Supporting mature students through study

Over 30 per cent of Plymouth University students were over the age of 21 when they started their degree. Mature students represent a highly diverse group with a broad age range and any generalisations about mature students should be approached with caution. Simply being over 21 can mean some younger mature students have a lot in common with their standard age peers, while older mature students may have substantial life and work experiences.

It is often the case that the decision to return to learning means mature students are highly motivated and committed to their university studies. Mature students may also have more complicated lives, including caring and financial responsibilities, compared to their younger colleagues. PedRIO researchers held a series of focus groups with mature students at Plymouth who identified the following advantages and disadvantages of returning to study as a mature student.

  • Key disadvantages of being a mature student included a perceived lack of academic preparedness due to gaps in study or non-traditional routes (e.g. Access courses), as well as a lack of social integration as a consequence of feeling different from their peers. Younger mature students were most concerned about the gap in their academic knowledge compare to their younger peers. Older mature students were more concerned about relating socially to other students.

  • Key advantages of being a mature student were the practical skills developed through life experience such as independent living and budgeting, as well as personal traits such as confidence in giving presentations, time and project management skills and an enhanced dedication to getting the most out of their university experience.

Advice for teaching mature students

The following advice is summarised from the focus group discussions with mature students at Plymouth University:

  • Mature students felt most valued when lecturers drew on their expertise in the classroom e.g. those who have had experience in the workplace may be able to contextualise topics with real world examples or those with project management experience could mentor other students who are younger and/or less confident. Mature students often felt they had a lot to offer in the classroom and were keen to be involved, where appropriate.  
  • Providing pre-reading or catch-up opportunities to those who enter the course via non-traditional routes will help avoid worries about a lack of academic preparedness compared to their younger colleagues and ease academic transition. 
  • Avoid assumptions about what mature students can do or are like, simply as a result of the fact that they are over 21. Mature students may have considerable professional experience but others may be new to the topic and to the academic environment. Students emphasised the importance of getting to know your students and their diverse interests and expertise. 
  • Recognise the importance of flexibility when teaching and supporting those who may have complex responsibilities e.g. those who have to arrange childcare may struggle to attend ad-hoc or rearranged sessions and inflexible office hours can make it difficult to access support for those with busy lives. 
Our inclusive teaching with mature students page provides further guidance on creating an inclusive environment for mature students and outlines some of the specific concerns they may face in relation to returning to study. 

Advice for mature students

The following advice comes from a current Plymouth mature student and may be useful for staff in identifying key areas of concern:

"You’re never too old to learn, but it does take time. When I first started the learning process, I thought it would be easy. It’s not! Years of working does not prepare you for learning again, so your first year may be more difficult than you first thought. This is not a bad thing, as it will set you up for the rest of your degree. It can also be intimidating, as the younger students appear to be finding it easier than you, but you have to appreciate that most have just graduated from college and they are used to this. If you are anything like me, the first year was spent learning to learn once again, but see it through and reap the benefits."

"Talk to the lecturers – most of them have an appreciation for mature students, because we have made the commitment to learn and they will support you and provide helpful advice. Becoming a subject rep is also a great way to get to know staff and students and develop your skills"

"If involved in any group activity, try to work with the younger students –  younger students may be intimidated and if you are as unfortunate as me, you may also be the same age as their parents. They may not make the first move, so I’m afraid it’s down to you to break the ice. It is a difficult barrier to breakdown, but once your do you will see the benefits.They can learn plenty from your experiences and will grow to appreciate your advice and maybe your leadership"

Useful links for mature students:


The experiences of mature students

As a mature student it’s a very different experience...You feel quite separate I think.

Watch our students talk about the experiences of studying as a mature student.