived, etc.
  • Consider students' needs when assigning evening or weekend work, especially when many students are working adults.
  • Bring in diverse guest lecturers.

Examples of Stereotypes and Biases

Example Stereotype & Biases and How to Avoid
Stereotypes and biases Actions to avoid Suggested actions
"Women have lower aptitudes in math" (Menkart, 1993). Seldom call on women to solve complex math problems. Discourage women students from undertaking sophisticated projects. Encourage women to solve complex math problems and undertake sophisticated projects.
"Women have lower aptitudes in general." Studies have shown that college men receive more classroom reinforcement or encouragement from male professors compared to college women ("Promoting Diversity," 2003). Give women equal amount of reinforcement and encouragement as well whenever they made progress.
"Minority students have lower aptitudes and can't make good oral contributions." Studies also show that minority college students get less encouragement and more critical judgment of their oral contributions in the classroom ("Promoting Diversity," 2003).
  • Give minority student equal amount of encouragement; sometimes, maybe more encouragement.
  • Try to be patient to listen to their oral contributions. Don't rush into judgements.
"International students who have accents can't express themselves well or don't know how to express themselves." Undervalue comments made by international students who have a heavy accent. Listen carefully to the comments made by international students and try to adjust to their accents.
"Persons of eastern and southern European origins and blacks have lower IQs." (Suzuki, 1984; Fairtest, 1991) Seldom call on those students to answer difficult questions. Provide equal opportunities for the students to answer questions in class.
"All students know historical references familiar to the faculty." Talk about events that happened before the students were born or in a country with which they are not familiar without placing them into context. Provide appropriate context and background information. Link new topics to existing knowledge or provide resources.
"Homosexual students are weird." In the 2001 National School Climate Survey Lesbian, Gay,
Bisexual and Transgender Students and Their Experiences in Schools GLSEN, 23.6% students reported hearing homophobic remarks from faculty or school staff at least some of the time. ("An exclusive approach," 2001-2002)
Treat every student equally no matter what their sex orientation is.



Connecticut Women's Educational and Legal Fund ((2001-2002)). An exclusive approach to excellence.
Retrieved May 14, 2003 from [No Longer Available]

Davis, B. G. (1999). Diversity and complexity in the classroom: Considerations of race, ethnicity, and gender. Retrieved May 14, 2003 from

Indiana State University (2003). Promoting Diversity.
Retrieved May 14, 2003 from: [No Longer Available]

Knowles, M.S. (1984). The adult leaner: A neglected species. (3rd edition). Houston: Gulf.

Levine, A. and Associates.(1990). Shaping Higher Education's Future: Demographic Realisties and Opportunities, 1990-2000. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lieb, S. (1991). Principles of adult learning. Retrieved May 14, 2003 from

Menkart, D. (1993). Multicultural education: strategies for linguistically diverse schools and classrooms. Retrieved May 14, 2003 from

Merryfield, M. M. (1995). Background information: Looking for biases and stereotypes about Africa.

Oklahoma State University (no date). Working with Diverse Students. Retrieved May 14, 2003 from [No Longer Available]

Penn State (1998–2003). A framework to foster diversity at Penn State. Retrieved May 14, 2003: [Updated for 2009]


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