Published on 2015/10/27

Adult Learners in Higher Education: Adjusted Views from a Campus Leader

The EvoLLLution | Adult Learners in Higher Education: Adjusted Views from a Campus Leader
Leaders who are part of higher education’s “old guard” have had to challenge significant misperceptions of non-traditional students as they have grown to become the majority demographic.

This is the third article in a series devoted to adult learners in higher education. The focus of this article is the evolving perceptions of adult learners by higher education leaders (at senior divisional levels, like deans).

In my early years of teaching in colleges and universities, the vast majority of students were between 18 and 22 years old: “traditional” students. In those early years, I did not have many adult learners registering for my classes—adult learners were not a significant college population on most college campuses. In hindsight, I can say that I saw the adult learners as continuations of traditional college students. Adult learners of that era brought issues to me, in my professorial role, which were indicative of the regular topics of the college students, like explanations of assignments, deadlines, concerns about grades, etc. These viewpoints were altered when I became a dean years later. In retrospect, my perceptions of adult learners (pre-reflections) of my early years and the updated perceptions (post-reflections) now dominate my focus and energy toward adult learners and their quest for quality education.

The following are a set of misconceptions which I recall during my early years of teaching and interacting with adult learners (Pre-Dean Years). Adult learners were seen as having short term goals, not being focused on specific topics, not devoting the necessary time to schoolwork, feeling out of place with traditional students, lacking motivation and concentration skills and lacking in good study habits. These observations were acquired over the course of several years with intermittent contact with adult learners.

When I became a Dean in 2005, my views vastly changed in regard to adult learners. The changing process began before 2005 when I started seeing more and more adult learners in my various classes. This new student body was making inroads in higher education and I seemed to be in the forefront of meeting and teaching this special group of college students. My impressions (as a professor) changed dramatically from the earlier years because I saw significant growth and determination in the new set of adult learners. While a few of the new set possessed some of the old traits, the vast majority were keenly focused on their education and the requirements of their particular curricula. As I continued teaching this new set of learners, I developed a new awareness and appreciation of their skills, talents, and the hurdles they mastered to achieve their respective goals.

My appreciation of the new dynamics inherent in the new adult learners motivated me to learn more and to seek areas in which to facilitate improved conditions for them. Areas of advising and tutoring took on new themes. Urging faculty to interact more with adult learners was part of my guidance. The Dean Years allowed me the opportunity to witness the changing modalities designed to serve adult learners and to see the growing need for higher education leaders (such as deans and directors) to meet and assist adult learners.

As I reflect on the years of working with and guiding adult learners, I have a fond admiration for today’s adult learners. I feel they have moved beyond the standard classroom objectives and have infused in higher education the need to critically assess their needs with new direction and zeal. To me, adult learners now have amassed the following characteristics which exemplify the new class of adult learners. I believe they: articulate themselves well and are focused on their schoolwork, want to be included in many facets of college life, are goal-driven, are not hesitant in seeking help and advice, are able to collaborate with other adult learners and traditional students, see themselves as a source of historical data for class discussions, and are empowered as role models for other students.

As more and more adult learners embrace higher education, I would offer the following suggestions for institutions of higher education: do not be quick to judge or assess the abilities of adult learners, take time and look at the whole picture of your adult learners on campus, understand that students can and often do change, acknowledge the strengths and accomplishments of adult learners, and be ready to guide them and to know which resources are best for certain students.

Higher education is a fluid creature. Within the foundation of higher education, you will find different students (adult learners) with different challenges and needs. We, in higher education, recognize these aspects and are ready to assist and guide the adult learners. Just when we think we have met and addressed the most unique challenges, another challenge meets us the next day. We must continually develop new ideas. Our students will appreciate our efforts and genuine concern.

If you find this article helpful, I encourage you to read my previous articles, Adult Learners and Their College Experience: The Challenges Colleges Face and Smoothing the Journey for Adult Learners: Helpful Strategies for Higher Ed Institutions.


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Readers Comments

Craig Bell 2015/10/27 at 10:17 am

It’s good to see teachers and administrators talk through not only the misconceptions they’ve held about non-traditional students, but also discuss the process they went through to dispel those misconceptions. Helps us all look out for stereotypes in our own thinking and learn to appreciate the diversity of adult learners.

Sheila Harmon 2015/10/27 at 1:43 pm

It’s like so many things in that adult students are both just like any other student and also completely different from any other student. Adjusting to this shift in demographics has been a good lesson for all of us in learning to meet students where they are rather than where we expect them to be.

    Barry Thomas 2015/11/15 at 10:48 am

    Thank you for your feedback. I agree—-we need to study and understand the growing number of adult learners on college campuses. We need to look at the positions and what they can bring to the college.

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