Teaching Adult Learners

We live in an age of unprecedented access to higher education. More and more people in the United States are pursuing advanced degrees, and a lot of this is due to the fact that degrees are being offered online so that the student can work from home and with more flexibility than in a traditional classroom setting. Although a number of traditional students are taking courses online, adults make up the majority of those going back for degrees through the online delivery system.

For the past several summers I’ve been teaching classes that are mostly taken by adult learners (non-traditional students) who have full-time jobs, and in many cases, families to take care of. While the degree of resentment for having to take a general education literature course is not as high as with traditional students, when I do take the survey on the first night of class and ask why students are taking the class, the overwhelming response is to satisfy the general education requirement. Okay, so that’s the reality of the situation, and while I used to resent this type of response, I now see it as a challenge. The challenge is to expose these students to masterpieces of world literature without seeming to force it on them. In other words, I see it as part of my job to provide an atmosphere where the adult learner will come to an understanding and an appreciation of the literature and topics on his or her own. The much more important part of my job, as I understand it, is to provide a safe environment that promotes thinking. The concept of thinking is something that, in my experience, the adult learning is interested in, but quite hesitant to engage.

As a result of this hesitation to engage in critical thinking, teaching adult learners presents a completely different set of challenges than teaching traditional students. It has become quite clear to me over the past ten years that the adult student wants to be told, in no uncertain terms, exactly what to do. They need direction, understanding, and very specific instructions. Creating assignments that meet all these needs is actually fairly easy, yet I seldom create assignments that provide all of the information. My job would certainly be easier if I did, but then, the student would complete the assignment in the narrowest possible sense. The end result would actually discourage students from thinking for themselves. I’ve always believed that an essential aspect of creating assignments is to allow room for interpretation on the part of the student. My friends who are experts in the rules of assessment will, I’m sure, disagree with my pedagogical methods, perhaps even calling it irresponsible. Yet, if we really want students to begin to think for themselves, we must allow for errant paths, for that is the only way toward acquiring the essential skills for thinking; and these essential skills have been detoured by assignments that are too specific and proscribed.

In comparison to the traditional student, the adult learner has far less time to figure out what the professor might want for any given assignment. However, the adult learner, and the one taking classes online specifically, is awarded the same degree as the traditional student. Although adult learners are willing to put in the work, they don’t want to be put in the position where they have to “guess” at what the assignment (or the class) is asking for. This is unfortunate, but understandable. The even more unfortunate outcome of this is that institutions of higher education have given into the demands of a business-minded student and created something called “assessment.” I will leave my thoughts on assessment for my next blog, but will just say that assessment in practice is a far cry from what it intends to accomplish in spirit.

Classes containing adult learners can be some of the most rewarding. Often, they have done the reading and are ready to contribute to class discussions. Yet, just as often their written work contains either a hastily written synopsis to prove they have done the reading, or a summary of what they found on Sparknotes. Taking classes while working full-time and raising a family is no easy task, yet we do a profound disservice to these students when we dumb down the curriculum for the sake of convenience and hold adult students to a different standard.


One thought on “Teaching Adult Learners

  1. I agree to some extent that assignments and assessments need to leave room for demonstrating critical thinking and ‘presentation’ of new knowledge/skills gained. I’ve done this in classes that I teach online. However, to avoid a bombardment of questions and anxiety over the parts of the assignment that are intentionally ambiguous, I specifically tell the student that the assignment is intentionally not specific and why that is so. I also tell them how the deliverable will be graded. While this doesn’t dramatically reduce the anxiety, it does tell them that it’s a better to take a risk in what/how they complete the assignment. I’d rather ask the student how they came to the conclusion (and maybe learn a bit along the way) than to receive an assignment that looks like ever other student’s work. I think adult leaners have developed strategies to prevent themselves from looking foolish and are very cautious about taking risks.

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