Journal of Nursing Education

The New Non-Traditional Student in Nursing

Ann H Seidl, RN, PhD; Diane Sauter, PhD



Because different types of new, non-registered nurse students seek baccalaureate nursing education, this study was conducted comparing traditional undergraduate generic students with a group of non-traditional students to dispel myths and to develop policies and educational strategies. Traditional and non-traditional students were differentiated by age, sex, marital status, and experience in higher education.

Traditional and non-traditional undergraduate students were compared on demographic variables, educational goals, sources of psychological and financial support, study habits, learning style, and clinical judgment skills.

Non-traditional students were found to be an excellent risk for admission, having higher semester grade point averages and being more skilled in making professional judgments. Learning style differentiated traditional and non-traditional students, however, teaching methods were similar. Suggestions for educational planning and policies are made.



Because different types of new, non-registered nurse students seek baccalaureate nursing education, this study was conducted comparing traditional undergraduate generic students with a group of non-traditional students to dispel myths and to develop policies and educational strategies. Traditional and non-traditional students were differentiated by age, sex, marital status, and experience in higher education.

Traditional and non-traditional undergraduate students were compared on demographic variables, educational goals, sources of psychological and financial support, study habits, learning style, and clinical judgment skills.

Non-traditional students were found to be an excellent risk for admission, having higher semester grade point averages and being more skilled in making professional judgments. Learning style differentiated traditional and non-traditional students, however, teaching methods were similar. Suggestions for educational planning and policies are made.

Let the curriculum of the institution recognize that both educational content and process must be relevant to individual differences and that the curriculum is basically what different individuals do to learn what they need to learn, to fulfill the purposes that brought them to the college (Chickering, 1974).


Nursing education has historically trained young women in programs closely allied to hospitals. Typically, this training was essentially a modified apprenticeship that provided an inexpensive source of labor to the hospitals. In the last 25 years, many political and economic changes have resulted in the movement of nursing education away from hospitals and toward institutions of higher learning. The current trend is to educate nurses in both 2-year associate degree programs and baccalaureate programs. À baccalaureate education may soon be required for entry into practice, with master's level education needed for career advancement.

Institutions of higher learning have had to respond to multiple demands from nurses who have been educated in hospital programs; they have done this with varying degrees of success. Schools have developed extensive continuing education programs to update practitioners on ever-changing technology. They have attempted to provide flexible education to registered nursing students to assist them in obtaining baccalaureate degrees. The returning student, as well as entirely new types of non-traditional students, seeking an education in the nursing profession are currently providing new challenges. These non-traditional students in nursing have their own unique strengths and limitations, but are certainly unlike the traditional baccalaureate students.

Student Characteristics

The non-traditional student in nursing school takes several forms: the returning registered nurse seeking a baccalaureate degree, who is generally a middle-aged married woman with a continuous, albeit part-time, work record; the minority or educationally disadvantaged student; and the adult student, highly motivated, with a breadth of related or unrelated work experience. This latter group of adult students are often men who are changing careers, and "newly liberated" or divorced women seeking a career. As a consequence of social role expectations, most men enter the program with considerable formal work experience, whereas the women may have little or none.

It is this third student group that the present study examined. Existing and separate programs are usually available to registered nursing students and minority students as part of the general baccalaureate program. In students as part of the general baccalaureate program. In addition to describing various demographic characteristics of this group of students, it is necessary to consider teaching methods that would capitalize on their past experiences and to determine which formats would best present new learning or educational experiences.

Typically, traditional students are between the ages of 17 and 22 and arrive on campus following high school as full-time students. Non-traditional students, in contrast, are typically 25 and older, may not be high school graduates, or may have previously studied at the college level. They often are not full-time students since they hold full-time jobs and/or are parents (Bums, 1973). Addressing the non-traditional student's potential, Cagiano, Geisler, and Wilcox (1978) studied students returning to a large Midwest university after varying lengths of interruption of their education. These students earned significantly higher grade point averages (GPA) than they had during previous enrollment. The improvement in GPA was greatest for those students who had interruptions of more than six semesters.

In 1977, the Joint Education Committee in Illinois surveyed adults to develop a profile of the adult learner and to provide suggestions for improvement of educational services to adults. Approximately one third (37.2%) of all adults in the Joint Education Committee sample were engaged hi either credit or non-credit study, and 23.2% of those not taking any type of course anticipated doing so within the next year. The study projected a demand for training in the areas of business and health.

