Published on 2013/08/28

Five Biggest Misconceptions about Adult Students

Five Biggest Misconceptions about Adult Students
As increasing numbers of adult students enroll in higher education, it is important for administrators to acknowledge and deconstruct the misconceptions they may have about this student population.

Higher education administrators seem to have a number of misconceptions about adult students in their programs. As a non-traditional adult student, I have experienced treatment based on these misconceptions by both the administration and professors, which make me think the misconceptions start at the administrative level.

The common denominator across these misconceptions is administrators do not have enough confidence in non-traditional, adult students. They also do not give these students enough credit for how much they can bring over from successfully navigating life in both the personal and professional sectors that would translate into them working as amazing students. If they continue to fail to recognize that life is often harder than education, they will never recognize the full potential adult students bring to their institutions. It is so important to know one has students who will push the class’s boundaries as well as their own.

The following are what I believe to be the five most significant misconceptions higher education institutions have about non-traditional, adult students.

1. Cannot Adapt or Ask for Help

The first misconception is adult students’ willingness and ability to learn and adapt, as well as their ability to get help when needed. When addressing this problem, we must first look at what non-traditional adults have been doing before they re-enter college. In the working world, adults are required to ask for help from their trainers or direct managers when they are unsure of something. In the same way, they apply this willingness to ask for help to their education.

2. Must Learn How to Learn

There are few adults who need any special teaching in their courses. The only difference would be for adults in online or distance education. They may have to learn how to efficiently and effectively use a computer as well as the Internet. But this extra help may not be necessary in other types of courses. Adult students don’t need special teaching techniques to teach them how to learn.

3. Cannot Learn in Different Ways

Another way administrators see adult students as a potential problem is by assuming they are set in their ways. This makes it difficult to accept that they can deal with all of the new information they will receive in their college courses as well as the amount of change they will have to make in their personal, educational and work lives. Most non-traditional adult students have decades of experience in just that. Many of them have families, friends and work obligations, if not more. Life for them is a constant juggling match where the rules are always changing. Ask any parents if they are set in their ways and they will immediately say no.

4. Too Intimidated to Participate

The fourth misconception is that adults will be too intimidated to challenge conventional thoughts and ideas in a higher education setting. Many administrators and professors are accustomed to dealing with students just out of high school. When adult students come into the classroom, they have a lot of life experience to question what they are taught and whether or not it is the best or most realistic idea. They already know many theories they are taught may not be practical or useful in the real world. Adults use their life experiences to put the ideas and thoughts they are exposed to in class to the test. This type of questioning enriches the educational experience of everyone in the class, including the professor.

5. Cannot Learn in a Self-Directed Manner

The final misconception administrators have about adult students is their ability to carry out self-directed learning. In fact, adults have self-directed learning capabilities, as they practice this form of learning in their everyday lives. Any new parent or someone who has just switched to a new job would be able to say that.

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Readers Comments

Tyrese Banner 2013/08/28 at 7:41 am

The key point Daniels is making is that administrators and instructors need to communicate with their adult students to identify what their needs are, instead of making decisions based on assumptions. When they truly understand adult students’ motivations and behaviors, they will be able to better serve this population.

This is something we’ve found to be critical to success in advising and services, but the lesson doesn’t seem to have made its way over to the T&L side yet.

Heather Willis 2013/08/28 at 2:12 pm

I’m glad you brought up the misconception that adult students can’t ask for help. In my experience as a part-time instructor at a college primarily serving adult students, this group is open to assistance but may not know how to go about asking for help. Having been out of the school system for so long, and aware that the assistance they request at work might be different from what they request at school, many adult students might be shy to approach their instructors when they don’t understand a concept or assignment. I think it’s up to the instructor to establish early in the course how a student who’s struggling might access help, both from the instructor and from other sources. I always do this during my first lecture of the semester and I find it makes my students more comfortable to approach me later in the course.

Kendra Willis 2013/08/28 at 4:31 pm

I’m glad you brought up the misconception that adult students can’t ask for help. In my experience as a part-time instructor at a college primarily serving adult students, this group is open to assistance but may not know how to go about asking for help. Having been out of the school system for so long, and aware that the assistance they request at work might be different from what they request at school, many adult students might be shy to approach their instructors when they don’t understand a concept or assignment. I think it’s up to the instructor to establish early in the course how a student who’s struggling might access help, both from the instructor and from other sources. I always do this during my first lecture of the semester and I find it makes my students more comfortable to approach me later in the course.

Dr. Tom Phelan 2013/09/02 at 8:43 pm

Good points! Adult learners are just as different, one student to another, as any group of learners, at any age. Self-directed learning is a key factor. Administrators might wish to consult the writings of Malcolm Knowles, Roger Hiemstra, Alan Tough, and Cyril Houle.These scholars have had a good grasp on adult learning for decades.
On the history of adult education, there is the Charters Library for Educators of Adults at Syracuse University. Check it out.

lori perkovich 2013/09/06 at 10:06 am

I found your article really interesting. As an non-traditional student, I did not experience many of the misconceptions that you raised, though I know they exist. I did have a negative experience with an advisor, who was also a professor in my department. She ran an extracurricular group attached to my major that I wanted to participate in because it would give me practical experience for the future. The first time I met her, I asked her about joining the program. She told me there were a lot of hours and work involved and it would be difficult for someone in my position to participate. She also explained that if I raised the money needed and participated in all of the volunteer events I still probably would not be selected. You can imagine my shock. During this same conversation she said I would not get the specific government job I hopped to attain because I was too old and did not attend an Ivy League university. If a university is going to accept non-traditional students (money), the university/department should treat the student as if they belong there.

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