Published on 2013/02/15

Five Factors to Consider When Designing Programming for Adult Learners

Five Factors to Consider When Designing Programming for Adult Learners
Adult students have a lot to contribute to a higher education classroom, but administrators and educators must be aware of their particular challenges as well, in order to ensure students from this demographic are successful.

Adult learners are typically individuals who are older than the traditional 18 to 22 age range of college students.  They often have life experiences that affect their approach to education, and they often juggle family and work schedules to attend college. Designing a program for adult learners can be quite different than doing the same for a typical undergraduate program or course.  When designing academic programs that are appropriate for adult learners, administrators should keep the following in mind:

1. Life Experience

Adult learners have life skills and experiences that are reflected in their coursework and what they expect from their programs. Because of their experiences, they often have much to contribute to class discussions, as well as specific topics and ideas they want to pursue in their studies stemming from these life experiences. Furthermore, the courses must be relevant and timely for such a learner to find them valuable. Generally, a professor who is teaching with the same yellowed notes from 20 years ago will not be welcomed by the adult learner, who is looking for cutting-edge knowledge.

2. Active Learners

Adult learners are rarely passive learners; they tend to work hard in and out of class.  Because most adult learners are funding their own education or studying with financial support from their employers, they have a vested interest in succeeding.  Time is important for the adult learner who is juggling family and work; thus, the adult learner wants any interaction with fellow students and the professor to be worthwhile and active.

3. Busy Schedules

The program must be flexible for the adult learner to be successful.  Online or hybrid programs, which offer a mix of online and on-campus courses, allow these students to complete classwork or study at times that suit their busy schedules. Many adult learners work full time and often during the day; hence, they prefer programs that offer courses in the evenings and on weekends. In addition, many enjoy the flexibility of doing some of the programming online so they can work after their children go to bed or during their lunch hour.

4. Academic Inexperience

Adult learners are often worried or apprehensive about going back to school since many have been out of school for a long time; however, they are typically very successful, as they are highly motivated and self-directed.  They’ve made the crucial decision to add a course or program into their already-busy lives, so they tend to work hard to be successful.

5. Wisdom

Adult learners should be respected for the life and career experiences they bring to the classroom. An instructor who approaches a class of adult learners with the view of having an equal opportunity to learn will be the most successful.  The instructor already has mastery of the subject, but he or she can often learn from the discussion, research and projects the adult learner completes during the course.

Teaching adult learners can be very different than teaching traditional undergrads because of the maturity evident in classrooms and interactions, so educators and administrators may need to adjust their traditional approaches to this group of wonderful students.

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Readers Comments

Ursula V.F. 2013/02/15 at 9:07 am

This is the first time I’ve heard of a MOOC being accepted as a credit equivalent to what would be earned in a traditional course. There have been a lot of questions about the value of MOOCs and their role in formal higher education, and the College of St. Scholastica’s use of the MOOC gives an indication of the direction this type of course could go in.

Ryan Loche 2013/02/15 at 2:24 pm

I agree with Ursula that the learning objectives and course expectations should be clearly laid out. At the same time, instructors have to be flexible about making changes to their courses throughout the term with input from their adult students. For me, that’s one of the clear distinctions between a course for traditional undergraduate students and a course designed for adult students: the latter tend to have clearer expectations of what they want to get out of a course (vs. what they’re told to get out of it).

It would be a waste of both the adult learners’ and instructor’s time if the course material and assignments were irrelevant to the students’ lives.

Belinda Chang 2013/02/17 at 1:45 pm

It is incredibly important to design programs that can be completed in multiple formats (e.g. online, intensive, traditional on-campus, etc.) This goes a long way in making education a more desirable option for non-traditional students. When students are able to pick the pace at, and format(s) in, which they complete their education, they are more likely to be successful.

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