Most of the adult learners sampled were enrolled in universities and colleges and engaged in degree work. Their selections of institutions of higher learning were based on convenience to work and home and reputation of the school or instructors. However, more than 50% of the students rated the counseling services as inadequate. Common barriers to enrollment included lack of time, no perceived need for further education, and family and job conflicts.

Nearly 40% of the Illinois adult students were between the ages of 26 and 35. Almost 80% were employed, with 65% on a full-time basis; the unemployed were homemakers or looking for work. Course costs were usually paid by the student, with some assistance from employers and scholarships. The methods of instruction that were preferred by most part-time students were, in descending order: evening class, daytime class, conferences and workshops, individual study, weekend class, educational television, personal visit, correspondence study, and computer assisted instruction.

Link (1977) studied the students in Florida International Unversit/s External Degree Program. The typical student was 38 years of age, working, and had a family. These students were self-directed, goal-oriented learners. There was a low dropout rate in this program. There was no difference between these students and traditional students with respect to their success in being accepted into graduate school. Feedback from participants stressed the importance of offering a program that allowed them to maintain full-time jobs or carry out other responsibilities. This was particularly true for students in the nursing/ health science field.

Learning Style

The literature generally reveals little research on adult learners' preferred methods or styles of learning new materials, although it is suggested that teaching strategies should be directed to their past life experiences.

Sarnat (1952) believes that although the adult's intense motivation to learn may be a constructive element, it may also provide limitations to the learning situation. Adult learners have obstacles to overcome, including loss of status, "unlearning," and the vulnerability that is experienced as adults lose their own authority position and assume a dependent role. This dependence may be on a supervisor or teacher whom the student is unable to perceive as either a legitimate authority or as having the breadth of experience of the student himself.

The unlearning necessary for an adult student requires the modification of a cognitive structure developed from the integration of multiple Ufe experiences (Knox, 1977). When placed in an academic setting, adults tend to overemphasize early formal schooling experience and underemphasize recent experience and gradual informal learning.

Cross (cited in Vermilye, 1975, p.59) points out that although the statistically "average" student can adapt quite well to any of the typical teaching styles, if one examines the data student by student, "it is clear that some students improve, some remain unaffected, and some actually regress under various teaching conditions. The very process of averaging the pluses, the minuses, and non-changers wipes out the message that different methods work for different students."

In an attempt to differentiate learning styles, Chickering (1974) alludes to the concepts of "field independence" and "field dependence," which distinguish students possessing analytical skills from those with human interactive skills. However, it is unclear whether these are appropriate for distinguishing the non-traditional adult student from other learners. The research offers little in describing and prescribing for individual learning styles and, to our knowledge, no instrument is commonly used to assess adult learning style or to compare it with that of younger students.

Judgmental Ability

Non-traditional students' skills and abilities are not as easily defined as are their characteristics or goals. Existing measures of scholastic aptitude tend to emphasize verbal skills and middle-class information, missing many significant aspects of problem-solving ability and working knowledge.

Cognitive research on the adult learner indicates that the ability to make abstract judgments may increase with maturity (Knox, 1977). Mature adult students, then, may have past life experiences that facilitate their ability to make competent professional judgments that require the skill of communication, decision making, and the weighing of moral and ethical dilemmas.


The main objectives of this study were to:

* Develop a profile of the non-traditional adult student in the baccalaureate program of nursing education;

* Compare traditional and non-traditional students with respect to demographic characteristics, educational goals, sources of financial and psychological support, study habits, and preferred schedules and methods of instruction;

* Compare the traditional "arici non-traditional groups with respect to their learning styles. Learning style parameters examined in this study were receptive versus discovery modes of learning new information; and

* Compare the scores of traditional and non-traditional groups on a test of judgmental ability in the nursing profession. The purpose of this comparison was to assess the effects of life experience on practical problemsolving skills.



The population selected for this study consisted of all the students who had enrolled in the introductory nursing course of the educational program in professional nursing at a large, midwestern, public university.

For the purposes of this study, the population was categorized into two groups. One group, labeled traditional students, were 21 years of age or younger and had no major intervening work experience prior to the beginning of nursing education. The second group, non-traditional students, were beyond 21 years of age and had experienced interruptions in their education during which they were engaged full-time in employment or other life experiences, such as care of dependents.

There were 129 persons in the population described, with 78 classified as traditional students and 51 as non-traditional students. Questionnaire data were obtained from a sample of 15 persons in the traditional group and 16 in the non-traditional group.


