ADULTS AS LEARNERS
Adults come to learning experiences by choice and typically with some definite purpose in mind. Their motivation to learn usually is strong. In fact, the responsibility and self-discipline that characterizes adults makes them successful students. What makes adult students unique are their needs.
• Adult students often have conflicting demands and responsibilities, such as their job and family, which will compete for their time and attention.
• Adults will very likely have a problem-centered orientation. In other words, they will want to learn a skill or method for doing something differently that may involve combining and synthesizing information from several subject areas rather than simply extending knowledge of a specific subject.
• Adults have distinctive physiological characteristics that can affect learning, such as vision or hearing ability.
• Adults will need encouragement and respect, trusting relationships, and acceptance of their individual differences.
Adult students' needs may require some adjustments in your teaching style. In order to develop these skills it will be useful to consider the things that make teaching adult students so unique.
Your students will have had a variety of experiences that can be applicable to what they are currently learning. By making the learning experience-centered, you can more effectively transfer the knowledge, skills, and attitudes you are teaching.
A good experience-centered learning technique you can use is group discussion. Whether you have the entire class discuss an issue while you (or someone else) keeps track of the discussion's main points on the board, or use small discussion groups, you should encourage the students to relate their own life experiences.
• Try to learn about your students' work and extra-work activities. Learn about their past experiences and attempt to bring them into discussions. Where applicable, use student-related experiences to demonstrate points directly or indirectly by way of analogy.
• Encourage students to recognize and respect each other’s experiences in order to facilitate an open exchange of ideas.
Motivation is a critical element in effective learning. Adults may be motivated by a need to achieve, a desire for upward mobility, satisfaction with better performance, self fulfillment, or simply a desire to interact with others who are interested in the same subject. Adults will commonly express their motivation through an orientation to action. Their goals for the learning experience tend to be well defined and measurable.
• Most adults want to make direct and immediate use of their new knowledge, skill, or ability. Wherever possible, provide immediate opportunities to utilize their interests and demonstrate how they may use the information later.
• Make sure that the information you provide is translated into useable applications whenever possible.
Adults' Roles and Responsibilities
Adult students are spouses, parents, workers, children of aged parents, civic volunteers, and people who might occasionally enjoy some leisure activity. Their time is precious, just as yours is, and in most cases they make a considerable sacrifice to take your class. Try to be sensitive to limited availability of study time between classes and the demands on their energy made by other commitments. A drop in attendance is probably not a reflection on your class itself, but is more likely due to the current flu epidemic or bad weather.
- Become familiar with your students' concerns, outside commitments, and goals for your class. Try to be flexible and help all students get the most from the learning experience.
- Get your students' input on the goals of the course and recognize that if your students' needs are not being met, other responsibilities will take higher priority.
- Use advance scheduling of activities, a detailed syllabus, and clear, written directions to help your students schedule their time.
- Keep your class activities varied and interesting - keep things moving.
Many adults haven't been in a formal classroom situation in years. They may have painful memories of childhood school experiences or may simply be out of the habit of studying. Many adults also experience some decrease in their physical abilities that may have an impact on their abilities as students: vision can fade, hearing can decline, attention span can shorten. Some adults believe that "old dogs can't learn new tricks" and question their own abilities to do the class work. It is important that neither you or your students become discouraged. Students usually find that the classroom quickly becomes familiar again, and they do just fine.
• Research has shown that after a short adjustment time the abilities of most adults are as great or greater than those of standard aged college students studying the same material. Let your students know this to help alleviate their fears, and be sure to keep it in mind yourself.
• Keep learning tasks short and simple—build big success out of a series of small successes.
Adults' Range of Ability and Interest
Be prepared to encounter a wide range of ability and interests in any group of adult students. Typically, there will not be prerequisite courses to ensure that everyone is at the same level on the subject, so you will need to assess ability and interest with each group.
• Help individuals establish goals for themselves that are achievable - keep successes happening.
• Encourage students to recognize and accept differences in ability and interest in other students. Have students teach points to each other—the highest form of knowing is teaching.
• Remember, differences can usually be strengths. Encourage class members to share their experiences and interests.
Students learn best when they actively participate in the learning process. Adults want and need to participate in setting goals for the program and learn more when they participate through group discussions and activities. The more responsibility adults are given for what happens in the learning situation, the more effectively they will learn.
A very important part of participating in the learning process is understanding where the learning is going. Students should always know why the material being covered is important and where it fits in with the learning goals they have set. The more fully the student understands the steps that will be followed in learning, the more likely the knowledge will actually be transferred. The old army training adage "tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them" is apt.
• Involve your students in all aspects of your course. Have them help determine the goals for the sessions; have them actively participate in discussions, exercises, and activities; have them teach each other; have them formulate action plans for using their new knowledge. Keep them interested.
A good learning climate is crucial for effective learning. Try to be aware of and establish a supportive, person-centered climate in the classroom. Adults will respond well to a friendly, courteous, spontaneous atmosphere. The most important element of the learning environment is trust. All students should feel confident that they can interact and exchange information and opinions in an open, non-critical environment. Everyone should be made to feel that they belong.
• Be aware of the environment that you foster for students. You are responsible for keeping the environment open and conducive to learning.
• Use ice-breaking exercises to get the group loosened up and talking. Encourage discussion and talking. You can easily guide a discussion, but you can't have one by yourself.
• Stress to the class that they share a mutual responsibility for maintaining a high quality learning environment.
• Try to set up comfortable physical conditions that will encourage dialogue.
Students will learn best when the learning is problem-centered. You need to keep your lecture, exercise, discussions, and activities focused on the problems that students have identified. Otherwise they may lose interest.
• Have students specifically identify the problems they wish to address and incorporate these issues into the coursework.
• Try to use problem-solving teaching techniques, such as case study, where appropriate.
• Make sure that homework and exercises are tied closely to the problems being addressed.
Students Set the Pace
Adult students are most comfortable when they can set their own pace. This ties in closely with the problem-centered orientation most adult students will exhibit in the learning process. Adult students are not usually interested in competing with other students, rather, they are interested in improving their own performance.
• Allow students to set their own pace.
• Give simple explanations and plenty of background materials. This allows students to explore material as deeply as they want.
Students need feedback on their performance to stay on track with their own learning situation. Try to keep the feedback as parallel as possible to the performance.
• Self-assessment forms are a valuable and easy way to let students track their own progress while keeping them focused.
• Encourage students to set realistic goals and to review and update them throughout the class.
Liberally adapted from "Teaching Adults in Continuing Education," Linda K. Bock, University of Illinois Office of Continuing Education and Public Service.