(This is the second in a series of columns from Northeast State’s Dr. J. Michael Ramey, Evening Coordinator at the Kingsport Center for Higher Education).
The first post in this series examined factors that affect self-efficacy. In the second, we will explore adult learner traits and match them with elements of the learning environment. While primarily addressed to college teachers, it will also provide helpful background information for anyone who works with adult learners.
I had not cracked open a math textbook in almost 10 years when I enrolled at Northeast State. Feeling anxious, I called up my instructor before the semester started and expressed my concerns. He was very reassuring, and once the course began, I soon realized that the instructor had created a setting where adult learners felt as equally at home as students who had graduated from high school just a few months before.
In order to pay forward this positive experience, I would like to uncover those key elements that compose an adult learner-friendly environment. As a preliminary step, however, we need to create a backdrop consisting of traits that are common to adult learners. While this list of traits does not perfectly represent each individual student, it will serve as a general template for distinguishing adult learners from the traditional undergraduate population. There are four traits, in particular, that merit our attention, and I have selected a keyword to represent each trait: respect, relevance, resistance, and responsibilities.
First, adult learners need for you to respect their real-world experience and wisdom gained in the ‘school of hard knocks.’ They have been working, raising kids, and dealing with the daily hassles of life over the course of many years and have thereby accumulated knowledge of how things work in practice, not just in the pages of an assigned text. In a similar vein, they also may need you to appreciate why they have negative feelings about previous learning experiences.
Second, adult learners need to know the relevance of course content in terms of their lives and goals. If traditional students are likely to think, “When am I going to use this in real life?” then adult learners are even more so inclined. Specifically, adult learners will be thinking about how the material applies to their career path.
Third, adult learners may resist new ways of looking at or doing things. Commonly, this resistance arises in connection with new technologies. For example, the student may have done all previous schoolwork with pencil, paper, and maybe a simple calculator. In addition, these students may openly resist instruction that does not line up with ‘what they had always been taught’ or information that seems to clash with their worldviews.
Fourth, adult learners have to manage multiple levels of life responsibilities. With work, family, and other obligations demanding their time, adult learners must fit learning into the spare moments they can scrape together. Moreover, given such thin margins of time, a minor emergency in another area of life can seriously disrupt their ability to meet course deadlines.
In light of these common traits, then, we can begin to construct an environment that will feel welcoming to adult learners. First, we need to make sure that our adult learners feel respected. Invite them to share their perspectives and experiences at opportune moments. Also, acknowledge any negative learning experiences they may share from days gone by and assure them that the old has passed away and a new day has dawned.
To the fullest extent possible, you will also want to draw connections between course content and real-world applications. This may prove to be the most challenging aspect of the learning environment to construct, but opportunities for life application can often appear in the unlikeliest of places if we take the time to reflect. Every subject of study can supply the ingredients to produce better thinkers, decision-makers, and citizens, even if it does not directly connect with a specific job.
Next, provide opportunities for your adult learners to get comfortable with new ways of thinking and completing assignments. This may take the form of brief sessions in which students familiarize themselves with digital learning tools, but this may also involve training for your students on how to grapple with new ideas in productive ways. Let them know up front you are not trying to overthrow their beliefs, but to help them appreciate and respect alternate viewpoints, just as you appreciate and respect their perspectives.
Finally, as much as possible, be flexible with deadlines and spread points over several assignments. For those who are juggling multiple responsibilities, crises are inevitable. I would, therefore, encourage you to err on the side of grace instead of clinging to the letter of the law.
While adult learners enter the classroom with a different set of challenges, they also add a richness that comes from a variety of life experiences and viewpoints. By observing the preceding recommendations you can create an environment of success for them and traditional undergraduates, alike.