Three instruments were used in this study. The first was a 22-item survey questionnaire that focused on demographic information, educational background and goals, preferred methods of instruction, study habits, and sources of support. In addition to the questionnaire, information was obtained informally through personal communication with the subjects and from their written comments on the survey form.

The second instrument was the Preferred Learning Style Index (Stone, 1974), an inventory in which subjects were asked to respond to 13 statements describing various types of learning activities. Subjects' responses on a seven point preference scale were coded as indicators of receptive or discovery learning styles. The receptive style is characteristic of a !earner who prefers to have information presented in a systematic and complete manner, whereas the discovery style is characteristic of learners who prefer to encounter information in a less structured fashion and who test their own perceptions and inductively organize the material (Stone, 1974).

The third instrument employed in the study was the Scale of Judgmental Ability in Nursing, a 28-item test developed by the authors. This test was designed to assess the subjects' abilities to develop and utilize concepts and processes of reasoning based on materials presented in the educational context when confronted with novel situations. The test examined four areas of professional judgment: legal/ethical, problem solving/decision making, communication, and leadership/team functioning.


All students who were enrolled for two consecutive sessions in the beginning course in the School of Nursing were contacted either individually or through classes in which they were enrolled in April. Each subject was given the three instruments and asked to complete them voluntarily. The subjects were told that their responses on the instruments would be used for curriculum planning for the upcoming semester, and that all information would be kept confidential. The materials required about an hour to complete and subjects were allowed to either fill them out immediately or return them the following day. Questionnaires were returned by 15 traditional and 16 nontraditional students.

Data Analysis

Because information regarding sex, age, accumulated degree credits, and grade point average was readily available for the population under study, the entire group (N = 129) of traditional and non-traditional students in the introductory nursing course was compared on these variables using frequency counts.

The data obtained with the survey questionnaire from the sample of 31 persons were analyzed to determine group differences. In addition to determining frequencies of responses, chi-square analyses were performed on the categorical variables from the questionnaire, and MannWhitney U tests were performed on the continuous variables.

Performance of the two groups on the Learning Style Index and the Scale of Judgmental Ability in Nursing were compared by means of i-tests. In addition, Kendall's tau correlations were computed for selected variables.


Population Data

The composition of the entire population of nursing students completing the course were examined with respect to sex, age, accumulated degree credits, and GPA.

Of the 129 students enrolled in the course, 16 were males and 113 females, distributed disproportionately between traditional and non-traditional groups. The male-female ratio (12% to 88%) in the sample used for this study was identical to that of the population.

Although these people are considered beginning students because they are entering their first course in a professional educational program, they have in fact accumulated previous credits toward a degree. By the end of their first semester in a professional school, the population studied had accumulated from 38 to 170 degree credits, with the average being 79.85. The mean number of degree credits for the non-traditional group was 92.25 (n = 50) (data not avaiIable[DNA] = l). In comparison, the traditional group had an average of 73.1 degree credits (n= 73) (DNA = 5).

The cumulative GPA for the total student group at the end of the first semester was 3.17 (out of a possible 4.0 points). The traditional and non-traditional groups differed with a mean of 3.05 for the non-traditional and 3.16 for the traditional group. This discrepancy may have resulted from the fact that the older students' cumulative GPA reflects earlier, less successful educational experiences. In contrast, GPAs from the fall semester alone show a difference in the opposite direction: the non-traditional group had a mean semester GPA of 3.28 (n=51) whereas the traditional group had a mean GPA of 3.06 (n = 78). The overall GPA for the entire group that semester was 3.22 (n=129).

Survey Questionnaire

The Survey Questionnaire examined the sample of 31 students on a number of demographic variables. Marital status strikingly differentiated the two groups. All of the traditional students were single, whereas a third of the non-traditional group were married and a small percentage (3.2%) were divorced (x2 = 15.98, 2df,p< .001).

None of the traditional students had children, whereas 43% of the non-traditional students did (x2 = 6.16, 1 df, p<. 05 (.0131)).

Regarding the source of financial support, students as a group were nearly equally divided between self-support (35.5%), parental support (32.3%) and loans (29.0%). Significant differences, however, were found between groups (x2 = 6.39, 3 df,p< .10). Traditional students were more likely to use parents as a source of funds, whereas non-traditional students tended to rely on themselves and loans. No one was on a scholarship.

Sources of psychological support significantly differentiated traditional and non-traditional students (x2 = 9.76, df - .5,p< .10 (.082)). Sources of support were spouses or significant others for non-traditional students, and nursing classmates, parents, friends, or multiple sources for traditional students.

