Teaching Adult Learners

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Adult learners returning to college after military service, parenthood, or other life experiences may approach college in a very different way than their less experienced classmates.

Many college instructors think of their undergraduate students as adults and treat them as such. In this teaching guide, the terms adult students and adult learners refer to undergraduates who fall outside of the typical 18-24 age range, or who have life experiences and responsibilities beyond those typically expected of a college student. Understanding some of the characteristics and challenges of adult learners is important in order to support these students in positive ways.

adult learners with laptops

Who is an adult?

Despite being thought of as adults by many of their instructors, undergraduate students themselves do not share the perception that they are adults. In recent surveys, only 23% of respondents indicated that they considered themselves to be adults. Most, nearly two-thirds, responded that they considered themselves to be adults in some respects but not others. 70% of participants believed the following qualities to be definitive of adulthood: the ability to “accept responsibility for the consequences of your actions”, “decide on beliefs and values independently of parents or other influencers”, and “establish a relationship with parents as an equal adult.”

Another research went a step further by also interviewing the college students’ parents about their conceptions of their children’s adulthood. This study revealed that neither college age students nor their parents believed the college students had reached adulthood, although the two groups disagreed on exactly what qualities might constitute an adult.

In the United States, adolescents tend to transition into adulthood through a series of milestones. For students who pursue a college education, the final step towards emancipation might begin when they have their first job and are supporting themselves financially after graduation. This traditional path to adulthood, however, fails to answer important questions about what it means to be an adult or who gets to call themselves an adult.

Recent media coverage highlights the increasing practice of young adults returning home to live with their parents after college, confounding the traditional, last emancipatory step into adulthood. Is a 17 year old single mom with a GED an adult? Is a 28 year old unemployed part-time student an adult? What particular qualities constitute adulthood?

While there is no consensus on the definition of and path through adulthood, there does seem to be agreement from students and parents that traditional college students are adults in some important respects, but not yet adults in others.

Non-traditional undergraduate students, on the other hand, are generally adults by anyone’s definition. This category of undergraduates is defined by most colleges and universities as students who begin or return to college after the typical age of 18-24. These adults have had important life experiences before returning to college, experiences like raising a family, starting their careers, or serving in the military.

adult learner reading books

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the category of non-traditional undergraduate students includes several categories of adult learners, including those who are enrolled full or part-time while also working 35 hours or more per week, students with dependents – whether married or single parents, and those who claim financial independence.

Adult students face challenges. These challenges can be difficult to overcome at institutions that heavily favor a residential undergraduate experience. At four-year, private, non-profit institutions, adult learners are 22% less likely to complete their degree than traditional-age students.

In the following section, this guide will examine how to effectively support adult learners through their undergraduate education. Then, concrete classroom strategies will be provided.

Research on What Works for Adult Learners

Adult learners have many of the same learning needs as traditional undergraduate students, yet also face particular challenges. On the whole, adults bring a wealth of life experience into the classroom with them, and tend to have fewer opportunities for extracurricular or social interactions. Instructors can support adult learners better when they understand the challenges and opportunities this population faces.

Collaboration

Unsurprisingly, high impact practices such as active learning and collaborative learning are as important for adult learners as for traditional learners. However, collaborative learning presents obstacles for adult learners who are unlikely to be on campus unless they are in class. While residential undergraduates are making plans to work on projects or socialize on evenings and weekends, adult learners may have little interest in socializing with classmates, or they may require opportunities to complete group assignments in class or through collaborative technology such as Brightspace or Google Docs.

Despite the increased difficulty in engaging in group work, the practice has particular benefits for adults. Similar to their younger counterparts, students aged 30 and older reported that their learning was enhanced by peer learning and by forming relationships with others on campus. Unlike younger students, adult learners in this analysis were not hindered by their commitments off-campus. When allowed to contribute when and how best suit their busy lives, adult learners benefit from collaborative learning and perform at comparable levels. This kind of collaborative learning experience has been described as a connected classroom. The classroom is positioned as the center of student experiences on campus, and is thus the most effective vehicle for student retention. Meaningful classroom interactions are essential for supporting adult undergraduate students.

adult learners doing research

Self-Direction

Another key component of adult learning is self-directed learning. What this means in practice is that adults want to develop their ability to direct their own work, not that adults come into our classrooms already able to engage in autonomous learning. Teachers can provide scaffolded assignments that slowly transfer responsibility for learning outcomes over to students. Feedback and communication are essential components of this progress towards self-directedness.

