Published on 2013/02/06

Meeting the Needs of the Adult Learner Through a Different Delivery Format

Meeting the Needs of the Adult Learner Through a Different Delivery Format
There are a number of challenges that institutions will need to overcome when moving to an accelerated degree program format, but this style of programming is critical to ensuring the retention and success of adult students.

Adult learners enroll in colleges and universities at a much higher rate than traditional-aged learners, and they’re a group that’s continuing to grow. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, adult learners aged 25 and over have grown by 34 percent in the last decade and will grow by another 20 percent this decade.

As educators, we must be creative in helping adult learners achieve their goals. Understanding how they learn and what motivates them to continue their education gives us the first clue in how to assist with their continued education. Dennis Lettman, Dean of the College of Adult and Lifelong Learning at the University of Toledo, has published a helpful and informative guide, “Triple A Factors,” which accurately portrays these “non-trads.” Lettman advises that when creating programs for adult learners, affordability, accessibility and acceleration are key components for the success of both the learner and overall program.

Creating a program that fulfills the acceleration factor can be difficult and cumbersome for colleges and universities. However, overcoming the challenges is achievable and rewarding. Below is a list of some of the oft-repeated comments we hear from educators, and tips for how to overcome them at your institution.

     1. “We already offer evening courses that serve adult students.” Adult students typically juggle multiple priorities at once. Many are working full time, raising a family and managing a household. They can commit to one class per week, maybe two. Unfortunately, this hampers their ability to complete more than two courses per semester. For completion of a bachelor’s degree from start to finish, it would take the student, on average, seven to eight years. Adult learners are motivated to do well and complete their goals in a reasonable amount of time. Seven to eight years is unreasonable; thus, only offering semester-long evening courses is not adult student-friendly.

     2. “We don’t have the funding to offer a new delivery format.”

There is no need to recreate the wheel. Many colleges and universities are offering an accelerated format for the adult learner. Reach out to those institutions and colleagues to invite discussion. You will be pleasantly surprised at the helpful responses you receive. Offering accelerated courses will take some additional funding, but it can be done with only a few faculty members spearheading the change. These faculty know the adult learner and understand how adults learn differently. Part of the launch should include partnerships with local community colleges. Most community colleges serve many adult learners that are seeking an evening “adult friendly” program. It could become a pipeline to your accelerated program.

     3. “We don’t have enough faculty to support more course offerings.”

As stated earlier, it takes only a few motivated faculty and eager adult learners to spearhead the movement. Business professionals in the community make excellent part-time faculty in an adult-friendly accelerated program. Their current, professional knowledge often helps bridge the gap between the “traditional model” of education and the adult student. As the program grows, more faculty and staff positions can be funded.

     4. “We can’t teach our curriculum in an accelerated format.”

Adults are intrinsically motivated to learn. They have many personal and professional experiences upon which to attach the classroom learning. The concepts introduced in the curriculum are often familiar and take less time for these learners to understand, because of their breadth and depth of professional, real-world experience. Because the adult learner is motivated and has a “coat rack” upon which to hang the knowledge, less time is needed in the classroom to meet the established learning objectives. Remember that Principles of Management course you took 15 or 20 years ago? I don’t either. At the age of 19, I didn’t have any experiences with managing or being managed. Fast forward 20 years, and taking a Principles of Management class now specifically relates to experiences I have collected along my professional and personal journey. I have a place to hang that knowledge and therefore need much less time to understand the concepts introduced by a faculty member.

These are just a few of the comments you may hear when exploring an accelerated format at your college or university. I remind you of the changing demographics in our world of education. To truly meet the needs of adult learners, your institution must embrace them in a format and timetable that meets their needs. The result can be a powerful benefit to your college or university.

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Readers Comments

Stephen Gotti 2013/02/06 at 9:08 am

I think you hit the nail on the head! I’ve heard the four comments you describe before, and each time I feel disappointed that there are institutions that simply refuse to innovate. This article offers reasonable responses to the identified issues. One thing that isn’t mentioned in this article is the importance of introducing prior learning assessment. This system, which awards credits for previous work, could be another way to cut down on time to completion, by reducing the number of credits needed to graduate.

Vera Matthews 2013/02/06 at 4:33 pm

Very good point about adult students having a “coat rack” on which to hang their academic experiences. It does make a big difference, and I can certainly see the value of part-time faculty (who continue their professional careers while teaching) in making course material even more relevant for adult learners.

Here’s an idea: perhaps some of the costs associated with making an institution more “adult friendly” can be offset by a reduction in services offered by the institution that adult students do not use. Administrators need to start having conversations like this so institutions can better cater to their target population.

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