Non-traditional students as a group have had significantly more years of higher education (Mann-Whitney U = 65.5, p<.05 (.016)) when they enter the nursing program, with a number already holding college degrees. The majority of students in both groups (about 58%), however, have had 3 years of college.

Significant differences were found between students with respect to further educational plans. Non-traditional students had significantly higher degree aspirations (Mann-Whitney U = 86.5,p<.10 (.068)), with 69% looking toward master's or doctoral level degrees. This is somewhat surprising since non-traditional students already have significantly more educational experience and might be expected to have more short-range objectives.

A significant difference (p < .01) between the two groups regarding their income level results from the fact that most traditional students are supported by their parents and thus report little or no income of their own. Most non-traditional students are self-supporting and report varying degrees of income.

Some variables on the survey questionnaire did not significantly differentiate the traditional and nontraditional groups. None of the students were employed full-time during the semester and less than a third (29%) held part-time jobs. The majority were enrolled in school full-time (93.5%), although two non-traditional students became part-time students during the study. There were no significant differences between traditional and nontraditional students regarding the method by which they preferred to learn the material in the introductory course. Students were equally divided in their preference of clinical experience (41.9%) and discussion groups (38.7%), with a small percentage interested in independent study (12.9%). Virtually none of the students preferred lectures or group projects. Traditional and non-traditional groups did not differ in the amount of time they devoted to the course. Half of the students spent between 5 and 10 hours weekly. However, nearly 40% of the students studied less than 4 hours per week for this six-credit course. Regarding the scheduling of class time, subjects were asked about various options and combinations. Interestingly, there were no differences between traditional and nontraditional students and the strongly favored choice (80.6%) was "2 or more mornings or afternoons a week."

Riture career plans also did not significantly differentiate between students. Much of the nursing literature indicates that the returning adult nursing student is interested in primary or community health care. Primary health care focuses on health maintenance, prevention, and promotion whereas secondary care relates to health restoration. However, both groups of students in this study indicated a major interest in primary health care with no one at this level preferring administration, research, or consultation. Some interest (10%) was indicated in teaching and private practice. Similarly, specialty performance areas did not differentiate traditional and non-traditional students, although one third clearly defined community health as an interest and another third were interested in combining areas. More than three quarters (77.9%) of the students reported that their career plans had not been influenced by a role model in the health field. Finally, no differences were found between traditional and nontraditional students regarding the length of time needed to complete a bachelor of science degree. More than 50% expected to graduate in 2 years.





Learning Style Index

There was a large and significant difference between the traditional and non-traditional groups with respect to their scores on the Learning Styles Index (i = 2.88, df = 27, p< .01 (.004)). Non-traditional students were more strongly characterized as discovery learners.

Judgmental Ability

On the Scale of Judgmental Ability in Nursing, the non-traditional group scored significantly higher than the traditional group (i - 1.73, df = 24, p<.05 (.048)). This suggests that the non-traditional students in general have acquired experiences and skills that facilitate judgmental ability in professional contexts.


The Table presents the matrix of correlations of a number of variables in the study. The first semester GPA of beginning nursing students is significantly correlated with their cumulative GPA, a finding consistent with other studies. Semester GPA is also positively related to the amount of prior experience in higher education. However, GPA is negatively correlated with the presence of children in the family. It is interesting to note that semester GPA is not significantly correlated with age, sex, or marital status, nor was it related to the amount of time students reported studying for the introductory nursing course.

On the Learning Style Index, high scores were indicative of a discovery style of learning. There were positive relationships between a tendency toward discovery learning and experience in higher education, semester GPA, and age. Married students scored higher on the index, as did male students.

The ability to make professional judgments as indicated by the subject's scores on the Scale of Judgmental Ability in Nursing was significantly related to learning style scores with high judgmental ability associated with a discovery style of learning. There was also a tendency for married students and those with experience in higher education to make higher level professional judgments.


The results of this study clearly point to some broad issues for consideration in areas such as identifying non-traditional students, delineating faculty expertise, curriculum planning, and developing support services. The data derived from the population studied may describe the beginning students in the baccalaureate nursing program more realistically than do traditional stereotypes of nursing students. Information and insights gained through this study should be of particular use in the curriculum development and assignment of faculty for future introductory nursing courses. The implications of this study address both general and specific policies in professional education in institutions of higher learning.