As with all other groups of students, individual adult learners will find themselves at different points in their development of self-directedness and may require different levels of mentorship from teachers in order to reach their full potential. An adult learner may feel a desire to be self-directed without possessing the confidence that she is able. Positive relationships with teachers can provide mentorship toward a greater level of academic self-direction.

Overall, adult learners benefit from being encouraged to choose their own paths and structure their own experiences, but may require mentorship along the way.

Integration

For many adults, the instructor plays a prominent role in making that transition to deeper, more successful learning. In fact, it was found that the development of special relationships of acceptance and support with teachers was often reported as a primary element in adult students feeling successful. Adults who were not able to build respectful relationships with teachers reported frustration and feelings of marginalization.

In order to integrate life and learning, adults must reflect on both. In a narrative approach to adult development, learners are encouraged to write regular, reflective narratives that are autobiographical in nature. Incorporating reflective questions into recurring assignments or classroom assessment techniques can also be effective.

Adults achieve their most important learning through experience, and they prefer learning that has immediate application in their lives. Therefore, learning that gives adult students the knowledge or skills they need in order to make sense of experience or accomplish more in their careers is higher priority. In order to be fully engaged in the learning process, adult students may even need to understand how their learning will lead to life application. Providing an adult learner with a clear sense of why a course or a reading aligns with his own path can be a key engagement strategy.

adult learner studying

Strategies for Connecting with Adult Learners

Here are several key strategies for connecting with adult learners that provide useful pedagogical implications.

Engage with adult learners personally

Connecting with adult learners starts with demonstrating respect for their time, their investment in education, and their identities. In classes where students’ previous experience is not valued, learners can become disengaged or cynical. It is possible to both maintain the instructor’s authority and expertise while also valuing diverse student populations. Some specific strategies for valuing adult students are:

  • Find ways to draw on the expertise brought into the classroom by students. Get to know majors, previous work environments, or key interests. Solicit contributions from students when you know there is an opportunity to make a connection.
  • Provide personalized feedback on individual submissions and during chats outside of class that position you as an interested mentor and partner in their education. Adult students may feel unsure of their abilities or of their place in the classroom. Providing individual feedback that acknowledges their strengths and provides a sense of acceptance in the classroom can make a difference. 
  • Be available outside of class at times and in spaces that are accessible to your adult learners. While most undergraduates may be able to take advantage of 4:00pm office hours, a student who is a parent may be picking up his or her child from school at that time. If in-person office hours are difficult to schedule for adult students, try virtual hours that allow adult learners to connect with you face-to-face via technology such as the Virtual Classroom in Brightspace.

Help adults build on what they already know

Adult learners have a wealth of previous knowledge and life experience to draw on, and will experience deep learning when they are able to forge strong connections between course content and themselves. In the classroom, instructors can help learners connect course content with what they already know through a variety of mechanisms.

  • Have students engage in structured reflection about course readings and class meetings. Questions like, “Did you find anything from today’s class surprising? What and why?” or “How do this week’s readings compare and contrast with your own experiences in life?” can be useful for eliciting connections.
  • Engage all learners in developing an expertise in a topic of interest or familiarity, and sharing that expertise with the group. This might take the form of student presentations or peer teaching. Adults are used to feeling competent in their everyday lives, and the college classroom can be an unsettling place where identities are challenged. Asking learners to develop competence in key concepts or take on other leadership roles in the classroom can help restore that feeling of competence.
adult learner happy listening to music

Create opportunities for interaction

In some ways, adults benefit even more than younger students from well-structured collaborative work that provides clear objectives, expectations, and group member roles. Yet, adults tend to have minimal contact with other learners outside of class, their home and work lives can feel like a very different world from their on-campus experiences.

  • Provide opportunities for group interaction in-class.
  • Include flexible opportunities to work with classmates outside of class. This might be a group project or a study group, but should always allow for multiple points of access and contribution. This might also include providing a variety of access points for extra-curricular and co-curricular participation. Can adults participate in virtual events instead of on-campus events? Engage with events in their own communities instead of on-campus events? Instructors who provide that level of flexibility to adult learners are helping to ensure higher levels of participation and reduce feelings of marginalization for adults with different lifestyles than the typical undergraduate.
Andragogy (Adult Learning)

The main part of this article was posted on Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching by Stacey Margarita Johnson.

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Savas Savides
Education born and bred. I have worked as a teacher for many private language schools, as a test centre administrator, as a teacher trainer, as an educational consultant, and as a publisher. I am an advocate for literacy and a huge proponent of using technology in the classroom. I have a BA in English and an MBA in Marketing. I mostly write about English Language Teaching. I live in sunny Athens.

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