Student Characteristics

The purpose of this article was to examine the similarities and differences among the entering students of a professional training program in nursing. The nontraditional group of students studied had broad but diverse exposure to prior higher education. At the end of their first semester in the nursing school they had acquired an average of almost 80 credits toward a degree, with a range from 38 to 170. As a group, these students were older and more experienced than the traditional student for whom the program was designed. Within this entering group, almost 40% could be characterized as non-traditional students. These students differed from their classmates along many dimensions and had important strengths and limitations. The identification of student similarities provides guidelines for course development whereas the identification of differences lends support to the policy of developing separate groups for learning.


Since students are different in almost any characteristic, the selection and rejection of applicants is a powerful and pervasive tool for shaping the character of a student body. Colleges, by relatively simple methods, can modify the nature of their entering classes. The admission process is then not only a powerful process through which it is possible to raise or lower the intellectual level of a student body, but it is also a process through which a college can obtain various combinations of student values, personalities, interests, and goals (Conley, 1973, p. 175).

It could be argued that these non-traditional students were exceptional since (in most cases) they had already met admission criteria. However, since the non-traditional students were more skilled in making professional judgments and attained higher semester GPAs, they constitute an excellent risk. Marital status of students should not be considered as a negative factor with respect to admission criteria. In fact, it may facilitate professional judgment.

Course Development

Students surveyed did not differ significantly regarding the preferred teaching method for the introductory course. All students preferred discussion groups and clinical experience. This might suggest the need to develop small discussion groups, possibly based on a common clinical interest, and allow the course content to evolve inductively so that the student could relate to it exponentially. The most popular class schedule was two or more mornings or afternoons a week, and no students were interested in evenings or weekends in any combination.

The Learning Style Index clearly indicated that the non-traditional student is a discovery learner rather than a receptive learner. Thus, assignments should be constructed so that these students are provided with opportunities to explore the field of nursing, and teaching strategies should capitalize on the experiences and resources these students have to share. Each member's experience should enrich the learning environment for the group.

The very fact that a range of learning styles exists within the population under study reflects a diversity of individual differences. Cross (cited in Vermilye, 1975) argues that to respond to this diversity, variety must be introduced into the curriculum by providing opportunities for experiential learning (modeling, object manipulation, problem-solving) within as well as across classes. Through sampling a variety of instructional formats, students would be expected to consciously or unconsciously learn more from one mode or another and ultimately interact with presentations that seem most effective for them.

Teaching Strategies

It may be anticipated that the increase in nontraditional students who are entering professional nursing programs as well as the university at large will be pressuring the schools to respond to their needs and demands.

New methods for delivery of content may need to be considered as well as alternative evaluations and grading procedures. Another difficult task lies ahead in attempting to evaluate competencies gained outside the classroom. Since many of these non- traditional students have fulfilled the liberal studies components of undergraduate degrees, an increased interest and pressure for using the more applied field and clinical experiences should be expected. This is a direct change to the current practice, which has kept clinical experience to a bare minimum within baccalaureate programs. Further, the highly motivated adult students are intent on staff nursing and practitioner skills that may have to be considered in light of a changing clinical population. Clinical experiences must be utilized to maximum effectiveness by extensive preparation of students in laboratories or individual study. The role and function of faculty-directed field or clinical experiences must also be reconsidered as internships, and preceptorships or other solutions will be relied on to develop clinical skills.

With respect to the role of the individual teacher, it has been suggested that when adults engage in a learning activity on a self-directed basis, their own expectations provide the primary guide to activity, and other people serve mainly as sources of encouragement and learning resources (Knox, 1977). Faculty, then, may have to examine their own learning/teaching styles in terms of how that relationship might facilitate or frustrate an effective learning environment.

Counseling and Advising

The findings of this study suggest that the interpersonal relationships that the counselors have with faculty and staff can be used to the benefit of the non-traditional student. Counselors may be able to identify and place students with faculty who are either supportive of nontraditional students or who use teaching strategies that the counselor perceives as beneficial. The match between faculty and student may be the crucial variable in "programming" the student for success.

Counselors' skills will be increasingly necessary as they relate to the adult student who is juggling the multiple roles of parent, spouse, and/or worker. The nontraditional student with children may require more flexibility regarding course expectations. Counselors should be aware of community resources of day care and part-time jobs, as well as financial resources. They should also be cognizant of the major impact of a supportive or non-supportive spouse on the success of a student (Bailyn, 1974).

University-based schools of nursing have the education of nursing practitioners and the improvement of nursing practice as their goals. To do so, program development will need to focus on the non-traditional adult student, who, on the basis of life experience, may have acquired the skills to make superior professional judgments and who is highly motivated and committed to practice.


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